By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
How have the Jewish people arrived at a situation where even the Kotel Hamaaravi, the Western retaining wall of the ancient Temple and the site adjacent to the holiest place in Judaism, should be the source of acrimony and strife among Jews?
The latest contrived controversy was fomented by the government’s withdrawal of an ill-fated plan to formally recognize the southern part of the Kotel as a place for non-Orthodox, mixed prayer services for those Jews who have rejected tradition. Those who have attempted to make the change of decision (back to the status quo!) into a cause célèbre are surely aware but for their own purposes ignore the fact that the same area has been used for non-Orthodox prayer services for several years already. The issue seems to be that the area in question (to the south of the Mugrabi Gate and in front of Robinson’s Arch) has its own entrance and the Reform leadership wants an entrance from the main plaza rather than a separate entrance.
One would not be wrong in concluding, as Naphtali Bennett has said, that the whole tumult is over a door – and where that door should be located. Of course, the Reform leaders are also seeking official recognition of their status. Nevertheless, since the designated area has been sparsely used since its opening – it sits vacant and unused for days at a time, such being the commitment of the non-Orthodox to daily prayer – one would also not be wrong in concluding that the Reform desperately need a controversy to keep their money flowing in, the passions of their declining membership inflamed, and interest in their movement from dissipating altogether. And this is that controversy, and soon they will find another, because the long term projections of their survival are not promising.
There are many people who have concluded – and it is a very American approach in honor of the Fourth of July – that a “live and let live” religious compromise is most appropriate. As Thomas Jefferson wrote while drafting the Virginia statute on religious freedom, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Many people felt “out of sight, out of mind, do whatever you want to do, and just don’t bother me.” There is some merit to that argument.
Yet, we are talking here about the precincts of the Holy Temple, the area closest to the holiest place in Judaism – the Temple Mount itself. There is an obligation of “guarding the Mikdash;” we don’t say “anything goes” in the Mikdash. And even Jefferson’s liberal views on religious freedom do not give me the right to erect a shtiebel in Times Square; there are other concerns and considerations afoot. For sure, other religions protect their holy sites and it is considered uncouth and unseemly to deviate from the norms of those places. Only Muslims are allowed to even enter Mecca, much less worship at the Grand Mosque and it is inconceivable that the Vatican would allow Protestant services in St. Peter’s Square. The pertinent analogy here is really to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where all the Christian denominations fight over inches of space and zealously protect their turf.
Is that what we want for the Kotel? Invariably, if non-Orthodox services at this site are formally recognized, there would be demands within a year or two that the main Kotel plaza permit this alien worship service as well. I can write their brief: their assigned area is separate but unequal, they are relegated to the back of the bus, they are receiving second class treatment, etc. And the High Court would hear the case and rule against Jewish tradition as it nearly always does. But this is the Kotel, and for those who believe in God’s existence it is a special place and not just a tourist site of historical interest.
Obviously, mixed prayer services conflict with the sanctity of the place. Those neo-Conservatives and others who point to the absence of a mechitzah at the Kotel for centuries as justification for leniency today are unknowingly referencing a time when the Kotel was not under Jewish sovereignty and the Jewish people suffered under the yoke of foreign occupiers of the land of Israel. Is that how we should view modern Israel – as no different than when the Mamluks ruled the place? I think not. It is also mystifying and disconcerting that there are organizations that aspire to leadership that instead choose to take “no position” on these matters, preferring hackneyed calls for unity rather than unequivocally defending the Torah. Imagine if Moshe, in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, had cried out not “Mi LaHashem Eilai?” (“Whoever is for G-d, follow me”) but rather “Why can’t we all just get along?” That is the modern approach but the Jewish people and the Torah world deserve better than that.
And there is the profound irony that the very law of the separation of the sexes during prayer is derived from what took place on the Temple Mount itself! The non-Orthodox, in effect, are insisting on their right to pray adjacent to the place that teaches that their preferred form of worship is a violation of Jewish law. Alas, the irony and the transgression are lost on them. Perhaps basic tolerance requires first respecting the sensitivities of those Jews who still pray daily for the rebuilding of the Temple and whose faith and tenacity regarding Jewish tradition maintained the Jewish people’s connection to Zion during the centuries of exile.
Even sadder is this. A few years ago, Rabbi Berel Wein wrote a short but insightful book entitled “Patterns in Jewish History.” It is uncanny how nothing ever changes in Jewish life except the names and places. The same arguments we have today – within Orthodoxy, with the non-Orthodox, and with non-Jews – we have had since the beginning of Jewish history. We fight over the same things - Israel, the Mesorah, secular education, women, mysticism, work, etc. Again and again the patterns return, and there is nothing new under the sun.
And so it is. It occurred to me while in Israel last week that we are re-living the conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were wealthy, influential and Hellenized, and they made the Temple the focus of their activities and their doctrinal deviations. The Reform movement is similarly wealthier on average than other groups of Jews, fancy themselves influential (although, as we will see, the extent of their influence is grossly exaggerated), Americanized, and they are now focused after decades of indifference on claiming a share of the Temple Mount environs. Of course, history never repeats itself precisely and no analogy is perfectly apt. Both the Sadducees and the Reform denied and rejected the Oral Torah, but unlike Reform, the Sadducees at least believed in the divine origin of the written Torah. And the Sadducees disappeared right after the destruction of the Temple because they had nothing else going for them. They were severed from tradition, from the community of faithful Jews and they had lost their Roman patrons.
The Reform movement is in a free fall, and none of this is any cause for rejoicing. We are losing these Jews in astounding numbers. As the Talmud states, one sin engenders another sin. Removing the mechitzah didn’t drive people to the temples but away from them. Abandoning Hebrew in prayer and other mitzvot further undid the connection of Reform Jews to the Jewish people. Relaxing conversion standards didn’t stop intermarriage but encouraged it and then made conversion into a farce. They then made their peace with intermarriage but permitted patrilineal descent for Jewish status when even diluted conversion was too much. One departure from tradition led to another until today when even belief in G-d is optional in the Reform movement. Anywhere from 30-50% of Reform members today are not even halachically Jewish and, as such, is in no position to dictate to the Jewish world about anything.
The conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees went on for several centuries with occasional and horrendous bloodshed. Thousands were killed on both sides, and one glimmer of good news is that such will never happen in these modern tiffs. But the sad truth is that Reform is disappearing before our eyes, just like the Sadducees did. Their numbers are dwindling and are already inflated. Official membership is low, active membership is even lower, and many who respond to surveys identifying themselves as “Reform” do so as the default classification for those who are totally non-observant. Their power and influence are gone even on the American scene.
Here’s another sad truth: Israel doesn’t need Reform as much as Reform needs Israel. That’s why their threats to withdraw political and financial support are such a bluff. The Reform movement is essentially a wing of the Democrat Party, now the party of opposition that itself has fallen on hard times. It has little sway with the ruling authorities. Congressional support for Israel is rooted in the justice of our claims and the backing of Christian evangelicals, not the Jews, and the Reform movement has, in fact, been consistent critics of Israel for many years. Indeed, support for Israel is the only aspect of Reform that resembles anything uniquely Jewish; without Israel, Reform is just social justice with holidays and one need not be Jewish to fight for social justice. And much of the money sent by Reform members to Israel supports organizations that are really inimical to the true needs and values of the Jewish state.
To condition their support for Israel on changing the status quo is cynical, even if it were credible. The Reform movement needs Israel, without which their vanishing from the Jewish stage will be hastened. Similarly, they need to build up the Orthodox (Charedim or otherwise) as the enemy; it’s good for business. But I don’t identify as “ultra-Orthodox,” not that there’s anything wrong with that. Most religious-Zionist rabbis also support the government’s decision and Israel's Chief Rabbinate, and many others have simply tired of the blackmail to which the non-Orthodox have resorted for some time whenever some issue does not go their way.
And what they need most is something we all need: to acknowledge G-d and His Torah and to surrender to His will. We don’t submit G-d’s law to our scrutiny or approval nor do we sit in judgment of the Creator. Those who deign to sit in judgment of G-d have historically been on the fast track to their own disappearance. Until they learn to surrender to G-d and make His will their will, they will go the way of the Sadducees. That is the lesson of history – for them and for us. It is a sobering thought that we have seen before this movie of the assimilation and disappearance of large numbers of Jews, and we know how it ends. And we also know how it can be stopped. But that will take great people to admit that their path has been misguided, to return to tradition, and make their contributions to Jewish life and the world in a way that is faithful to the Torah that is the heritage of all of us.
Just leave the Kotel alone.