July 16, 2024
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Yom Yerushalayim: One Kotel for All

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. In the age of photography, often, an epic event is best captured by an iconic photo.

The six-day war was a grand historical shift. Hashem created His natural world in six days, and He recreated modern history in six days of June. Everything changed. This dramawhich played out in less than a weekcontained fabled heroes, military legends and diplomatic dramas, but, most unforgettably, one iconic image. The image of three paratroopers standing at the Kotel, eyes lifted to heaven, etched itself in our collective memory.

For thousands of years, we were scattered across time, yet we all davened to one common location. Hashem had departed Yerushalayim, but He remained hidden behind the Kotel, listening to our prayers, and patiently awaiting Geulah and the reconstruction of history. In 1967, He emerged from behind His wall and reconstituted His relationship with His children.

1948, despite its great euphoria, still felt historically hollow. We received carved up slices of land, geographically disjointed and barely defensible. Most importantly, we were still barred from Yerushalayim and its historical environs. In 1967, we returned to the heartland of Tanach, and, of course, to our long-abandoned capital and its silent wall. This return suffused our land with the spirit of nevua, redemptive expectations and national pride.

The energy and excitement in Yerushalayim radiated to Jews across the globe. Millions of Russian Jews had been frozen out of Jewish identity by the repressive Soviet regime. In 1967, the ice started to thaw, and Russian Jews began their long march home. The passion in Yerushalayim rippled easterly to Moscow.

Likewise, after 1967, Jews in Western countries underwent a renaissance of Jewish pride and identity. In the wake of the Holocaust, having secured safe havens in the West, Jews were private about their religionuncomfortable with displaying their Judaism in public and afraid of rocking the boat. Living in survival mode, we were under confident and uneasy about asserting ourselves in broader society. The 1967 victory in Yerushalayim restored Jewish pride in New York and London, empowering Jews with greater confidence and emboldening them to both publicly display Jewish identity and to participate more assertively in general society. The aftermath of 1967 brought prophetic spirit, national pride and historical awakening, and one famous picture captured it all. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Equally important, 1967 was a period of national unity. Having faced an existential threat to our young fledgling nation, we were united through our remarkable victory. Our spectacular return to the wall roused the imagination of the entire Israeli population, from secular to religious. Something about Yerushalayim captured our collective imagination, regardless of religious affiliation. We all felt united.

Yerushalayim has always possessed this capacity. It was the only territory in ancient Israel which wasn’t allocated to a particular tribe, so that no one sector would appropriate religion as their own. Yerushalayim became a shared commonwealth, emphasizing that there is no monopoly to the word of Hashem or to His presence. Unlike the rest of the country which was settled prior to Jewish monarchy, Yerushalayim was only inhabited by Jews after Dovid Hamelech ascended the throne. Having achieved centralized government, we could now install Yerushalayim as a federal district, rather than as a tribal borough.

In 1967, the ancient city of Jewish unity, once again, unified our people. We stood before the wall as one. In the years since the wall has continued to bond our nation, hosting public celebrations as well as national prayers. Jews, from across the world, come to cry their tears and insert notes of petition. Israeli soldiers are inducted to the army, and foreign dignitaries visiteach paying respect to our people and to Hashem. Everything happens at the wall of history. Sadly, the common consensus surrounding the wall has become brittle. The Kotel is slowly morphing into the private domain of religious Jews.

Polarized Politics

In our radically polarized political setting, people affiliate with a political group, often thoughtlessly adopting positions which are espoused by their “camp.” This creates a dynamic of “politics of appropriation,” where one group appropriates a broad issue or value, which should, ideally, be a consensus policy. In our environment of political antagonism, often, one camp reflexively rejects a value simply because their political adversary has adopted it. Consensus issues which should unify us, become splintered along sectarian lines.

For example, during the recent political crisis, opponents of judicial reform claimed that these bills and measures were undemocratic. There are many reasons to oppose the reforms, just as there are many justifications to support them, but labeling them “undemocratic” is platitudinous and intellectually dishonest. The reforms aim to calibrate the delicate balance of power vital to any democracy. Without healthy checks and balances, democracy will crumble. This is not a faceoff between supporters of democracy and fascists, but a dispute about how to best construct durable democracy. Sadly, polarized politics create hardened political camps and, as a result, values which should be shared become factional. Polarized politics always leads to the politics of appropriation, where one group seizes a mutual value as its own.

Similarly, the issue of social justice has become unintentionally appropriated by secular Israel. Their devotion to social justice and to battling social discrimination is noteworthy. Sadly, many religious Jews recoil from this social agenda, simply because secular Israel has championed it. Social justice is a vital feature of religious identity and should be a national bi-partisan agenda. This is just another example of the sad cost of polarized politics: if my political adversary has adopted a platform, I must automatically reject it without properly considering its merit.

A Religious Wall?

I worry that the Kotel is being unintentionally appropriated by frum Jews. Davening provides us with an organic connection to the wall which secular Jews don’t always enjoy. Further “exacerbating” the situation, the Kotelaside from being a national and historical monumentis also a beit knesset which requires strict standards including separation between sexes. Frum Jews cannot relax these standards, yet non-Orthodox Jews and secular Jews are accustomed to mixed prayer experiences. This putsor should putus in a bind. We can’t relax our halachic standards but, just the same, how can we exclude non-Orthodox Jews from such an essential part of our national heritage?

Sadly, sincere attempts to formulate creative solutions have so far failed, duein many casesto political pettiness and historical myopia. Though there is no easy solution, the Kotel dilemma should haunt every Orthodox Jew. It is not more religious to make the Kotel less accessible. Just because there are no easy answers doesn’t mean we can simplistically ignore the problem.

Additionally, the rising popularity of visiting Har Habayit has deepened the affiliation between the mountain, its wall and the religious sector. There are many valid reasons to visit Har Habayit, just as there are solid reasons not to. Sadly though, the experience has become deeply politicized. Government officials routinely visitnot only as a religious pilgrimagebut to assert political positions. As these visits become politicized, they also polarize public attitudes.

Unfortunately, those who question the merit or wisdom of Har Habayit visits under the current circumstances, sometimes, become alienated from the entire mountain. As the “Temple Mount” becomes polarized and solely the province of the religious, is the nearby Kotel similarly transitioning into a purely religious site, rather than a national treasure and a wall of unity? Whether you support or oppose visiting the Har Habayit, this outcome and this alienation is worrying.

Is the Kotel of 1967 still standing? Would the picture of three paratroopers still resonate? I certainly hope so, but I fear that without thought and creative solutions, that historic picture will fade from our national consciousness. If it does, we will have squandered one of Hashem’s gifts of 1967.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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