The Western Wall has lately become a battleground in the struggle for egalitarianism. The arrest of women for praying in a tallit at the sacred site has sparked anger across the Jewish world and fuelled demands from non-Orthodox Jews in particular for equal religious rights.
It looks now as if Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky has brokered a deal which should be put an end to the unseemly squabbling. Under his compromise plan, the plaza at the Kotel would be extended to include the area known as Robinson’s Arch where egalitarian services are already allowed.
Some commentators, not unreasonably, have wondered why Progressive Jews have taken such an interest in the site when the restoration of the Temple has never been part of Reform theology. The Kotel has been embraced as a national shrine, whereas a more radical Progressive response might have viewed it with more critical distance on account of its origins.
We usually speak of there having been two Temples. But as Professor Simon Goldhill points out in his book The Temple of Jerusalem, there were actually three buildings: the Temple of Solomon, of Zerubbabel, who rebuilt it after the return of the exiles from Babylon, and Herod the Great in the latter end of the first century BCE.
Herod did more than the ancient equivalent of adding on a conservatory and loft extension: he completely rebuilt the Temple, enhancing its splendour. The Western Wall was one of the retaining walls built to support the platform on which Herod raised his brilliant edifice. According to Goldhill, “the construction of the Temple was the most grandiose act of self-promotion, the capstone of a building programme throughout the kingdom, designed to proclaim Herod a famous and popular man of power for future generations to admire.”
Whatever its motivation, the Herodian enterprise was rather different in spirit from the biblical Temple. Unlike the Tabernacle, the First Temple was not commanded. King David, having built himself a “house of cedar”, is troubled that the ark of God dwells only “within curtains” and thinks it should be housed in something grander.
After a seemingly lukewarm reception to the idea, God promises that David’s son will build a “house for My name”. When Solomon gets down to the task, he notes that his father could not “because of the wars which were about him on every side” (I Kings 5:3). One possible interpretation is that David was simply too busy with the conquest of his kingdom to have time for such an ambitious project.
Only in the First Book of Chronicles comes the now familiar, and more spiritually elevated, reason for David being denied the honour of building the Temple. “But the word of the Lord came to me, saying… ‘You shall not build a house to My name because you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight’” (22:7).
The purity and spiritual integrity of the Temple is emphasised elsewhere. When the prophet Ezekiel later imagines its reconstruction, the divine message is that the house of Israel shall no more defile it, “neither they, nor their kings”.
When King Cyrus allows the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem to build the Second Temple, he attributes it to divine inspiration (Ezra 1-2). The leaders of the Jews, Ezra, Nehemiah and Zerubbabel, were all religious heroes who variously sought to institute the regular reading of the Torah or protect Shabbat observance.
Under no stretch of the imagination could Herod be thought a spiritual role model. He seized the throne by force with the aid of Rome in 37 BCE and in the course of his 40 year-reign, put to death most of the Sanhedrin (the rabbinic court), his wife, two of his sons and his mother-in-law. His substantial building work also included a Greek theatre and a hippodrome — not exactly the rabbis’ favourite places.
If David was unable to erect the Temple because of blood on his hands, that did not stop Herod.
According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, Herod “destroyed in the full eastern hellensistic tradition, all members of the Hasmonean House whose existence seemed to him to endanger his position”. While the Temple may have been an attempt to win the hearts of his subjects, he was nonetheless regarded as “the destroyer of their traditional institutions, the murderer of their kings and leaders and the agent of a foreign government”.
As Goldhill notes, the Western Wall had “no religious significance” in Herod’s own day: it was an outer supporting wall of the Temple compound, not part of the religious structure.
Over time the Kotel has become hallowed as a focus of Jewish messianic yearnings. But as the forthcoming festival of Shavuot reminds us, revelation did not take place in the city or the gilded monuments of kings but in the barren, empty space of the wilderness.