The Western Wall, which according to some, was left standing by Titus to be a constant painful reminder of his triumph over the Jews and Jerusalem in 70 CE, has once again made headlines. Jews have prayed at the Western Wall for 2,000 years. It has been one of our greatest dreams and goals for two millennia. The generation of today has to realize how hard it was to pray at the Kotel. The recapturing of the Kotel in the 1967 War was one of the greatest miracles I have ever witnessed in my life. It should never be taken for granted.
The Western Wall is actually 1,600 feet (488 meters) long, and only 160 feet (50 meters) is exposed, comprising the Western Wall Plaza. Most of the Western Wall is underground. The Kotel Katan (the “Little Wall”) which is located in the so-called Muslim Quarter, was also an area dedicated to prayer over the centuries. Arabs desecrated both the Kotel HaMaaravi as well as the Kotel Katan, all the while claiming them as theirs and holy to them. I remember well the concrete urinal that the Arabs built up against the Kotel Katan. It has subsequently been removed.
Since 1967, prayer at the Western Wall has been administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which set up a partition as per halachah (Jewish Law) to separate men from women, as is the case in all Orthodox synagogues. The Ministry of Religious Affairs was established by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1949. The Ministry has always followed the principles and practices established by the Orthodox, which strictly adhered to the separation of men and women during prayer.
Unlike in the United States, where the Conservative and Reform movements comprise 80% of Jewry, in Israel it is just the opposite. Orthodox and Traditional Jews make up more than 50%; 42% consider themselves “secular,” and the remaining 8% are made up of Conservative and Reform Jews.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Chief Rabbinate have always been in control of kashrut, conversions, divorce, marriage, synagogues, and burials since the founding of the State of Israel, and it should remain that way.
As in America, the “woke” and “cancel culture” groups have set their sights on prayer at the Western Wall. They are trying desperately to overturn and undo the status quo. Their efforts have already resulted in riots and violence.
There is no reason to change the status quo. It has worked reasonably well for 54 years. The Naftali Bennett Government recently “shelved” the creation of a pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall. If the plan was implemented, riots would certainly ensue, and the government would be greeted by a no-confidence vote.
Now I would like to look more deeply into the history of the Western Wall. In 361 CE, Jews were allowed to settle in Jerusalem, and by 614 were large enough in number as to be able to actually stage a revolt against the Byzantines. Unfortunately, the Jews were massacred and fled. In 638, Jews returned after the Arabs conquered Jerusalem. The Western Wall once again became a sought-after place of worship by religious Jews.
In 1099, the Crusaders besieged Jerusalem and slaughtered most of its Jewish inhabitants.
In 1141, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi visited the Western Wall; and in 1165, the Rambam (Maimonides) visited the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. In 1173, Benjamin of Tudela visited and wrote, “In front of this place is the Western Wall which is one of the walls of the Holy of Holies.”
On October 2, 1187, Saladin conquered Jerusalem. Jews once again began to settle.
In 1267, the Ramban (Nachmanides) visited Jerusalem. He did not find many Jewish families there at that time.
On January 14, 1546, a destructive earthquake occurred in Jerusalem. According to Prof. Dan Bahat, the earthquake actually determined the location where generations of Jews would be, and have been, praying ever since – until the Plaza was expanded in 1967. The severe earthquake tore down a row of structures built and propped up by the Western Wall. The clearing of ruins expanded the small area previously used for prayers.
Although the Arabs today claim the Western Wall as theirs and part of Al-Aqsa, it is clear from history that they never held it in high regard. As a matter of fact, trash and garbage were thrown by the Arab inhabitants at the foot of the Western Wall for two millennia. The Arabs desecrated the Western Wall because they fully understood its significance to the Jewish People.
In 1996, Yasser Arafat caused a riot in which 25 Israeli soldiers were killed after a new passageway out of the Western Wall Tunnel was opened. He claimed that the Western Wall and its Tunnel were part of Al-Aqsa. This was a blatant falsehood.
In 1929, the issue of prayer at the Western Wall came to a head with the Arab riots of that year, which saw the murder of 67 Jews in Hebron and 45 Jews in Jerusalem. In 1929, Joseph Klausner established the “Pro-Wailing Wall Committee” to formalize the right to Jewish worship at the Western Wall. The desire to create a “mechitzah” or partition was part of the Committee’s efforts even back then.
The status quo must be maintained at the Western Wall. The Chief Rabbinate must be fortified. It is a miracle that after 2,000 years we can pray at the Western Wall unimpeded. Halachah must always be the basis for prayer at the Western Wall.
Dr. Joe Frager is Chairman of the Israel Advocacy Commission for the Rabbinical Alliance of America; Chairman of the Executive Committee of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim; Dean at Kollel Ayshel Avraham; Executive Vice President of the Israel Heritage Foundation; and a physician in practice for 41 years.