Balkanization of Western Wall Prayer ls Threat to Jewish Unity

Holiest Site Must Not Be Divided in the Name of 'Pluralism'

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By Avi Shafran

Published May 23, 2013.
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I really must avoid spicy foods — even my wife’s scrumptious jalapeno pepper-laced cornbread — before retiring at night. The recipe’s great, but for someone approaching 60, it’s also a recipe for indigestion-fueled nightmares.

The scene of my latest bad dream: the Kotel, or Western Wall, in Jerusalem. The time: some future point, may it never arrive, when Anat Hoffman’s vision of the holy place has been realized.

Hoffman, of course, is the famously melodramatic chairwoman of the feminist group “Women of the Wall,” who has orchestrated countless demonstrations (with adoring media and bevy of cameras in tow) in the form of untraditional prayer services at the holy site; who has reveled in being arrested for her provocations by Israeli police, and who is celebrated by temple clubs and coffee klatsches across the United States as the Jewish reincarnation of Rosa Parks. She recently told a Jewish newspaper in California that the Wall should become, in effect, a timeshare.

“For six hours a day,” she explained, “the Wall will be a national monument, open to others but not to Orthodox men.”

Those “others,” in Hoffman’s hope, will presumably include not only the group she leads (and which she characterizes as praying in a halachic manner, although she is a Reform Jew) but any group seeking solace under the sheltering umbrella of “pluralism.”

Hoffman also serves as the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a Reform group that laments the fact that “Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanistic, and secular Jews have no representation on the council overseeing the operations of the holy site” and declares that the current single standard there “must be changed.”

That’s what apparently fueled my nightmare. In it, the timeshare model had apparently been found too cumbersome. Each of the various groups laying claim to a “piece of the wall” wanted to express themselves without any time limit, and so a geographical solution to the pluralism problem had been instituted. The Kotel had been Balkanized.

One crowded sliver of the plaza continued to be a place of traditional Orthodox worship, men on one side of a partition, women on the other, everyone welcome. But the area had been severely truncated, to make room for the others.

Nearby, the Reform service, comprised mostly of women in colorful tallitot and kippot, featured a folk guitarist and her choir. (The Orthodox men next door had resorted to earplugs.)

The Conservative service turnout was sparse, and most of those in attendance were on the far side of middle age.

The Reconstructionist area was empty, but a sign designated its identity.

The Renewal spot was populated by various small groups of people, some quietly meditating in the lotus position, others dancing in a circle and others still seemingly lost in a daze of unknown provenance.

The Humanistic Kotel-space harbored a small band of people chanting “Hear O Israel, humanity is holy, humanity is one.”

There were other successful applicants for Kotel space too. Over toward the end of what had once been the common plaza was a Jewish animal rights group holding a “blessing of the pets” ceremony, which was followed by a noisy “bark mitzvah” celebration for a pug wearing a kippah. And at the very end of the site were the Jewish Vegetarians of America, waving ceremonial stalks of celery.

At the other end of the pluralized plaza was the Jewish Global Warmist Alliance. Its members were sitting on the ground, wrapped in sackcloth and singing dirges from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

At the back of the plaza, protesting the fact that they hadn’t yet been awarded a space of their own, were members of a “Hebrew-Christian” group, in Jewish religious garb of their own.

I woke up then, thankfully. But not before I sensed a deeper, ethereal moaning, inaudible to human ears but causing the very universe to shudder, emanating from the other side of the Wall.

Avi Shafran, who serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs, writes a weekly personal column at rabbiavishafran.com


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