A WALL OF PRAYER
The Nation that prays together stays together
Perhaps you have heard—the Israeli government has finally addressed the contentious issue of prayer at the Western Wall. Who would think that prayer would be contentious? But leave it to humans to turn a wall of prayer into a wall of division and separation. If you have been to Israel you certainly went to the Western Wall to pray and probably put a little piece of paper in the Wall with a prayer request someone gave you.
If you are not familiar with the history, the Western Wall is the remnant of the ancient retaining wall built around the grounds of the Temple compound King Herod built 2,000 years ago. It was not part of the Temple itself which the Romans destroyed in AD 70.
The Romans banished the Jews from Jerusalem and scattered them throughout the Roman Empire. The area of the Wall was in ruins and reduced to a small exposed section that was filled with debris. As world powers changed, Jews, from time to time, were allowed to pray at the Wall but only for High Holy Days.
During the War of Independence in 1948, Jordan captured the Old City of Jerusalem and forbade Jews from praying at the Wall for the next 19 years. This all changed in 1967 when the Israeli forces liberated Jerusalem. For the first time in 2,000 years the Jewish people had access to their most sacred site—the Western Wall.
The Israeli government gave the religious ultra-Orthodox control over prayer activities and practices at the Wall. While all Jews, as well as non-Jews had access to pray at the Wall, they had to respect and conform to the ultra-Orthodox rules such as men and women being forbidden to pray together.
To keep men and women apart, the area for prayer was divided by a fence with a section for men to pray and a separate, much smaller section for women to pray. However even this solution to separate the men from the women did not end the ultra-Orthodox concerns. In the ultra-Orthodox tradition women are forbidden to wear a prayer shawl, read aloud from the Torah, and other practices the ultra-Orthodox consider inappropriate for women.
In their desire for freedom of worship, a group of women who called themselves Women of the Wall began to express themselves in prayer and worship in ways that infuriated the ultra-Orthodox men and women. They wore prayer shawls and carried Torah scrolls to the Wall and read the Scriptures aloud. It is difficult for non-Orthodox Christians and Jews living in the West to understand why this should be a concern. Shouldn’t we all be able to pray and read God’s Word together? To get a sense of how big of an issue this is, watch the movie Yentel in which Barbara Streisand poses as a man in order to study the Torah and the Talmud.
The quarrelling between the Women of the Wall, the Conservative and the Reform with the ultra-Orthodox has been escalating for years. Finally, after decades of turning the Wall of Prayer into a Wall of Contention, the Israeli government has approved the creation of a new prayer space at the Wall for those who are not ultra-Orthodox. This will allow the Conservative, the Reform and men and women to pray together without having to follow ultra-orthodox practices.
The present prayer area at the Wall will remain the same. The new prayer area will be built alongside the Wall just south of the present prayer area near Robinson’s Arch. Since this is an archeological site, the new section for prayer will be elevated so excavations can continue undisturbed.
Why is this so important? The new prayer section will inclusive for all Jews to pray. Most religious Jews living in America and Europe are Conservative and Reform. Furthermore, most Jews in America have never had an interest in going to Israel. The ultra-Orthodox control of the Western Wall and all religious decisions in Israel has been a great hindrance to Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox. That is about to change.
Even for Jews who are only moderately observant, the new prayer section will be an irresistible draw to “go and pray at the Wall.” This means that thousands of Jews who have never been interested in going to Israel will, “all of a sudden” get the urge to pray.
I can tell you for a certainty, when they pray at the Wall they will want to return and pray there again. One day while praying at the Wall they will have the thought, shall I say revelation, that if they lived in Israel they could pray at the Wall whenever they wanted. Opening this new prayer section for all Jews will make all Jews want to make aliya in fulfillment of God’s holy word. We will see this with our own eyes.