Rabbi Lopatin Responding to the Arrest of Anat Hoffman at the Kotel – for carrying a Torah

July 15, 2010

R. Leibowitz’s view of the Kotel as Avodah Zarah rings so true here. However, everyone, both Chareidim, Dati Le’umi, Chilonim and Reform have a right to worship Avoda Zara in the modern State of Israel. After all, Chacham Ovadia writes that it the State of Israel has to protect churches under its domain, and he holds like the Rambam that they are places of Avoda Zara.

That being said, I have long pushed for those who want to daven differently than the norm to free up Robninson’s Arch: there is no reason it has to take second fiddle to the “Kotel”. It is still the Western Wall and has more interesting Roman-era artifacts. It needs to get security and be open 24/7 like the Kotel and just leave the Kotel – for now – to the chareidim and the shnerrers who bother you when you try to daven there. Start putting kapitlach in the Southwestern Kotel! The Israeli Supreme Court has said that any kind of Jewish worship is permissible there, so those of us who want to try non-normative, and even more pleasant, services should concentrate on consolidating and building up Robinson’s arch, and then, if necessary, move on to the Kotel.

Take Back the Kotel Part II: Open Up Robinson’s Arch by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 16, 2010

Take Back the Kotel Part II: Give Us Robinson’s Arch!

We’ve talked about problems at the Kotel before, and the incident of a woman putting a tallit on and being arrested – or “detained” – for that mitzvah has certainly raised awareness that something has to be done.  Rabbi Helbraun, a Reform rabbi in Northbrook, IL, put it well when he asked Effy Eitam how they could explain to the children of their shul that while they encourage boys and girls to put on tallitot and t’fillin – in this Reform shul! – they need to know that they can be arrested for doing so in the Jewish state!  But I want to suggest an easy solution to the issues at the Kotel: Open up the Robinson’s Arch area of the Kotel for free to all who want to pray there, celebrate there, even just to meditate there.

Robinson’s Arch is a dramatic part of the Western Wall – actually the southern part of the Kotel Hama’aravi – as opposed to the “other” wall area, the Western Wall plaza, which is the south-central part of the Kotel Hama’aravi.  It was excavated since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, and I remember they were working on it forever in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Now it is part of the Davidson Center – a museum that charges money for entry, unless special arrangements are made.  I am not asking for free admission to the wonderful exhibits underground that are uniquely part of the this museum.  What I am calling for is for free, 24 hour access by anyone who wants, to the above ground parts of the Wall.  It is our national heritage, and we should not be denied access.  We have a right to the Western wall and the Southern wall which the area includes as well.

Sources tell me that the Masorati movement, the Conservative movement in Israel, has rights to it – I’m not sure, but that’s what I’ve heard from a few sources.  Maybe the Israel antiquities authority has some control over it.  However, to the best of my knowledge the Rabbinate or Religious authority of the Kotel does NOT have control over it.  That’s why now, people can have B’nai Mitzvas there however they daven, and women can read Torah there.  But that is only in limited ways, and I have heard that you can’t bring tables or chairs there – everything that makes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the main part of the Kotel – to the north – feasible and more substantial.  And if a group of Reform tourists or from the local Reform shul – Kol Haneshama – ended up there on Shabbat after a stroll around the walls on Shabbat, they couldn’t just go in and daven.  In fact, I don’t know if you can go in at all on Shabbat morning!  I am calling not for freedom at the “old” Western Wall; I am calling to open the “real” Western Wall – the Southern Bend of the Western Wall!

Yes, in an ideal world the religious authorities and the government would be pluralistic and would allow all sorts of davening, even in different sections, at the main plaza of the Kotel.  But until that moment comes, we have something we should be able to do right now: Open up Robinson’s Arch to all davening, all the time.  If you come from Dung gate, it where many of the buses leave you off, it is actually the first “Kotel” you see: people don’t even have to know that there is a Wall where women get arrested for wearing a tallit or pelted for reading a … Torah!  At the real wall, you can daven how you want to daven, and there are wonderful areas for different groups to gather and celebrate.  But we need the cooperation of the Masorati movement, or the Davidson family, or whoever controls Robinson’s Arch!   Maybe would could ask the Davidson family to endow this area for davening, so that the museum would not lose out on their dues.  One way or another, we can easily open up this place of t’filla.

So on this one I say, don’t blame the chareidim!  We don’t need that frum, restricted, non-inclusive wall.  We already have a Wall, a genuine, dramatic Western Wall, where we can have everyone daven the way they want to.  Let’s use it and let others use it.

Open Up Robinson’s Arch!  Let Us Pray!  Let Us Wear Our Tallitot!  Let Us Read Our Torah! Let Us All, Men and Women, Sing Hallel Out Loud!

And I would not be surprised if soon enough the people who put t’fillin on at the other Wall, will come to the new, inclusive Wall, and the men and women will be waiting outside the new Wall for our tzedaka, and people can start putting notes in the new Wall, and we can start bringing Barbara Streisand and any other celebrity or politician to the new Wall.  Let’s continue to fight the good fight for separation of government from religion, but in the meantime let’s make sure that anyone who wants to daven to Hashem, in any way, has a way to do it at the Wall.  As the famous telegram said in June 1967,  “HaKotel Biyadeinu” –“The Kotel is in our hands!”  Indeed it is , we just have to open it up to all.

Take Back the Kotel by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

June 22, 2009

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