Take Back the Kotel by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

A few days ago a congregant asked me how he should approach the Kotel as it was his first time seeing the Kotel (Western Wall) and he was bringing his children there for the first time. Instead of talking about different meditations, or Psalms or prayers to say, I started with:
“Don’t let anyone “help” you, and don’t look at any of the people who come up to you asking to be your guides. Don’t give anyone any money, or you’ll be inundated. Pretend you are in New York City of the 1970’s: just walk up to the Wall with an attitude and don’t look like a dazed tourist.”
Oy! The shneurers at the Kotel have become hustlers and people who prey on those who are week. Yes, they “prey” on people who are “praying”! This is a bother if you are there regularly, but if it is your first time to the Kotel for a long time, they are terrible. They have ruined for many people I know what could be a spiritual experience, an experience more powerful than any other davening experience they have had in any other setting. Yes, it is important to give tzedaka during and around davening, but not to be hustled into giving it to people who are aggressively pushing out many other needier people and needier causes. It is rewarding aggression; it ruins the sense of personal safety that a place of prayer should have. I have witnessed fights that broke out between Kotel regulars because a shneurer would not leave people alone.
About two years ago, the authorities tried to clamp down on the shnuerers, and I got excited, but then when I came back a few months later, they were back.
So I have a modest proposal: Since the rabbanut cannot control the Kotel properly, and all they do with their control of the Kotel is not allow women to read Torah and not allow Conservative, Reform and other Jews to pray at the Kotel as they are used to – mixed men and women, it’s time to take operational authority away from them. Wow! Can this ever happen? Well, we can just make it an experiment in the One State solution I discussed in last week’s blog: Operational Authority of the Kotel and the Temple mount will be removed from the Jewish and Muslim religious authorities, and will be put into the hands of a new Holy Land Antiquities Authority, which will be a mixed body of Jews and Arabs, mostly archeologists but some business minds as well – starting with a majority of Jews, but with a significant Muslim presence.
These holy places should not be run by parochial, self-interested authorities; their mandate should be how to make these places as meaningful and welcoming to as many worshippers as possible. The new authority will work on how to enable Jews to appreciate the Temple Mount more – including regular services – and how to make Muslims and other religions appreciate the Kotel more. The Kotel area should be divided into four sections: one for strictly traditional men’s Jewish services, another for strictly traditional women’s services, another for any kind of Jewish services – and there could be multiple services going on a one time, even in this third section – and a fourth section for anyone who wants to worship God in any way – as long as it’s not violent or anti-Semitic. The Temple Mount area might be divided the same way, or in a more relaxed way.

And the police would be both at the Kotel and the Temple Mount – as they are now – but their biggest challenge will not be Muslims and Jews, male prayer leaders and women prayer leaders; their biggest challenge will be keeping the shneurers away. That will be the true test of the potential for a One State!

Asher Lopatin

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11 Responses to Take Back the Kotel by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

  1. Avi Greene says:

    While I agree with your plea to remove the schneurers (or at least keep them at a safe distance from those who are davening), your suggestion that “Operational Authority of the Kotel and the Temple mount will be removed from the Jewish and Muslim religious authorities, and will be put into the hands of a new Holy Land Antiquities Authority, which will be a mixed body of Jews and Arabs, mostly archeologists but some business minds as well” strikes me as leading to something worse! I imagine the need to pay for all of the upkeep and security leading to a pay to pray situation or perhaps worse, the need to walk through the gift shop on your way out. I can see a busload of birthright kids leaving with their charedi “shuckling charedi Rabbi” bobble head dolls.

    In all seriousness, I think that the blog that you and your colleagues have put together raises interesting and challenging issues. Kol Hakavod and keep up the good work.

  2. Benjamin Fleischer says:

    A separation of church and state in Israel would be welcome to me under any plan. Do you also support removing the chief rabbinate?

  3. Asher Lopatin says:

    Yes – but everything in a gradual manner. Moreover, if a generous benefactor wants to sustain those institutions as private sector institutions, I would have no objections whatsoever.

    Also, if sepearation of Church and State is part of acomprehensive One State plan, I would push hard for the US to set up a major trust fund ($10 billion) to perpetually support the study of Torah in Israel – kollels, etc.

  4. You want to put the kotel into the hands of Arab Muslims and secular leftist anti-Jewish Israelis? Are you serious?

  5. Benjamin Fleischer says:

    How would you decide which e.g. kollels to support? Would non-Hareidi or non-Orthodox institutions also get funding?

    I see the chief rabbinate as important in the sense that Israel as a Jewish State needs Jewish guidance, but I don’t think one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi can accurately represent the myriad kinds of Jews Israel should respect and support. Being without it, however, would Israel necessarily become a fully secular state?

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      The United States is the farthest thing from a fully secular state. No state-supported religion leads to more religion, not less, because of the open market.

  6. Abdul-Malik Ryan says:

    Rabbi Lopatin,

    “Also, if sepearation of Church and State is part of acomprehensive One State plan, I would push hard for the US to set up a major trust fund ($10 billion) to perpetually support the study of Torah in Israel – kollels, etc.”

    You mean the U.S. govt to set up such a fund?

    How would that not violate the U.S. constitution?

    Once you explain that to me, can we get a 10 billion dollar fund for perpetual study of the Qur’an?

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      Imam Ryan and Ben,

      Yes – it is for the cause of peace: $10 billion for Jewish learning and $10 billion for Muslim learning. But the catch is that it will be controlled by a progressive Foundation for Religious Learning, and, thus, will not allow certain elements to benefit from. The One State idea is not naive: We have to promote an understanding of Islam and Judaism that sets up the background for One State at peace. Maybe George Soros can help!

  7. Dov says:

    I was at the Kotel last summer, and again in December, and it actually is already cleaned up. No aggressive “collecting,” and even air conditioning in the tunnel to the left of the men’s section (which contains an impressive library and a nice women’s balcony as well.)

    Ah well, looks like we will not be needing that One State solution after all…

  8. Asher Lopatin says:

    I’ll check it out for myself this summer because I was just there in March and there was schneuring – and how were things on the Har Habayit?

  9. Dov says:

    Perhaps it has gone downhill again. Is there no-one actually living in Israel who can tell us chutznikim what’s going on?

    As for the Har Habayit – I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Rabbi Tendler.

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