The announcement this week that Israel’s government had “solved” the problem of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, and the resulting disapproval heard from spokespeople for various streams and ideologies, all ignore the broader issue. Who cares whether there are charedi services, or women’s services, or egalitarian services at the Wall?
No one should be allowed to pray at the Wall in the first place. It is a flat-out violation of Torah law.
No, you did not misread that last sentence, and it is not a typographical error. It really does say that praying at the Kotel “is a flat-out violation of Torah law.”
What is the Kotel, anyway, but a man-made pile of stones heaped on top of each other to form a wall? The Torah bans worship at “sacred trees” (or poles) and man-made piles of stones. “You shall not set up a sacred post [asherah] – any kind of pole beside the altar of the Lord your God that you may make – or erect a stone pillar [matzevah]; for such the Lord your God detests. (See Deuteronomy 16:21-22.)
The rest of the Tanach (the Bible) reinforces this.
After Solomon’s son, for example, managed to enrage the 10 tribes enough that they broke away and formed a rival kingdom, we are told:
“Judah did what was displeasing to the Lord, and angered Him more than their fathers had done by the sins that they committed. They too built for themselves shrines [bamot], pillars [matzevot] and sacred posts [asherim]…. [Judah] imitated all the abhorrent practices of the nations that the Lord had dispossessed before the Israelites.” (See I Kings 14:22-24.)
The prophet Micah warns that the day will come when God “will destroy your idols, and the sacred pillars [matzevot] in your midst; and no more shall you bow down to the work of your hands.” (See Micah 5:12.)
This revered “Western Wall” has been called “God’s post office.” Its nooks and crannies are stuffed with “messages to God.” People flock there from all over the world to ask God for a favor, or to thank Him for something. It is considered Judaism’s most sacred site, yet it is nothing more than a retaining wall at the base of the Temple Mount. Short of being on the Mount itself (religious authorities disagree over whether that is permissible), this retaining wall is the closest access point the western side of the Holy of Holies; assuming, of course, that we know the actual location of the Holy of Holies on the mount, which is problematic in itself.
The supposed proximity to the outside of the Temple’s most sacred chamber is why the Western Wall itself is considered sacred. God “resided” in the Holy of Holies and, or so tradition would have it, He still does.
Even King Solomon, who built the First Temple and declared it to be “a stately house, a place where You [God] may dwell forever,” knew how absurd that is. “But will God really dwell on earth?” he asked at the Temple’s dedication. “Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built!” (See I Kings 8.)
The Temple was nothing more than a focus point, Solomon said. People could turn toward it from wherever they were – even if they were in Wayne, or in Wyckoff, or in Washington Township. If they did so, Solomon prayed, perhaps God would listen to their prayers. “When You hear the supplications which Your servant and Your people Israel offer toward this place,” he said, “give heed in Your heavenly abode – give heed and pardon.” It is why we pray toward Jerusalem.
God is not to be found just on a pile of stones dressed up to look like a wall. God is to be found wherever we are. He is right beside me as I type these words (and, yes, I do believe that). He is right beside you as you read these words. If you want to ask God for something, ask; he is right in front of you, and behind you, and above you, and all around you.
When we do ask God for something, however, we should remember that God asked many things of us, as well. Among the things God asked of us is not to go to graves of religious figures and ask these revered dead for help; He asked us not to set up false idols of any kind; and He asked us not to turn a bunch of stones into a matzevah and pray before it.
As a site for prayer, the Western Wall is a matzevah.
Let us stop arguing about who may pray at the Wall and how, because no one should be doing so. The Wall is a symbol of our return to the land. Let it be a place for singing and dancing and even national assembly.
Just stop praying in front of it, “for such the Lord your God detests.”