For decades the Jewish feminist organization Women at the Wall (WOW) has fought for the rights of Jewish women to read Torah and wear tallitot (prayer shawls) at the Wall. Today they are on the verge of a grand comprise, with the government of Israel agreeing to work with WOW to turn a newly excavated part of the wall known as the Robinson Arch into an egalitarian worship space.
The compromise doesn’t meet the standards of Cheryl Birkner Mack who resigned from the WOW board in protest. While I support WOW and whatever decision it makes regarding the Wall, what interests me here is Ms. Mack’s statement published in the Forward (Nov. 1, 2013): “I’m not interested in bigger, better, nicer, I’m interested in holiness and they’re not suddenly going to impose holiness on the new sight.”
What makes the Wall holy? The Wall itself is the western outer retaining wall of the Temple grounds and not a wall of the Temple itself. When the Temple stood there was nothing intrinsically holy about this site. In fact, there is nothing intrinsic about holiness at all.
Holiness is a sociological phenomenon. Something is holy because people claim it to be holy. The bit of the western retaining wall that has become the Wall is holy because it represents the Temple not because it was the Temple. And for centuries it was the only bit of wall available. That has changed with the Israeli passion for archeology. But is the newly excavated parts of the wall any less the Wall than the older exposed part?
I have walked the underground excavations of the Wall many times, and the awe I feel as I touch these long buried stones actually surpasses the emotions I feel in the busy and highly politicized above ground Wall. So why would that be different with the newly excavated parts of the wall?
Logically it wouldn’t, but we are talking religion here and not logic. The stones Ms. Mack loves have little to do with history (the rest of the wall is no less ancient) and everything to do with emotion (political as well as religious). I understand her feelings, even as I suspect it won’t take long for the new wall to become part of the Wall, and no less holy than the older section of wall. The Wall isn’t holy in and of itself, but only because Jews make it so. As Jews extend this holiness to the rest of the wall the women at the wall will find themselves women at the Wall once again.