June 19, 2024
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On Kotel Davening and Compromise

Over the past few weeks, The Jewish Link has published several articles, ads and letters regarding the ongoing controversy at the Kotel (including “The Common Sense Case for Implementing the Kotel Compromise” and “The Sanctity of the Kotel,” March 3, 2022). I would like to express my thoughts on this matter.

This time of year is actually quite suitable for a discussion regarding the Kotel due to the parshios we are reading each week; as we all know, the significance of the Kotel comes from that of the Beit Hamikdash it is associated with, which was in turn the successor to the Mishkan. In recent weeks we read of the construction of the Mishkan in Vayakhel and Pekudei, and in the coming weeks, in Tzav and Shmini, we will read of its inauguration.

Throughout the description of these events surrounding the Mishkan, one phrase shows up regularly, as if a refrain: Ka’asher tzivah Hashem es Moshe—As God commanded Moses. This repetition is particularly notable given that only a few weeks earlier, in the parshios of Terumah and Tetzaveh, this commandment is described in detail, and in these current parshios it is repeated, often in the same words. Even so, the text further stresses that everything was done precisely as was commanded. This is likely intended as a contrast with the tragic events at the end of this inauguration: When Aharon’s two eldest sons diverged even slightly, by bringing the same incense that had been brought the past seven days, in order to serve the same God, they nevertheless lost their lives for their action, because it had not been commanded. When it comes to the service of the Mishkan and Beit Hamikdash, there is no room for innovation.

Yet when it comes to the Kotel controversy, things aren’t quite so simple. (They rarely are.) If the service of the Beit
Hamikdash is the part of Judaism that is least welcoming of innovation, davening is at the opposite end of that spectrum. Innovation and personalization are extremely welcome in davening, to the point that one is permitted to pray a tefillas nedavah (a prayer in addition to the mandatory prayers of the day) if and only if one “adds something,” generally by adding to the standard text of the Shemoneh Esrei with a personal request. Due to this high preference for a personalized innovative prayer, it seems to me that if people want to introduce innovations to davening in order to make it more personally meaningful, such innovations should in most cases be accommodated, even at the Kotel.

This is, of course, on the condition that that their innovations do not fly directly in the face of the tradition that began with Ka’asher tzivah Hashem es Moshe; welcoming innovation in prayer is not a carte blanche to ignore more general rules in the name of such innovation. It also naturally is dependent on the actual goal of such innovation being a personalized and meaningful tefillah to the same God we all pray to.

But what about when that is not the case? What if many of those advocating for changes (including, as the recent “The Sanctity of the Kotel” letter charges, one of the founders of the group that is foremost in such advocation) do not even believe in that God? What if the group explicitly states a goal that has nothing to do with prayer at all? (Even if said goal is based on ideas that are arguably not without merit, they have little if any connection to the Kotel and everything it represents.) And what if the changes they’re advocating are not truly innovative, but rather simply copying the practices of movements that deny the historical truth expressed by Ka’asher tzivah Hashem es Moshe?

If such is the situation, then I believe we may conclude that the public push for such changes is not meant to support meaningful prayer. Rather, such a push is more likely a cynical ploy to stir up controversy, ultimately aiming to legitimize movements and ideologies that are inimical to the Kotel and everything it stands for.

And when dealing with such a ploy, there can be no compromise.

Yitzhak Kornbluth
Teaneck

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