The Western Wall as Orthodox Synagogue

Word to the Wise: if you want us to write about an article you’ve seen, please send us a tip. All of my last four posts previous to this one came because of articles sent to me by others — and if you don’t tell me about it, I’ll probably miss it. Which explains why “Owning a Wall,” Neil Rubin’s editorial in the Feb. 16th issue of the Baltimore Jewish Times, escaped my attention until this Shabbos, and why you’ll have to go to the archives (set the date to Feb. 17) and look for the editorial in order to read it. When you do, you’ll find that Mr. Rubin begins by making the case that the Wall is not — or, philosophically, should not — be an Orthodox synagogue with separate seating.

I have this sketch at home by Rabbi Joseph Schwarz from his beautiful mid-19th century manuscript “A Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Manuscript of Palestine.” It’s of pious Jewish men and women praying, side-by-side, at the Western Wall, or Kotel. That tells me that back then, members of both sexes could pray together at this most sacred of sites.

Were the great sages of the era to have forbidden such behavior, would not there have been separate prayer times? Would a rabbi have included the drawing in his book?

Actually, what is documented in Rabbi Schwarz’s book was the situation during centuries of Arab oppression. Jews were forbidden to form a minyan at the Wall, much less provide the trappings of a synagogue — Sifrei Torah [Torah Scrolls], Aronos [Arks], Shulchanos [Tables for the Torah readers], and, yes, Mechitzos [Dividers between men and women]. Yet even though they could not form groups there for regular prayers, pious Jews nonetheless came to the Western Wall to pour their hearts out in prayer.

Should we, then, adopt the situation during centuries of oppression as a modern ideal? You can be certain that all those men, when they sought out a quorum for prayer, found one in the company of at least nine other pious men of Jerusalem, in accordance with our great tradition.

Most of the article, thankfully, is far more acceptable. It was written primarily to tell us that the Government of Israel and the Masorti (Conservative) movement are no longer at odds. The Masortim had been given a space to pray at the Robinson’s Arch area, so as not to disturb the traditional, separate-gender services in the main plaza. Yet because the Arch is also an archaeological garden, Israel’s bureaucrats, in their great wisdom, imposed a substantial fee upon anyone appearing after 8 a.m. regardless if they were coming to pray or look at the site. [Telling the mispallelim that “you can only look up, not down” wasn’t an option.] This was incredibly unfair, especially as the Masortim had, as Rubin writes, “agreed to give up legal challenges of the right to pray as they saw fit in the Western Wall plaza’s main section.” Astute readers might remember that I chimed in on the side of the Conservatives on this one. “With the new pact, Conservative Jews can enter daily sans fee until 10:30 a.m., and on Shabbat evening and on holidays to daven.”

But here’s another blooper to go with the first:

As any visitor has witnessed, the vast majority of worshippers –– particularly the regulars –– at the Wall are Orthodox. Now, the issue of why that is so, is complex. It gets into government funding, the slimy nature of coalition politics and outright bullying tactics.

It’s actually not complicated at all, and certainly has nothing to do with politics and the Israeli government. It has to do with the same pious, observant Jews who came alone to the Wall when unfriendly Muslim rulers allowed no organized prayers there. That, and some simple demographics.

There are, according to the Masorti movement itself, no more than 50,000 Israeli Masortim. There are “some 50 kehillot and havurot,” and this would mean an incredibly large (for Israel) size of 1,000 members per congregation — including havurot in that average — so I suspect the 50,000 is quite optimistic. The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (Reform) is even smaller: 20 congregations.

There are, by comparison, something approaching one million Orthodox Jews in Israel, perhaps more. But even this doesn’t give a full picture, because of Israel’s 5.3 million Jews, 2 million come from Eastern countries (Edut HaMizrach) in which Reform and Conservative Judaism gained no traction. To this day, when they fail to attend synagogue, “the synagogue they don’t go to is Orthodox.” And, of course, the Orthodox — particularly charedim — have made Jerusalem a population center.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of philosophy. To Orthodox Jews, the Western Wall is the closest one can come today to praying in the Temple itself. To Reform Jews, who named their synagogues Temples because they claim not to desire a rebuilding of Jerusalem’s Temple, the Western Wall is a relic infused with religious meaning. Conservatives? Well, it depends on whom you ask. But it’s really not hard to figure out why Orthodox Jews seem to be so much more enthusiastic about praying there.

Finally, the frequency of prayer must be taken into account. When I was a growing member of a Conservative synagogue, I was a frequent participant since I showed up perhaps once a month. Orthodox men pray three times a day, and men and women both come to the Wall at all hours to say Tehillim [Psalms] and other prayers.

Add all of these factors together, and it is safe to say that among those coming to the Wall to pray, the ratio of those preferring traditional, separate prayers to mixed-gender prayers are in a proportion of between 500 and 1000:1. Those numbers could not be accomplished or nullified by back-room Knesset deal-making, and attempting to construct some sort of jab at the Orthodox coalition partners out of a simple demographic reality is truly bad form. It’s a pity, because at least Neil and I agree the news item was a positive one for all concerned.

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21 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    It’s entirely in character for the Conservative/Masorti movement to cast the worship arrangements at the Wall as a manifestation of political forces. This view is a heritage from the “Historical School” of the Breslau seminary of Frankel and Graetz.

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Jews may have been forbidden to provide Mechitzot in the Kotel to divide men from women, but I doubt they were forbidden to decide that men and women would pray at different times. Had the top Rabbis of Yerushalaim made such a ruling, it would have been followed. Alternatively, they could have had women pray at the Kotel, and men pray at a different retaining wall. There are other retaining walls that serve the same architectual function as the Kotel, see Therefore, if men and women are seen as having prayed together in the 19th century, it means that was acceptable.

    However, that was then. As you said, the simple fact is that the vast majority of people who pray at the Kotel today want gender separation. I agree that that by itself is enough reason to have it.

  3. DMZ says:

    “Should we, then, adopt the situation during centuries of oppression as a modern ideal?”

    Bring forth the aleinu references!

  4. Loberstein says:

    Religion is not the real issue here. The Conservative Movement desperately needs issues like this to energize a lethargic laity. If they are ‘persecuted” it is good for their business and they will raise more money for their cause. You know that Masorti in Israel is so poor that they had to let go their main spokesman. Now, if the orthodox play into their hands, they will raise the money and be martyrs.
    The best approach is to diffuse it as quickly and quietly as possible and get it out of the press.
    Speaking of the kosel, I had avoided going there on several trips to Israel because I found being accosted constantly without letup by beggars made prayer impossible. i refuse to get a stack of coins and spend the entire prayer service giving coins to beggars. I will gladly give tzedakah to the needy but I am not sure there people fit that catagory. I went to the Kosel on Shabbos afternoon for mincha and it was a nice experience. So, I am not only concerned about a few, a very few Conservative Jews having an egalitarian minyan at Robinson’s Arch as I am to having the pushy professional beggars turn a holy place into a fish bowl where they are totally unfettered. It is not spiritual and I don’t think it is tzedakah.

  5. Barbara says:

    Here is the correct link to Wikipedia
    (the period at the end of the earlier one is part of the link value and makes it not work)

    While I would actually prefer to believe that the sketch describes mixed ‘seating’ (I’m guessing they were actually standing) there is also the possibility that the Muslim authorities viewed mixed groups as less of an organized prayer situation. In that case, the women were there, at least in part, as camouflage.

    As for the Eastern European immigrants “the synagogue they don’t go to is Orthodox” – there are a whole host of historical reasons for the lack of Reform and Conservative movements in Eastern (Communist) Europe. The synagogues that native Israeli’s don’t attend are also Orthodox.

  6. Miriam Shear says:

    “Speaking of the kosel, I had avoided going there on several trips to Israel because I found being accosted constantly without letup by beggars made prayer impossible. i refuse to get a stack of coins and spend the entire prayer service giving coins to beggars. I will gladly give tzedakah to the needy but I am not sure there people fit that catagory. I went to the Kosel on Shabbos afternoon for mincha and it was a nice experience”

    That’s why I almost never daven at the “regular” Kotel but go to the Kotel HaKatan in the Moslem quarter. I highly recommend it. For one thing, it is extremely quiet and almost always empty. It IS safe! I have davened there at all times of the day and night with no problems whatsoever. Furthermore, besides accomplishing some very intense tefillah, your presence serves the dual purpose of keeping alive our claim to these areas. The other added bonus is that this is supposedly as close as one can get to the Kadosh HaKadoshim without going up on Har HaBayit.

  7. Harry Maryles says:

    The only time one requires a Mechitza for Teffila B’Tzibur is in a Beis Haknesses. The question is whether the Kotel qualifies as one. In my view it does not. It is an open space. One can gather a minyan of men and daven at the Kotel and be Yotzeh Teffila B’Tzibur, much the way one can gather a minyan of men in a hotel lobby at a wedding right after the Chupah. No Mechitza is needed.

    That there is a Mechtiza at the Kotel now is more a function of Charedi Chumros than it is of Halacha L’Maasah. Not that I would advocate any change in the stauts quo. I do not wish to cause any mob actions which would surely result if I were to advocate tearing down the Mechitza. But I think the Halacha about where and when a Mechitza is or isn’t needed should be made clear.

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    I agree with Ms. Shear that one’s tefilah and kavanah are far more enhanced in the Kosel HaKatan than at the Kosel HaMaaravi. The latter, at times, reminds me of a chasunah, where the caterer accomodates the needs, legitimate or otherwise, of every shnorrer off the street.

  9. Elie Aharon says:

    Loberstien, Ms. Shear and Mr. Brizel are *spot* on with their observations regarding the shamelessness shnorring and “in your face” posturing of the black hat beggars at the kotel.

    I also refused to give over a stack of coins, and shoo’d them away like chickens as they approached. Kavanah? What kavanah was possible?

    A long time resident of one of the charedi communities explained it to me later. “You don’t understand,” he explained, “to them, it’s *their* money, it’s just in *your* pocket!”

    Some respect! It’s shameful and a chillul Hashem if ever there was one.

  10. a k says:

    Elie Aharon:
    “… regarding the shamelessness shnorring and “in your face” posturing of the black hat beggars at the kotel.”

    What is your point by adding the words “black hat”?

    If you are commenting about the intrusiveness of the ‘shnorrers’, their ‘black hat’ is irrelevant.

    If black hatted Jews bother you, shame on your stereotyping.

    (BTW, frequent visitors to the kotel can attest to a)obnoxiousness of certain ‘shnorrers’ at the kotel and throughout the old city, without regard to their mode of dress, level of seemingly religious affiliation, or even Jewishness, and, b) the absolute charm, grace, and respect of some others)

  11. Moshe Schorr says:

    I hear much about the “schnorrers” at the Kotel. Maybe it’s because I live here, but I have no problem with them at all. I give the first or second a shekel or a half and just ignore the rest. Perhaps if I looked like a
    “rich” American (is there any other kind?) I would have more trouble.

  12. Moshe Schorr says:

    As an addendum to my previous comment. I still recall what happened many years ago. I was sitting at the Kotel davening. The sole of my shoe had a hole. (Hey, Adlai Stevenson had one as well ). This fellow saw it and decided I was a mendicant. No amount of explaining on my part could change his mind. He insisted on giving me 50 shekels. In those days, that was a nice donation. I used it to pay an electrician for work in our shul.

  13. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Just for readers’ interest, below is the text of a letter to the editor I sent the Baltimore Jewish Times last week:


    While BJT editor Neil Rubin (“Owning A Wall”, Feb. 16) considers the decades-old embrace of halachic standards at the Western Wall to be sound “from a practical” point of view, he considers it “unsound from a philosophical outlook.” He is not correct.

    The reason the sexes were not separated at the Kotel before the State of Israel took possession of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 is simple: It was not in Jewish hands and thus was not an official place of Jewish prayer, even if some determined Jews visited it when they were able. In a non-synagogue-designated place, there is no halachic imperative of separating the sexes during prayer. That is why services are regularly held in hallways and foyers at Orthodox weddings even though there are men and women in the same room.

    Once the Kotel was in Jewish hands, though, and became a place where Jews prayed regularly (and pray almost constantly; it is a rare time, if it even exits, when there are no Jews praying at the Kotel), the rules of Jewish prayer-places, including a barrier between men and women, came to apply.

    So the only question that remains is whether the standards of the Kotel should be those of the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal or Humanistic Jewish movements, or the original and still most active one, that we call Orthodoxy.

    Surely one needn’t ascribe the halachic standards at the Kotel as the result of “the slimy nature of coalition politics,” or “outright
    bullying” or the “unfairness of the Israeli government” – or even to the fact that the vast majority of those who regularly pray at the place are Orthodox. The reason is more simple: halachic prayer-standards are the Jewish People’s highest common denominator.

    Rabbi Avi Shafran
    Director of Public Affairs
    Agudath Israel of America
    212 797-9000 ext. 303

  14. EASTERNER says:


  15. Steve Brizel says:

    Last week, the editor of the Jewish Week in NYC wrote about his reaction to letters from subscribers who were cancelling their subscriptions because of their dissatisfaction with news coverage. His POV was that his publication essentially served as the New York Times of the Jewish community, thus bringing us news that we would not read elsewhere.

    Yet, as anyone familiar with the New York Times can attest,it is not a definitive source of news or opinion on almost any subject, but rather advancing a definitive agenda both in its news, editorial, op ed and cultural pages. I think that it is evident that the local Federation subsidized newspapers also advance a liberal, left , pluralist agenda in its coverage of all things Jewish generally and especially of Israel as well. Occasionally, one sees an op ed by R Shafran or even Dr Shick’s weekly column,but increasingly, the Jewish Week is a newspaper that treats the mainstream O communities either as a poor relative that is good for a holiday based feature story or worse, to further reinforce the prejudices of Ortho-bashers.Indeed,one can argue that a newspaper that professes to be pluralist rarely lives up to that mantle when covering the mainstream O communities,which I would define as anywhere from the OU/YU/RIETS/RCA world to all points to the right except for NK.

    Similarly, readers of the Jewish Week are greeted with a weekly barrage of articles and columns that consistently promote pluralism, ecumenicalism and those identified with the extreme outer LW of MO as mainstream. One can predictably expect articles that only mention problems within any sector of Orthodoxy to the right of the editor’s perspective, and which view intermarriage and similar transgressions as “normal”. In addition, these publications will include an outright misrepresentation of history as in the Baltimore Jewish Times piece. These editorial and feature policies are a large reason why many of us simply cannot depend on the Jewish Week or its equivalent in Baltimore and elswhere for a fair perspective on the news or a fair and accurate portrayal of many issues relating to Torah Judaism. In many instances, one must rely on sources as the Jewish Press, Yated , Hamodia or Mishpacha for far nore objective and in-depth coverage of the issues within our communities, as opposed to being intellectually assaulted on a constant basis by those who have long ceased being viewed as mainstream even within MO, simply because their sound bites fit the agenda of the editor of the Jewish Week and similarly oriented newspapers in the US.

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    One more point-I would be highly suspect of many of the estimates and figures trotted out by Masorti and Reform spokespersons. The Masorti movement has recently substantially reduced the size and substance of its offices in Israel.Its presence on the ground consists of an Israeli style JTS and several C houses of worship. If the Masorti house of worship that I walked past every day when I was in Israel is a fair indicator, then one can safely state that these institutions are empty and are political statements with no impact whatsoever on secular Israelis who are far more knowledgeable and closer to tradition than many of their American brethren. The R agenda consists of obtaining thru litigation what it cannot and will never obtain on the ground. It is a noisy agenda, but one which has not translated into any growth of any kind on the ground.

  17. Charles B. Hall says:

    ‘centuries of Arab oppression’

    Minor quibble: From 1517 to 1917, Jerusalem (and the rest of Eretz Yisrael) was ruled by the Ottoman Turks, not Arabs. From 1260 to 1517 it was ruled by Mamluks from Africa, also not Arabs. Before then it had been ruled by various combinations of Crusaders, Kurds, and Turks for hundreds of years. Before 1948, when the Jordanians took control of part of Jerusalem in the Israeli War of Independence, Arabs had not ruled Jerusalem since the eleventh century.

  18. Steve Brizel says:

    One small addition-I would be incorrect if I did not note that the Jewish Observer, The RJJ Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Tradition and Jewish Action play no small role in helping many within the Torah community become informed and participate in a discussion on many halachic and hashkafic issues .

  19. Shalhevet says:

    I don’t have so much of a problem with tzedokah collectors at the Kosel. Perhaps the women are less aggresive, or perhaps it’s because I try to see them as real people and treat them as that. I set aside a few coins before I arrive and give those, and after they are finished, I make eye contact and show regret that I can’t help them too.. Some of the women know me by sight, even though I do not give much, and I almost always get lots of brachos- no matter what (including, of course, may you be able to give in the future). It really bothers me a lot when I see them treated as sub-humans – to be ignored or “shooed away”. It’s true that some are not well, some are strange and some are aggressive, but all have Jewish neshomahs!

  20. Menachem Petrushka says:

    “regarding the shamelessness shnorring and “in your face” posturing of the black hat beggars at the kotel.”

    My father – may he live to a hundred and twenty – made Aliyah and now lives in the Old City. An cctogenarian, every day he literally runs down the steps from the Old City to the Western Wall Plaza in order to give zedakka to the Aniyim there, not forgetting the poor people who sell items on the steps. He has befriended most of the collectors and he can tell you their life stories as he “tours” the plaza to shmooze with them and help them out.

    When I last visted Yerushalayim last , I mentioned the issue that Amreicans have with the “schnorring” and my father became very angry. He catsigated me – the prototypical American halevaii – for seeing nothing wrong with spending thousands of dollars to bring one’s family to Israel and staying at the Renaissance Hotel but complaining bitterly about doling fifty dollars or so in charity at the Kotel.

    Yes, it is a culture shock. It doesn’t meet our standards of respectibility and bourgeios mentality. But I believe, that my father’s way is more in keeping with what the Dayan Almanos expects of us than that of some of the posters above.

    BTW. if you want to avoid the issue entirely do not dress like an American. If you cannot afford to dole out dollars, be prepared, Change your dollars for shekalim and there is a genteleman that sits on the steps who will exchange large denominations into one shekel coins if he can.

  21. Shalhevet says:

    “Change your dollars for shekalim and there is a genteleman that sits on the steps who will exchange large denominations into one shekel coins if he can.”
    Actually, almost all the collecters will. One of them told me it’s a very big mitzva to do so, since many stores turn upm their noses at having to take small coins for bigger purchases. On a more positive note, i have seen some the beauty of Anshei Yerushalaim in some makolet owners who use these collecters to get the small change they need, and even make the collectors feel that they are doing makolet owner a favor!

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