Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why It's Really Called the Wailing Wall

Conventional wisdom tells us that the Kotel (Western Wall) is also known as the "Wailing Wall" because that is the site where Jews cry out to God for help. I disagree. It's more likely because that is where God cries out for Jews to help each other. In a story recently covered in the Jerusalem Post, yet another manifestation of intra-Jewish conflict reared its ugly head. In one of many similar incidents, a group of young students - just before the age of mandatory Israeli military service - were singing and dancing as they approached the Kotel plaza, some visiting for the first time. Since the group included both boys and girls, a religious woman was outraged at what they were doing. And she let them have it.

While I understand where the religious woman was coming from, that kind of behavior speaks for itself. Even though she was trying to uphold what religious Jews consider to be the proper approach to ritual conduct at the Kotel (men and women separate, with an emphasis on prayer), her ethical conduct was appalling. She could have simply made her point by quietly taking the leader aside and explaining why what they were doing was not allowed, without creating a chilul Hashem or embarrassing them in front of other people. They were simply engaging in what more modern Jews consider to be a moving experience for impressionable young students at the country's most important national site. But while I also understand where the leader of the group of soon-to-be soldiers was coming from, I can only hope that despite what the woman did to them, there can be respect for the code of conduct during future trips, so that they can plan accordingly.

When it comes to which denominational authority should be in charge of the halachot/laws governing appropriate conduct at the holiest site on earth, there may not be a solution that will please everyone. Nevertheless, there is an important point to be made here. What would possibly compel a religious Jew to yell and rudely order other people around, particularly fellow Jews who are on a different level of observance? In my opinion, there is only one answer: she felt it was more important to focus on bein adam lamakom, the relationship between man and God, than to bother with bein adam lachaveiro, the relationship between man and other people. Unfortunately, she didn't remember something before speaking: why do we only have the remnant of a retaining wall, anyway? Because we were lax in how we treated one another. The irony of where this incident occurred can't be overstated. If there were ever a place to be especially careful of how we treat one another, it would be at the Kotel.

There is a dire need to develop more good religious Jews - to uphold the spiritual, as well as brave young men and women who serve their country - to uphold the physical. But there is an even greater need for more goodwill to be displayed between these types of people. It can be done. We just have to give it some effort. God-willing, the day will come when the "Wailing Wall" will simply be the outer part of the Beit HaMikdash. Until that time, however, we must do our part to cease engaging in the kind of behavior that led to its destruction in the first place.

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