5. Non-Orthodox Prayer Groups at the Kotel

Hello again.  I sincerely apologize for the fact that I have not posted in so long but I am glad to be able to share this with you. Thanks to Rav Mordechai Friedman and Rav Doniel Schreiber at the Yeshiva for their assistance in preparing this post.

I should take this opportunity to wish Moreinu Harav Lichtenstein a well deserved mazal tov on being honored at the Etzion Foundation’s dinner, in advance of his upcoming 80th birthday iyH, this coming Sunday in New York.

I wanted to preface the post by noting that Rav Lichtenstein focused largely on the halakhic issue of tumah and taharah vis-a-vis Har haBayit (or purity and impurity on the Temple Mount), applying the concept to the Kotel in a novel way, despite the fact that those halakhic strictures do not generally apply there.  I hope this is clear in the post itself but I wanted to try and prevent any misunderstanding in that regard.

Finally, if you choose to quote or excerpt from this post, please utilize the “reason, care and sensitivity” Rav Lichtenstein refers to at the end of the piece in doing so.  Thank you.

Kol tuv,

-Dov Karoll

Question: There has been support recently from some rabbis in the dati-leumi world for the permitting of non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel. Does Rav Lichtenstein think that this type of attitude would increase harmony and be beneficial for the Jewish People, or would the de-facto legitimisation of these groups be too high a price to pay?

Rav Lichtenstein:

Does anyone imagine that if a person wants to daven [pray] at the Kotel, as a yachid [individual], לפני ה’ ישפוך שיחו (“He shall pour forth his plea before God,” Tehillim/ Psalms 102:1), that people will prevent that?  On this issue, the question is to what extent we will bar prayer groups, not individuals.  One needs to distinguish, as prayer groups that want to daven at the Kotel could do so in one of two ways.  One is that they come to the Kotel deferentially, reverentially, respecting what the Kotel means to a great many people and what it means in terms of milei diShmaya [matters of religious import].  If that is what happens, then the difference between an individual and a group is fundamentally a numerical one; I think that with regard to anyone who does not flout the halakhot concerning it, one could not prevent them, nor would one want to prevent them.  Whatever differences we have, and to whatever extent we are involved in power struggles, I don’t believe that the proper place for that is smack in front of the Kotel, and to the extent that a person, or a group, feels that there is a degree of the presence of Shekhinah [Divine Presence] at the Kotel which you would not have if you would daven at a shul in Katamon, then I certainly think that from his point of view, without getting involved in political horse-trading, it would be in his interest, and in the interest of other groups, to be respectful, to daven there, but not to use that as the opportunity for demonstrating or flexing one’s muscles.

In order to better understand what is expected of us at the Kotel, at the foot of Har haBayit [the Temple Mount], let us turn to the basic sources of proper practice in the vicinity of Har haBayit. There are certain issues which would possibly pose a test case, of sorts, but those that are the most prominent in this respect are those which are probably beyond recall or beyond the ability to have control.  Basically what is involved is not just the davening but presence there altogether: one area is that which is addressed in the mishnah in Berakhot (54a/ 9:5) about how a person should be dressed in the mekom haMikdash [the Temple area], i.e., respectfully.  But the more prominent, basically fundamental area in terms of the halakhot having to do with bi’at Mikdash [entering the area of the Temple], and bi’at Mikdash is fundamentally involved with areas of tumah [ritual impurity] and taharah [ritual purity].  The halakhot concerning how a person should relate to Mikdash are strewn throughout the Rambam in various places; of these, the most prominent is Bi’at haMikdash (which is not concerned only with presence in Mikdash, but with the appointment of kohanim, but the most important is the area of tumah and taharah).  The area of tumah and taharah is one which, were it possible, were it feasible, it would certainly be an important avenue for those of us who are shomrei [observant of] Torah u’mitzvot to try to protect. I say this at two levels: first, it could be, in terms of the status and the response of our contemporary community which would want to maintain the integrity, the purity, על פי הלכה [halakhically], for a מקום קדוש [sacred place].

But that’s only part of it.  The other part has to do with the nature of the mitzvah of Mikdash and shemirat Mikdash [guarding the Temple area].  Shemirat mikdash has two facets: one is that which is mentioned in the baraita (Sifrei Zuta 18:4) and which the Rambam quotes toward the end of Hilkhot Beit haBechirah (8:1) – that it’s not out of fear that thieves will come, but rather, out of the sense of reverence that one feels by the very presence of guards, as the baraita explains: אינו דומה פלטין של מלך שיש לו שומרין לפלטין של מלך שאין לו שומרין, there’s no comparison, between a palace which is guarded, even if the guards are only there symbolically, and one which is not guarded.  The very presence of guards, even if they are only symbolic guards as if it were Buckingham Palace, is a demonstration of the esteem, of the awe, etc.  There are halakhot, also in the Rambam, in Hilkhot Beit haBechirah, concerning one’s mood when he is there – it’s not only a question of a physical appearance, how a person is dressed, but how he feels, what he experiences, and it’s here that the mishnah in Berakhot and the sugyot which deal with bi’at Mikdash converge.

I mentioned that there are two facets: one is trying to create a sense of awe surrounding Mikdash, the other has to do with protecting Mikdash from a public standpoint.  Again, I’m not talking about protecting it from thieves, but protecting in terms of the basic halakhot concerning tumah and taharah.  This comes into play, particularly in the parashah in Naso, in several pesukim [verses], located just before the parashiyot of nazir and sotah (Bemidbar/ Numbers 5:1-4).  Secondly, we’re dealing here with what has a personal aspect but for which there is public responsibility.  A person who is not in a status of taharah should not enter the area, the space, of Mikdash.  There’s a relationship in Halakhah between the degree of tumah and the degree of kedushah [sanctity] – the greater the element of kedushah, the greater are the limitations concerning one’s presence if he’s not willing or able to conform to the halakhot of tumah and taharah.  The gemara delineates three different areas of kedushah: Yerushalayim itself is kadosh, Har haBayit is kadosh, and the azarah [Temple courtyard] is kadosh, those are the three basic machanot, encampments, as it were.  In contrast to these, there are three different levels of tumah: the tumah of a metzora, a leper, who is proscribed from entering Yerushalayim; there are those whose טומאה יוצאת עליהן מגופן, whose tumah originates in their own physical locus, in their own body, and not in contact with the outside world – they are proscribed from entering Har haBayit; and then there is the azarah – the heart of the Mikdash itself, where anyone who is tamei, at the minimal personal tumah, even through physical contact with something else, is also prohibited from entering.

The parshah which deals with this is formulated in the plural, with regard to בני ישראל [the children of Israel] (5:2) – ולא יטמאו את מחניהם – “they should not defile their encampments” (5:3), and defilement refers to failure to purify oneself through the various means available for that – if one fails to do that, that’s a personal aveirah, it’s like eating non-kosher food.  But, quite apart from that, the pasuk speaks in the plural and addresses itself to the community as a whole – the general community has a responsibility to maintain the purity and the integrity of Mikdash, and that purity and integrity is one which is partly related to one’s physical condition, that kind of tumah, and partly to one’s moral purity – the first perek [chapter] of Yeshayahu [Isaiah] which we read as the haftarah for Shabbat Chazon (1:12) – מי בקש זאת מידכם רמוס חצרי – if you lack moral integrity, ethical and religious purity, who wants you there?

That being the case, notwithstanding the halakhic difference between Har haBayit and the Kotel, if we had the authority and the ability to convince our brethren and our sisters to conform their presence at the Kotel, even if they would have their own minyanim and their mode of tefillah [prayer], that this be done with cognizance and sensitivity to the unique character of Mikdash, that would be very positive, both in terms of maintaining the unity of Klal Yisrael [the Jewish people] and in terms of maintaining the kedushah of Mikdash.

With regard to ascending Har haBayit itself, there are communal responsibilities of maintaining the proper kedushah.  This has ramifications in certain areas of Halakhah (for those who are interested, the gemara in Makkot 14-15 is the proper locus for this), but without getting involved in the details and the specifics – in principle – that this is not only an area where a person is addressed as an individual, and demands are made upon him, to be sensitive to Mikdash and its sanctity, but that this is something which we want – as a community we want the streets to be clean, so we want the Mikdash to be clean.

However, it would be palpably impossible to enforce, not only because of questions of religious liberty, but even leaving that aside, in dealing with this as a personal and communal sensibility – to post a guard at the approach to Mikdash, to Har haBayit – to have people undergo some kind of a test before you can determine whether their presence is permissible or not – so that, which would be the most meaningful in halakhic terms, is not feasible.  There’s no preventive way that one could have, either for men or for women, before a person is allowed to pass through a certain gate, to see whether the woman is presently menstruating [niddah] or not, whether the man has defiled himself as a temei met, has come in contact with sources of mortal tumah – so once you’ve given that up, the issue becomes no longer a narrow halakhic issue, but, what was mentioned before, one of legitimization.

As for the Kotel, I don’t believe that, under circumstances where the halakhically prominent and serious repercussions are clearly and palpably beyond reach, that there’s so much to be gained by barring people from having access to the Kotel.  I’m not one of the frequent goers to the Kotel.  I know some very significant talmidei chakhamim [Torah scholars] who similarly have expressed certain restraint about visiting frequently: Rav Gustman once told me that he went to the Kotel only in the evenings when there weren’t so many people around (in his day there weren’t, now there are many more) when he would want to daven in Yiddish.  (That says something about Hilkhot Tefillah and something about Rav Gustman.)  Rav Berel Soloveichik used to go, he told me, every Shabbat, after he finished davening.  I’m not in the habit of doing that either.  When I’m there, I sometimes see someone with a makeshift yarmulke, standing at the Kotel itself, at the outer wall, crying his heart out, experiencing that which many people more devoted, more halakhically disciplined, perhaps don’t feel.  I don’t think that by challenging the sincerity of Conservative or Reform individuals, or as groups, we gain very much religiously or even, for that matter, politically.  However, if you are dealing with groups who want to come and to use that as the place to make demonstrations, be they even demonstrations which have a religious character, I would much rather sit down with them and ask them: let’s start with respect as a common value, with sanctity of place as a halakhic category, and even those of you who you don’t respect Halakhah, you can respect what Halakhah stands for.

If you ask me how I relate to this: I would hope that we could have some degree of comity – trying to maintain what Coventry Patmore called “the traditions of civility” – even in more general terms, as human values which have religious content and religious substrata.  Now, of course, I understand that some people resent this, but nonetheless I would want to maintain halakhic standards; I don’t think that having mixed congregations, men and women together, that that’s the place to fight it out.

If you ask me how I think, personally and communally, my approach would be to apply, to the extent possible, the categories of halakhic approach and norm.  I don’t think we should try to have every possible restriction in place in order to manifest and to demonstrate our authority and our power.  There are certain things which can only be done at the Kotel, and precisely for that reason, care and sensitivity should be the order of the day.

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