Shammai Engelmayer’s column, “It’s like talking to a wall,” reminded me of similar statements I heard about the Western Wall, the Kotel Ha’Ma’aravi, in May 1995.
The speaker, an Israeli, was talking about his recent tour of the newly opened Western Wall tunnels, far below the existing Kotel plaza. His eyes widened as he sought to find the right words in English to convey the immense size of the stones that form the foundation of the Western Wall. He was attempting to convey his thoughts about the engineering wonders that existed more than 2,000 years ago, that would allow such stones to be carved and moved into place and still stand today holding up the Temple Mount located above.
Those words were spoken to me by the late Yitzhak Rabin during a visit to my home in West Orange to express his condolences about the murder of my daughter Alisa in an April terror attack. What struck me about his words was that they lacked any sense of appreciation for what the Kotel represents to Judaism, his inability to recognize the kedusha, sanctity, inherent in the Kotel as a part of the Temple Mount. In Rabin’s view, one apparently shared by Engelmayer, the underpinnings of the Temple Mount are nothing more than stones. It was totally devoid of any recognition that a few feet above stood the site of the First and Second Beit Hamikdosh. And I understood right then that anyone capable of ignoring the connection of the foundation stones to what stood on top was also capable of ignoring the connection of Judaism’s traditions to the rest of the land of Israel.
If, in Engelmayer’s view, the Kotel is divorced from sanctity and is nothing “but a man-made pile of stones heaped on top of each other,” then the same goes for the rest of Israel – including its other holy sites – and is certainly not worth the sacrifices and blood that has been shed creating the country, building it up, and holding onto it.
On the other hand, I believe that if the modern state of Israel represents a return to the birthplace and the symbols of the Jewish people as expressed in the country’s Declaration of Independence, then the price paid by Jews of different backgrounds to make the dream of Zion into a reality makes sense. Much more is to be gained from understanding that the “pile of stones” not only holds up the Temple Mount but us as Jews, too.
Shammai Engelmayer replies:
Stephen Flatow and I are in complete agreement about the sacredness of the land. And I do not disagree with him about the place the Western Wall should have in our hearts and our thoughts, or why it should. Where we disagree is on whether it is proper to pray before the Wall. The Torah forbids piling up stones in order to pray before them. In that regard alone, the Wall is such a pile of stones. It is a matzevah. Dance before it. Celebrate before it. Congregate before it for special events. Do not, however, pray before it.