"The Kotel: A Wall with a Human Heart"
May 3rd, 2013 -- Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
"There are people with hearts of stone.
There are stones with the human of man."
In June, 1967, after spending days in Hammarskjöld Plaza in New York City demonstrating on behalf of Israel during the Six Day War, little could we have anticipated that it would be six days and a victory of such a magnitude, we were all distraught that perhaps it would be catastrophe and so we were praying non-stop and reciting every Psalm in the book, my little six transistor AM radio blurted out the words: "HaKotel b'yadaynu, haKotel b'yadaynu!" "The Kotel is in our hands! The Kotel is in our hands!" It will be forty-six years ago this coming Wednesday. For a place I had never been and only seen black and white photos of a few people, mostly old and in ancient garb, I cried copious, ceaseless tears. Brought up with the 1948 Armistice borders that left the Old City with the destroyed Jewish Quarter and the Kotel in Jordanian control, I never dreamt that Jews would again stand at the Kotel, never mind that I would touch its stones.
In the first days of September, 1968 I went to spend my third year of college studying at the Hebrew University on the Givat Ram campus and live and study in the Seminary Center in Jerusalem. The first Shabbat afternoon, sunny and warm, I walked the long distance from my dorm into the Old City, down the Street of the Chain, following a simple sign – "Kotel" – no security posts - turned right, turned left and in the distance was the Kotel, all ablaze in the afternoon sun. Few, if any, events in my entire life has equaled that moment. My heart nearly stopped. While the Kotel itself is only but two thousand years old, the place on the upper mount has been venerated as the center of the Jewish people for nearly three thousand. I felt all that history in a single moment. It was crushing. It was exhilarating. Everything that I had ever read in books moved before my eyes. Slowly, very slowly, I walked down to the Kotel. While there was a mechitza, it was simple. Most people were dressed in the typical Israeli style of white shirt, slacks and sandals. No one was yelling "Mincha". There were no siddurim strewn about. It wasn't a synagogue, a shul. It was just -- the Kotel. The picture of the young paratroopers who had liberated the Kotel barely a year earlier was alive on the faces of everyone around me. This place, this city, Ir David, home of the Temples, direction to which my synagogue faced, the word that was so frequent on my lips in prayer, the embodiment of our hopes and prayers, the aspiration of our people's dreams, the incarnation of all our long and often torturous history, was ours. I stood before it in rapt silence. With awe I traced the indentation on the stones and placed my head on my arm leaning against the Kotel and cried and prayed.
That year I would return often to the Kotel. In those days of my youth I came to the Kotel late at night and stayed up just to see the changing of the sky's colors from the deep darkness of night through all the colors as the sun would eventually rise over Har HaBayit, the Temple Mount and the shadows would move and then disappear from the Kotel. Sometimes at night groups of students from different yeshivot would dance and sing their way to the Kotel's courtyard and sweep everyone up with them in uncontrollable joy. And when they would leave, silence would embrace the area, except for the cooing of the birds as they flitted about.
Those are my sweet memories of the Kotel.
The intervening years from 1974 when Ruby and I returned to the States after a year of study in Israel, which included being their for the Yom Kippur war, until 2001, my next visit, much had changed at the Kotel. It became a vast Orthodox synagogue and while intended or not, it was very clear who was welcomed and who was not, even on the men's side of the mechitza. The Kotel, the women's gallery, its plaza and the area inside was ceded to ultra-Orthodox control. The State of Israel is not an orthodox entity. The orthodox are not the majority of the population. The Jewish world is not mostly orthodox. Neither are most of the Jews of the Diaspora when we come to visit Israel. Yet this heart of Judaism, this sacred place which was never a synagogue in its entire tortured history, which should not be seen as a tourist attraction but rather as the national hearth of the Jewish people, has been run as an orthodox shteibel. No expression of Judaism other than orthodox was permitted.
In the recent visits, the Kotel became the least place in Israel that I wanted to visit.
When our daughter, Rabbi Chaplain Yonina Creditor was studying in Israel and participated with the Women of the Wall, we saw the video of the men throwing chairs at them over the mechitza and cursing at them. If we wanted to organize a Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel we couldn't. If we wanted to organize a Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel, we certainly couldn't. All that the majority of Jews in the world do, could not be done at our Kotel. Those young Tzanchanim, paratroopers did not liberate it for the orthodox. They liberated for the entire Jewish people.
The celebration of Yom Yerushalayim – the day of Jerusalem's liberation and reunification in 1967 - this year will very different. I rejoiced in learning of the decision by Nathan Sharansky, especially appointed by the Prime Minister to solve this dilemma. His solution is to extend the Kotel Plaza to the right, southwards by dismantling the ramp to the mount which is not used and refurbish the area so that a much larger portion of the western wall of the Temple mount will be accessible for the rest of the Jewish people. I don't really care into which stone I insert my kvitle, my note. In this area we, the widest reaches of the Jewish people will be able to celebrate with our siddurim, with our girls and women wearing talitot, conducting our services with the dignity and honor they deserve. This is really a time for celebration.
Secondly, the Jerusalem court has ordered the police to cease and desist arresting women who wear talitot in the current women's section, on their side of the mechitza. The court ruled that so dressing was not considered disturbing the peace. This is the very first time that a court has issued any ruling supporting a pluralistic and tolerant approach to actions at the Kotel.
With a candidate for the position of Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi who is open and more receptive to the different pieces that make up the Jewish people, perhaps we have surmounted the divisiveness of religion in the State of Israel and have turned the corner leading to a path of better understanding and respect. Perhaps more of the general Israeli population will be able to view Judaism in a more attractive and endearing way. While the Messiah has not yet come to settle all disputes among the Jewish people, never mind the world, perhaps his coming is just a little closer.
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor