The Palestinian argument that the reason for the current wave of terrorism in Israel is the result of Jewish provocations on the Temple Mount is spurious. But the preoccupation with the site of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem among Orthodox extremists at one end of the spectrum – they want to rebuild it – and ultra-nationalist zealots at the other – they want to place an Israeli flag on the site – should concern us all.
Both negate the truth articulated by the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the sages of our time, that Judaism has no holy places, only holy events. We sanctify time by celebrating Sabbaths and Festivals, not space by venerating sacred sites.
Writing in the Jerusalem Post earlier this year, Amotz Asa-El observed that “the Temple inspired the uniquely Jewish delusion that loyalty to a shrine can replace a nation’s loyalty to its land.” This delusion tempts today’s fanatics to break Israeli law that, by international agreement, explicitly forbids Jews to pray on the Temple Mount.
But even law-abiding citizens and visitors from abroad seem to be obsessed with the Temple. That’s probably why they flock to what’s left of one of its outer walls, the Kotel, the ancient symbol of pious devotion. Since the Israeli victory in the 1967 war, it has also become a powerful reminder of Jewish sovereignty. What was once for some the Wailing Wall has become for all the Western Wall.
I always think of Rabbi Heschel’s dictum on the few occasions I visit there. Sometimes I also remember another sage, the staunchly Orthodox Yeshayahu Leibowitz. When the plaza was built at the site to accommodate visitors he named it provocatively the “Dis-Kotel.” He considered it showbiz, not Judaism. For others it’s politics.
That Orthodox Jews, who include prayers for the restoration of the Temple in their daily liturgy, and non-religious Israelis, who remember the spectacular capture of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, should venerate the site is understandable. But why Reform Jews should be equally committed to it is puzzling.
Some are active members of the Women of the Wall, the group that has had a lot of publicity over the years. It marks every Rosh Chodesh with a service in the women’s enclosure of the Wall that usually attracts much publicity and occasionally leads to unseemly police intervention.
The politics of the group is laudable, as it seeks to break the monopoly of male-dominated Orthodoxy. I can see why Orthodox women, who understandably see themselves as second-class Jews in their traditional services, should want full equality, including reading from the Torah, not just listening when men chant it. Belonging to Women of the Wall is one of their ways of protest.
But why do Reform Jews flock to the site to pray at a segregated service? Reform worship has removed the prayers that ask God to restore the ancient Temple. And services that separate women and men are out of bounds in Reform congregations. At the Wall, however, political expediency seems to have replaced religious integrity.
As a compromise for those who care about gender equality, the Jewish Agency, which is focused on the Diaspora, where Reform and Conservative Jews dominate, has helped secure space nearby for egalitarian services. This may be acceptable to those who oppose separation between women and men, but it remains problematic for disciples of Rabbi Heschel and Leibowitz.
Now we hear that even this arrangement may not last. The ultra-nationalist organization Elad, which, over the years, has systematically encroached on Palestinian property in the area, has been given control over an archeological site nearby, which may make it impossible for the egalitarian services to continue. What the government gives with one hand its supporters seem to take away with the other.
Some may bewail the situation. As for me, I feel more like wailing when I watch Reform Jews compromise their religious principles for the sake of political gains.