Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Is the Western Wall a Synagogue?

With all the controversy surrounding the harrassment of the Women of the Wall, one question has become paramount: Who Owns the Western Wall?

And whom does it belong to? If it is the Jewish People, does that mean all the Jewish people, or just those who pray in a certain way? Finally, is the Kotel a meant to be a synagogue at all, a place of collective prayer, or simply a very holy place where individuals historically have come to pray spontaneously?

Here are two recent answers, one from an Orthodox authority and one Conservative:

From Rabbi Marc Angel

The Kotel currently operates under the governance of Orthodox rabbinic authorities. There is a separation between men and women. Women's prayer groups or non-Orthodox prayer services are not allowed. Recently a woman was arrested for violating the Orthodox rules that govern the Kotel area. A group known as Women of the Wall insist that women be given greater access to prayer at the Kotel. Non-Orthodox groups insist that the Kotel should be available for non-Orthodox prayer services, without separation of genders. Many Orthodox Jews find the current situation unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons.

It is very sad that the Kotel--which should be a unifying spiritual center for the Jewish people--is in fact a source of controversy. I would like to offer a suggestion, however strange it may seem at first glance.

My opinion is that no formal prayer services should be allowed at the wall--not for men, not for women, not for Orthodox, not for non-Orthodox. The Kotel should be a place for private prayer and meditation, and that's it. If people want to have formal prayer services, they should reserve space in the enclosed areas to the left of the Kotel square; and those services should be conducted however the group that reserves the space wants.

I fully understand that my suggestion will be totally rejected by the current religious authorities who control the Kotel. But these authorities alienate the vast majority of Jews, and treat the Kotel as though it is their own--when it in fact belongs to all the Jewish people. My suggestion has the advantage of taking the Kotel area out of the realm of religious controversy. Perhaps we can hope that the powers-that-be in Israel will understand their responsibility to keep the Kotel as a spiritual center for all the Jewish people; and this can best be done (I think) by reserving the Kotel only for private prayer and meditation, with no formal prayer services conducted by any groups.

And here is a more lengthy, historical survey by Rabbi David Golinkin:
Is the Western Wall a Synagogue? I encourage you to read the entire teshuvah, but here is the final section:

...On the other hand, the Rambam rules (Hilkhot Tefillah 11:21) that:

The plaza of a city which is used for prayer on public fast days and the like is not sacred because it is temporary and was not fixed for prayer. And so too houses and courtyards which the people gather in for prayer are not sacred, because they were not specified only for prayer; rather they are for temporary prayer like a person who prays in his house.

The first half of this law is based on the opinion of the Sages in Megillah 26a, but the second half seems to be the Rambam’s own opinion. This law was then codified in the Tur and Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 154 and in other codes of Jewish law (Bet Yosef, Knesset Hagedolah, Kaf Hahayyim and Mishnah Berurah ad loc.).

These two laws teach us that:

a. it is permissible to sanctify a courtyard as a synagogue;
b. a courtyard used as a temporary or intermittent synagogue which was not specified only for prayer does not have the sanctity of a synagogue.

Therefore, according to Jewish law, there is a clear halakhic difference between the lower prayer area next to the Kotel which has been used as a synagogue on a daily basis since July 1967 and the much larger upper plaza which is only used for prayer on Shavuot or Tisha B’av when 50,000 to 100,000 people come to the Kotel to pray. In other words, the lower prayer area next to the Kotel is a courtyard which was sanctified as a synagogue, while the large upper plaza is a temporary place of prayer which does not have the sanctity of a synagogue.

Indeed, there are two ways of proving that the Chief Rabbinate and other prominent Orthodox rabbis also differentiate between these two areas:

1. Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the son of former Sefardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, wrote in his Yalkut Yosef in 1990 (Vol. 2, pp. 276-277):

It is forbidden to eat and drink near the Kotel, in the place which was sanctified by tens of thousands of Jews for prayer… and if one does a circumcision near the Kotel, it is good not to distribute candy and confections there, only outside the area near the Kotel.

In note 11, he explains that it is forbidden to eat and drink near the Kotel according to Megillah 28a and Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 151:1 that it is forbidden to eat and drink in a synagogue. In other words, in the opinion of Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who wrote his book “with the careful editing and agreement” of his father (according to the title page), the area near the Kotel is a synagogue and it is therefore forbidden to eat and drink there. But “outside the area near the Kotel”, i.e. in the large upper plaza, it is permissible to eat and drink because it is not a synagogue.

2. Secondly, it is clear from the actual behavior of the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi of the Kotel and Kotel Guard from 1967 until just a few years ago that in practice it did differentiate between the lower area near the Kotel which it considered a synagogue and the large upper plaza which it did not:

a. mehitzah, chairs, torah reading tables
b. the Kotel Guard demands wearing a kippah and modest dress
c. no cars and police cars
d. no military ceremonies.

a. no mehitzah, chairs or tables
b. no Kotel Guard
c. cars and police cars
d. military ceremonies.

It is therefore clear that even if someone claims that the established custom of the Kotel was to pray with a mehitzah - a claim we have disproved in paragraph I above - the large upper plaza is not a synagogue according to Jewish law and according to the practices of the Chief Rabbinate itself for about 35 years after the Six Day War. Therefore, the Chief Rabbinate has no halakhic right to demand certain types of dress or behavior in that area.

IV) How should the State of Israel deal with the fact that the entire Kotel plaza is slowly becoming a Haredi synagogue?

Thus far we have seen that:
I. there was no mehitzah at the Kotel until 1948; it was viewed and treated as a prayer area and not a synagogue;

II. the Ministry of Religion/Chief Rabbinate was given jurisdiction over the Kotel in June 1967 after a political struggle, but the Antiquities Authority managed to limit that authority to the Kotel Plaza and to exclude the much larger areas to the south and southwest of the Temple Mount;

III. according to Jewish law and according to the actual practice of the Chief Rabbinate for decades after 1967, the lower area near the Kotel is a synagogue while the larger upper plaza is not;

IV. In light of these facts, I would like to agree with the suggestions made in a recent article by Rabbi Barry Schlesinger, the President of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel (The Jerusalem Post, January 12, 2010, p. 14):

a. the lower area near the Kotel will continue to serve as an Orthodox synagogue not because it was before 1948 - it was not - but because it has been one since 1967 and it will be impossible to turn back the clock after 42 years;

b. the upper plaza should be turned over to the National Parks Authority or the City of Jerusalem either by a government decision or by changing the law. Item II above serves as a good precedent for this. The Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religion tried to prevent the Antiquities Authority from excavating the areas south and southwest of the Temple Mount. These areas were then removed from their hegemony and the result was the incredible discoveries of Prof. Mazar and others in the area which is now the Davidson Archaeological Park. The same thing should be done now regarding the upper plaza at the Kotel. It must be turned over to a non-partisan government body before the Rabbi of the Kotel, who is Haredi, turns it into a Haredi synagogue.

c. Robinson’s Arch was designated by the government in 1999 as a synagogue/prayer area for Conservative and Reform Jews and for the Women at the Wall. This should now be reaffirmed or passed as a law by the Knesset. The government should also provide Torah scrolls, siddurim and talitot and allow use of the area at all hours of the day without paying an entrance fee after 9:15 am.

If this plan is adopted, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews will be able to continue to pray in their respective areas of the Kotel and the IDF and all Jews can continue to hold ceremonies and public events in the upper plaza of the Kotel.

In this way the Kotel can become a source of peace which unites the Jewish people as envisioned in our ancient sources (see Berakhot 30a and parallels).

David Golinkin
19 Shevat 5770

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