Behind the scenes at the Kotel

11 Dec

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of fr.wikipedia.org

Image courtesy of fr.wikipedia.org

The Kotel Ha’Ma’aravi (Western Wall) is one of the retaining walls of the Temple Mount. It was built by King Herod as part of his renovation and expansion of the Temple precinct commencing in 22 BCE, although a new theory posits that the Kotel was actually built after his death. And, of course, it is one of the key tourist sites in Israel.

Even though Jews are allowed to visit the Temple Mount itself – the site of the actual Temples – because of security considerations relating to organized Israel programs, and because of someHalachic (Jewish legal) opinions which prohibit Jews from ascending the Mount for reasons connected with tumah (ritual impurity), most Jews, and almost all Israel program participants, do not ascend the Temple Mount but visit the Kotel instead.

For some reason, it is often said that the Kotel is the holiest site for Jews across the world because it is the last remaining retaining wall of the Temple Mount. Obviously, this cannot be true, for if the other retaining walls did not exist the structural integrity of the Mount would certainly be compromised.

The Kotel is the holiest of the retaining walls because it is the closest to the kodesh ha’kodashim (The Holy of Holies), the place to which only the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) could enter and only on the holiest day of the year – Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement.) This spot is also the site of Akeidat Yitzchak (The Binding of Isaac) and, according to midrash (Jewish lore), the site of Even Ha’Shetiya (The Foundation Stone), from which the world was created.

However, during the time of the Second Temple, the Kotel was simply a wall, serving functional purposes. Along with supporting the Temple Mount, the area adjacent to the wall was the Ben-Yehuda Street of two thousand years ago, with money change places and other stores serving the needs of the local and pilgrim population. How does such a place become holy? Is kedusha(holiness) intrinsic or a construct?

When considering kedushah (though, we must not only consider kedushat ha’Makom (Holiness of Place), but also kedushat ha’Zeman (Holiness of Time – Shabbat and Yom Tov), as well askedushat ha’Adam (Holiness of People – all of whom are created in the Divine image) and kedushat ha’Peulah (Holiness of Action – for example, tikkun olam and tzedek hevrati (social justice) projects). Each Jew must consider for himself which marker of kedusha is most meaningful to him as an individual. Some visitors to the Kotel view it simply as a wall – a piece of real estate. Perhaps they can connect with God more at their home synagogue/temple, or even outdoors. They might even recognize kedusha more in the actions of a human rights activist or even a beggar on the street (created in the image of God). Kedusha means different things to different people. It is the role of each individual to seek it out for himself.

When considering the Kotel, we must also discuss the concept of Achdut Yisrael (the unity of all Jews). Many people visit the site and are enchanted by what they perceive to be an incredible level of unity between all Jews, whether they are locals or visitors, and regardless of their level of Halachic observance – a true center of gravity for the entire Jewish world. Others are offended by what they perceive to be discriminatory practices against women, and against non-Orthodox Jews, which have even led to the arrest of worshippers. They davka see the Kotel as the embodiment of disunity and even sinat chinam (baseless hatred) which, according to our Sages, led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

The importance of the Kotel to world Jewry is clear; it has been a focus for our prayers and of our spiritual and national identity for centuries. But, as visitors, we must ensure that we do not approach the site on a simplistic level. When visiting the Kotel, we must consider how we relate to issues of kedusha and Jewish unity (or lack thereof). Our experience at the Wall should not be an affective one only, detached and separate from the intellectual issues which the site raises. There are no clear answers to these issues; each individual must decide for himself how he relates to them.

My company, Teaching Israel, believes in an intellectual and academically rigorous approach to teaching and learning about Israel, which develops knowledge and skills, while exposing participants to values and attitudes, without trying to promote a particular set of beliefs and practices amongst them. We facilitate both cerebral and affective learning opportunities for our participants.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel. 

This piece initally appeared on www.joesisrael.com.

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