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!”

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.

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  • Because a God of Love, would hurl big stones as a sign of God’s displeasure about something.

  • Excellent and thank you for your continuing reporting on the danger to the unity of the Jewish people that Israel’s drift away from liberal democracy is causing. I would note one thing about Kalmanovich’s statement. First, he is using “Reform” as a generalized insult to mean anyone non- or insufficiently Orthodox. The mixed-gender area is hardly Reform only. Second, Women of the Wall has *never* wanted to pray in the mixed-gender area. They have *always* advocated for the right to pray in the women’s area, wearing tallit and tefillin [prayer shawls and phylacteries] and reading from the Torah, practices forbidden by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authorities that run the site.
    I revere the Wall for its history as the Jewish axis mundi, but today I don’t feel the *holiness.* It’s a subjective thing of course. But my holiest experiences in Jerusalem were far to the west, in modern synagogues on Friday nights or walking to a Passover Seder and watching the sun set over the western hills.

  • People seem to see in “signs” what they want to see, what they are programmed to see. Note the number of Evangelicals that see Trump’s win as a sign that he was sent by God. BUT sent by God to do what? To test the Evangelical Christians to see if they got his message? If so they failed the test. OR was Trump sent by the Devil and the Evangelical Christians have basically sold their souls to the Devil? There are many ways to interpret signs.

    Years ago in an outbreak of tornadoes in the midwest in a letter to the editor of my local paper someone commented that it was a sign of God’s wrath and people should change their ways and turn to God. I wrote a letter back pointing out that I am a known Atheist in the community and the tornadoes didn’t come anywhere near to my house. I asked what was that sign telling them? I also pointed out that in one town that was hardest hit the tornado hit the churches and missed the tavern!

    One should really be careful about claiming that natural events (or possible unnatural events, the rock was loosened and pushed) are signs from God!

  • The illogic required to ascribe the normal operation of erosion and gravity to some message from god is breathtaking.

  • Life is random. That’s hard to live with, and people turn to different explanations in an attempt to impose what they perceive as order.

  • Same thing with prayer supposedly curing, or delaying disease. The proponents rarely if ever acknowledge that plenty of people who pray die in the expected time frame, and those who don’t pray sometimes recover.

    There can be a placebo effect, and that’s fine. If it helps people cope, and they don’t impose it on others, why not?

  • Did G-d move that that stone? He certainly knew it would happen and we would talk about it. I do believe in signs, just as I believe the wall is a holy place, blessed by G-d but also a reminder of sorts. That when we disobey and he can punish and or take away his blessings. A loving G-d like a loving parent who disciplines his children. The current creation of the Jewish state fulfills prophesy and G-d’s promises. The world is against the state of Israel, do you think that is coincidence or just? No, because the world is also against G-d. Israel will have tough days ahead which is also prophesied, but G-d will not forsake his chosen. You know you are on the right track when the world is against you, sad as that is. I’d rather be with G-d than with the world. It is sacrilegious to have that prayer area. Not that he doesn’t love them also, or want them to pray. But rather because they are defiantly arrogant while ignoring G-d’s word and decrees. We rewrite morality, what was right is wrong, and wrong is right. Things will get worse then G-d will step in, not just with signs, but with judgement! It is coming, read the word of G-d, don’t ever claim he hasn’t warned us! May G-d have mercy on us all.

  • You are a great example of the contortions people will twist themselves into to make events fit into their belief system.

    Have you ever stopped to ask yourself the following questions. AND more importantly to take time to consider possible answers?

    Why would God, if there is one, and if he actually created all things, have given us this magnificent brain if he didn’t want us to use it to better ourselves, our society, and our planet?

    This means looking at rules created in the first century for a small tribal group in a back water area of the Roman empire and deciding if they are still appropriate for our times, our diverse societies, our increased knowledge about the world and how it works, people and how they work, societies and how they work and what is needed to make a society work (make it more just and prosperous) for the benefit of all people in this 21st century!

    Don’t you think God, if there is one would want his children, just like a parent would want his children, to grow up and mature and become better people, better than their superstitious, frightened and ignorant ancestors?

  • Absolutely he wants us to use our brain, to learn, and to better ourselves and our planet. We are supposed to be good stewards and to not be selfish and to be part of the cure not part of the problem! I agree with you and so does G-d so what is the problem?

  • You are an avowed atheist, so you look at everything through that interpretation. Even when something can’t be explained, you would just discredit it. If you were agnostic and had an open mind like Aristotle, you could look at creation and be at wonder, getting at least close to the truth. And yes, believers often do the same thing. But many teeter back and forth evaluating both points of view and come to decide which is the best explanation. If there isn’t a G-d then dying and going to nothingness won’t matter. But if there is, then it matters a great deal. Many miracles can not be explained by atheists. So they just say there isn’t the technology to disprove. In our day and age? G-d made us with free will. Even though the world wants to regulate it, control it. If G-d doesn’t exist than neither does good and evil. But Evil and the devil does exist. If he exists without G-d existing, what a sad reality that would be.

  • The problem is with what you consider disobeying. The problem is with calling others “arrogant” and “defiant” in ignoring what you consider to be “Gods word and decrees”.

  • G-d has made his position clear. So when you go to him to pray such as to the Western wall, it should be considering this. And again, it isn’t what I consider, but rather what is in G-ds word. It isn’t often what we want to hear, but if you study it, it is consistent and fair. If you are sincere in prayer, then you don’t disrespect him at the same time.

  • Atheists look at the world and can marvel at how great it is. Since i understand the Biology and the Ecology of the natural world that understanding makes it even more marvelous in my eyes and mind! No need for a God or Gods to explain how it all works or how it all developed!

    A miracle is something that can’t be explained. BUT not having an explanation doesn’t make something a miracle. For example a friend insisted his baby that had severe jaundice was cured by his and his wifes prayers to God. I explained that many babies have jaundice that naturally clears up. Doctors don’t know exactly what mechanism is at work but that doesn’t mean a miracle occurred. Doctors have many possible explanations for what is going on but they don’t have the proof they require to state this is what happened in this particular case.

    There are no known or proven miracles!

    Good and Evil, God and the Devil exist within all of us, they are words we give to the good and the not so good side of our nature. We can choose to develop and nurture the good side of our nature or people can let the devilish side of their nature take control. God and the Devil in other words are figments of human imagination not entities separate unto themselves.

    You can choose to believe whatever you want to believe and I can choose to reject your beliefs as nonsense.

  • And how do you know what God’s word is? Are you sure you aren’t listening to the Devil’s word? You said you believe in the Devil. Can you prove that you are listening to God’s words and not the Devil’s? I can prove that what you believe is God’s word is nothing more than human imagination.

  • There is much that can be debated and people that are believers or not can change or not change. That is free will. So lets talk about consciousness. Science has a problem with that. The end of life is always determined when brainwaves stop. A chemical-biological function that needs to take place appears to be sound. And yet it isn’t. Its been documented many times that what we believe is permanent death is not. And out of body experiences are astoundingly accurate for information they can give. No proof of G-d here, even if they say they saw him, but more to consciousness than biology. So if someone is clinically dead for nine minutes and then they awake, it is regarded as a miracle. But then you would just say you don’t believe it because you didn’t experience it. Or figure there has to be another explanation. science has routinely tried to discount miracles and there are some that they can not. Sainthood for instance is not given lightly. Medical proof of miracles are exasperatingly scrutinized. The Church is not fond of miracles, because it doesn’t want to be discredited. It often is the biggest impediment to accepting one. There are saints who is don’t decay, even written up in science magazines. Truly incredible is the incorruptible. Read up on the Shroud of Turin, they originally thought it was painted. Then when photography was invented they found out it was a negative. NASA technology shows a 3-D image. Carbon dating shows its old but not 2,000 years. But then there are newer fabrics sown on and much handling that could influence that. Certainly not some fabricated fake, whatever you think it is. There is much, much, more but these are food for thought and investigation.

  • G-ds word is the Tora of the Jews and if you are Christian, the bible. The Devils bible is in the public library of all places, it parody’s, distorts and disrespects the bible. So I know the difference between the two. Anyway, you can’t prove that G-ds word is human imagination any more than if it is true or false. An impossible claim. The same rules apply to you as to me, so your proof is only an opinion.

  • Modern Biblical scholarship has come along way with the translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hamadi documents as well as many other sources and fragments. They can show how passages were changed over time, sometimes by what was possibly a simple transcription error, by what was possibly an attempt to change the meaning of a passage by changing word gender or substituting one word for another. We know that there have been many translations made over the centuries, and that later translations have attempted to correct the errors whether intentional to project a certain message or from error not understanding the nuances of the language.

    So the Bibles we have to day we know are the work of men. It is proven.

  • I have read the scientific reports of the shroud of Turin. You obviously haven’t. Nothing miraculous about the image, a natural chemical reaction. Have you ever looked at the yellowing of collars on your shirts or T-shirts. The same process at work, though less dramatic.

    Clinically dead and dead dead don’t always agree. So again no miracles when someone awakens from a coma.

    Those saints who don’t decay. Have you actually seen one or just read about them! Again no miracle. Just hype.

  • No, it is not proven.

    The earlier the copies that are found, the more evidence that the later copies are substantially unchanged.

    The issue of whether the originals were inspired or not is another question altogether.

  • No one knows anything with 100% certainty Bob. So that is a really dumb statement to throw in. You are indeed having problems this week. You should seek help.

  • The author of:

    “I have read the scientific reports of the shroud of Turin. You obviously haven’t. Nothing miraculous about the image, a natural chemical reaction.”

    then writes:

    “No one knows anything with 100% certainty Bob.”

    You should read your own posts once in awhile.

  • What kind of God is it that protected 300+ priests and bishops raping 1000+ children in Pennsylvania for 70 years? Your comments are exactly the kind of arrogance that confirms my atheism. How dare you claim right and wrong is only defined by you or any church?

  • He doesn’t protect sinners, he tries to convert them before he punishes them. They will reap what they sow.

    Mathew 18:6
    But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in
    me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his
    neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.

    Romans 6:23

    For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    Galatians 6:7-9
    Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man sow, that shall he also reap. For he that sow to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that sow to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.