Reading the substance of the new Western Wall deal, described in a news report posted by the Forward as a “historic compromise,” is heartbreaking. As Shulamit Magnus rightly argues in the Jerusalem Post, the Kotel is not now, nor has it ever been, a synagogue. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is not the Wall’s mara de’atra (“master of the house” or local authority) because it is not a shul or yeshiva. The Kotel is the national holy site of the Jewish people.
The Kotel is the first place many of us from the Diaspora race to after we land in the country. We come in a jet-lagged daze, often messy and disheveled from the long journey, for the cathartic opportunity to pour our hearts out in prayer at the Wall. And now, it seems, for the first time in history, the state is sanctioning a rabbi to stand guard at the entrance and judge, querying the pilgrims on just what sort of prayers they have in mind.
For now, it is a judgment against women who want to pray as a group. But what might come next, now that there will be a secondary space to which one can banish the Kotel’s undesirables? Will others be shunted away — including men who arrive without a suit jacket or without a black hat? These are real norms at certain Haredi synagogues, and none of us object to them there because their shul is their sacred space. But knowing this, how can we perceive the act of turning the Kotel into a de-facto Haredi synagogue as a compromise?
Sadly, I think it’s because those parties directly involved in this “compromise” are blinded by greed. In my work as a business academic, I define greed as a situation where an individual seeks a return of greater value than what his input should reasonably earn and in so doing imposes costs on others. The other is harmed in this process because the other’s ability to claim fair value is oppressed.
As Magnus points out, a consequence of this deal is that Rabinowitz and the leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements, by being party to these negotiations, each get their own state-sanctioned synagogues on what was once public space. But at what cost? The cost is that every Jew who has no interest in the petty politics of control has now lost her or his ability to claim fair value. We can no longer run to the Kotel to cry out in prayer; instead, we will need to make the political decision of choosing a shul.
In Jerusalem in 1989, Rabbi David Hartman wrote an open letter to a Reform rabbi in which he stated that “the fight for pluralism in Israel does not require Orthodox, Reform or Conservative Jews to compromise their appreciation of Halakhah and Torah. It does mean that no group may use the instruments of the state to impose its own interpretation of Judaism on the entire society.” His words ring out just as powerfully today as when they were written, although sadly he is no longer physically here to continue the fight.
Where are the religious leaders who have the courage to fight for a united nation of Israel, rather than being motivated by the greed of expanding their daled amot, their own small personal space? There is enough ghettoization and seclusion in the Jewish world. Israel is a tiny country. Eventually, the government will need to learn that not all social problems can be solved by building more walls and barriers.
David Weitzner is Assistant Professor of Strategy and Ethics at York University’s Schulich School of Business.