We just entered the Jewish season of the Three Weeks. At this time, we grieve the loss of our holy Temples. Today, ironically, we are engaged in a current battle over the last remaining vestige of that ancient world: the Kotel. It seems strangely fitting, forcing us to meditate on the Wall’s significance and how the hatred that led to the Temple’s destruction has flared again, an unholy debate centred on a very holy site.
We have a law, stated in the Talmud, that no matter where you are in the world, you must physically turn your body to face the Temple when you pray [Babylonian Talmud Brakhot 30a]. If you cannot do this, you must direct your heart there.
A contradictory text suggests that God is everywhere, making specific direction in prayer less significant [BT Bava Batra 25a-b]. Nevertheless, this view never gained real traction. While many laws of prayer have been contested through the ages, this one is uniformly practiced because it represents spatially a primal longing for our small and dispersed people. We may be scattered across this vast globe, yet our hearts are always turned in the same direction when it comes to our most deeply-held yearnings. Until now.
The Kotel, although only an outside wall of the original Second Temple, has come to symbolise a place of international prayer. We’ve called it the Western Wall and the Wailing Wall. Many today simply call it the Kotel: the Wall.
The Zionist commitment to Hebrew implies a sense of propriety; it is our Wall, and we will refer to it in our idiom. The Wall signifies neutrality and permanence, a sense of rock-hard stability. In these days of constant flux, the Wall remains a holy constant. It is too high to ever come down. Instead, people come to pour out their hearts in the form of small notes, pressed with love, into its cold, stone crevices.
Family legend has it that I took my first steps at the Kotel. Whether or not this really happened, it has meant that for me, the Kotel and I will always be in relationship, a relationship that has morphed over time. As a seminary student, I remember walking miles to it on Shavuot in the middle of the night and praying there as the sun rose. It was my own miniature pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of my ancestors. The Kotel stood there, wide and strong, a witness to our tumultuous history. A friend.
I’ve taken many groups there, for some it’s their first visit. They look up and wait for something mystical to happen. When it doesn’t, they turn their backs to its stones, take a photo and leave. I learned to tell them: “No magic Persian carpet will come and lift you into a sacred ether where all prayers will be answered.” It takes work, the kind of work that invites seekers, not tourists.
I’ve gone through years when the Kotel has meant less to me, it was just a wall, populated largely by people whose religious lives are unlike mine. But I missed it.
Having been there several times in the last few weeks, I feel profoundly re-connected to the Kotel, despite daily articles about the division it has conjured. I stand in the fragility of mid-life, filled with blessings of thanksgiving for my children and my parents. I pray for friends in pain, not because my prayers will shake the heavens but because the simplicity of prayer allows me to feel deeply connected and selfless, if only for a few moments.
We fought hard for this Wall; the 50-year anniversary of the War of 1967 has replayed the images of its recapture again and again. Now we are fighting, not for the Wall, but over it.
A line from Robert Frost’s, The Mending Wall keeps replaying in my head: “We keep the wall between us as we go.” The Kotel is not a wall to make divisions. “Before I built a wall,” Frost writes, “I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out/And to whom I was like to give offense/ Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.
No one can take this Wall down. Some want to claim ownership. But no one can own the right to another person’s longings. “For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,” says Isaiah [57:7]. All nations also implies everyone within this nation.
Dr Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.