Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

That rock that fell from the Western Wall

People work to remove by crane a large chunk of stone dislodged from the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, at the mixed-gender prayer section on July 25, 2018. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90

It happened just a few days after I was last there — inserting a slip of paper with a list of sick people’s names into a centuries old crevice between the cracks.

You might have read about it. A huge rock fell from the Western Wall in Jerusalem, narrowly missing a woman who was praying in that sacred space.

Oh, by the way — it happened in the mixed-gender prayer area.

Oh, by the way — it happened right after Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the ancient temples.

Now, of course, there is a reason why this happened. It is very simple. When you have a structure that is a couple of thousand years old, stuff happens.

But, that’s not how Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Dov Kalmanovich interpreted it. No — for him, this was a sign from God.

“The falling of one of the Western Wall stones, so close to Tisha B’Av, and exactly at the location of the controversial prayer area, should be a red light for us all…I suggest that Reform leaders, Women of the Wall, and the other quarrel-mongers examine themselves, and not the Wall.”

OK, Dov. You’re on.

If modern Jews were to examine themselves, and ask: How should we interpret the falling of a stone from the Wall? – this is what they might say.

They might say: The Kotel is the retaining wall of the Second Temple. The Second Temple was, by all accounts, one of the great engineering feats of the ancient world. The Temple Mount itself is the largest man-made plateau in the world.

By all accounts, the Second Temple should have been named one of the wonders of the ancient world. But, other places beat it out. As they say about the Academy Awards, even to have been nominated would have been a great honor. But, it’s all based on who you know…

We would say that the Second Temple was built by King Herod, who came in second in the competition for Most Despised King in Antiquity. (Caligula came first).

So, we might start to wonder aloud: what exactly are we revering about the retaining wall of that ancient structure?

We might start to wonder aloud: yes, granted that this was the holiest place in the world; the very navel of the world, axis mundi;  the place where, according to one tradition, Adam was born, where Noah built his altar, where Isaac was almost sacrificed, where Jacob dreamed of a ladder between heaven and earth.

But, in all seriousness: what theological role does it play in our lives today? Yes, we feel a sense of sanctity there — but is it really the holiest place in the world for us as contemporary Jews?

Not only that: there is a huge plaza that stands in front of the Wall. Do we ever ask: How did that plaza get there? Do we ever ask ourselves about the old Mughrabi Quarter,which was the Arab village that used to be in that place — cleared out in the days after the Six Day War to accommodate the crowds of worshipers that would ascend to that sacred place during the festival of Shavuot?

Not that the Mughrabi Quarter, and its ultimate fate, needs to be top of mind whenever we walk down the steps and into the plaza. But, do we spare a nano-second of our thinking to remember it?

So, yes, we should welcome the Deputy Mayor Kalmanovich’s suggestion — that the falling stone prompt Reform Jews and Jewish feminists to think. Perhaps this is a subtle sign from God — that as we think about the holiness of space and place, we should think about the holiness of deeds, as well.

And we should remember the mixed bag of narratives that encompasses this sacred place — yes, a place where I pray — to God — and not to the wall itself. For that, my friends, would be a classic textbook definition of idolatry.

Are there other messages that we might derive from the falling stone of the Western Wall?

A few weeks ago, when I was praying at a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem, I noticed something in the beginning of the Torah service.

There is that line that I have always loved: “Av ha-rachamim — source of compassion…tivneh chomot Yerushalayim — build the walls of Jerusalem.” (Psalm 51:20)

And yet, in the congregation’s siddur, that last line had disappeared. No reference to building the walls of Jerusalem. When I asked why, this is what I learned. The widow of the founding rabbi had re-written the prayer. “Too many walls in this city already!” she had huffed.

I am not one of those who believes in a world without walls and without boundaries.

But, the widow was not wrong. The fastest growing wall in the Jewish world today is the wall that is being erected — weekly, it seems, and brick by brick — between the current government of Israel and the rest of the Jewish world.

Yes, the nation-state law — which has succeeded in alienating the Israeli minority that we should never have wanted to alienate — the Druze.

Their loyalty to the state of Israel — and their basic decency and patriotism — has never been under question. Except, now, by the Druze themselves.

President Reuven Rivlin finds the Nation State Law so offensive to Israel’s minorities that he has mischievously “threatened” to sign it into law — in Arabic.

And then, there was the matter of the Conservative rabbi, hauled in for questioning for performing a wedding outside the authority of the chief rabbinate. And then, the left wing Israeli author, Moriel Rothman-Zecher, detained by the Shin Bet at Ben Gurion Airport.

You put them all together, and you have a wall that now exists between American Jews and this Israeli government.

Because American Jews are liberals — and by liberals, I don’t mean leftists. I mean that American Jews grew up in an American environment that (on paper, and perhaps decreasingly so) cherished diversity, democracy, freedom of expression, religious freedom.

You know — all that stuff that for which our ancestors went to war.

If the Israeli government continues its war on ideas, on liberalism, on diversity itself, it might want to ask itself the existential question: Do you think that American Jews will walk, lockstep, in that parade?

At what point do you think our deepest world views will clash in such a way as to create a traumatic break?

So, yes: a wall is being built.

It is not too late for us to channel President Reagan and say: “Mr. Netanyahu, tear down this wall!”

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.