Over the past few months I have repeatedly been asked my opinion about the compromise agreement — now itself compromised — to create an egalitarian prayer space adjacent to the Western Wall. As I watched women and men with tallitot and tefillin reading from the Torah and singing in celebration, I was grateful that after many years of negotiations the religious needs of Jews at the Kotel would be recognized; the aspiration and concerns of the Jewish people had trumped coalition politics — at least for a while.
But amidst all the celebrations, something nagged at me.
As Dean of Humanities at Ono Academic College, I helped develop a multicultural graduate degree in Organizational Behavior along with my colleagues, including Dr. Azmi Abu-Soud, a cousin of Yasser Arafat. Before 1967, Dr. Abu-Soud’s family lived in a home that was appropriated and razed by the State of Israel to build the large plaza in front of the Kotel. While I am not questioning here the governmental decision made almost fifty years ago, I am asking: How can our prayers at the Kotel take into account the fact that as we walk toward our place of prayer, we are treading on the foundations of someone’s destroyed home?
Liberal Judaism has long prided itself on its sensitivity to those frequently marginalized by society: to women, to people with special needs, to the LGBTQ community. It is continually rethinking its liturgy, continually urging itself to keep prayer relevant and vital. In much that it teaches, it is the opposite of the triumphalism seen at the Kotel, which reaches a frenzied (and often violent and racist) pitch every year on Yom Yerushalayim, when some religious Zionist yeshiva students march helter-skelter through the Old City on their way to a victory prayer celebration at the Kotel. I had hoped that a different spirit would prevail in the celebrations of the liberal movements at the Kotel, a spirit that is deeply entrenched in Judaism, a spirit that includes sensitivity for the defeated.
In studying with my late father in the weeks before Passover, I was always struck by the importance he placed on the midrash of God rebuking the angels for singing at the parting of the Red Sea. In the midrash (Sanhedrin 39b) God says to the angels: “My creations are drowning in the sea and you sing before me?” Judaism accorded this midrash such importance that it became a source for the abbreviation of the joyous Hallel prayer on Passover on all but the first day. We continue to commemorate the victory over the Egyptians, but as we focus on our redemption, we temper our joy.
And even then, during the Seder, we have a tradition of spilling off some of the wine in our cups at the recitation of the 10 plagues, which has become interpreted as a way of being mindful of the suffering that the plagues caused. My father warned against a Judaism that would not temper its Hallel. When we stand before God in celebratory gratitude, how do we acknowledge the reality of those around us — even our enemies? In our prayers at the Kotel, how can we mark what has been erased?
Before the founding of the State of Israel, men and women prayed alongside one another in the small space before the Kotel, each person praying as a private individual, expressing his or her own longings, pleas and petitions. This may have been forced upon us by British law, but this practice had religious value. In that period, the Kotel was primarily known as the Wailing Wall, and indeed, even now, it might be more fitting as a private place of wailing than as a venue for triumphalism.
We need to find a way to pray differently at the Kotel. We need to ask ourselves: How do we pray at a place that is also the place of pain for so many? How can we pray while being attentive to the wailing of others at our Wailing Wall?
Tova Hartman is dean of humanities at Ono Academic College and one of the founders of Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem.