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Judaism and the Western Wall

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Local Jewish federations issue a misguided call to protest Muslim efforts to change the status of the Western Wall

By MOSHE GIT

I received an email from the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul protesting the attempts by the United Nations to get the Western Wall designated as a sacred Muslim site to the exclusion of the Jews.

The Federations’ message states that the “Western Wall is the last remaining vestige of the Second Jewish Temple,” and that it is the “holiest structure within Judaism.”

In fact, the Western Wall was never a part of the temple itself. It was a section of a retaining wall that was erected to support the plateau on which the temple was built. As such it had no religious significance at that time. Upper levels of the wall were even built later, by the Turks.

In short, the Western Wall isn’t the most sacred site for the Jews.

The Jewish theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz even considered the popular praying at the Western Wall as avoda zara (idolatry), which is averse to Judaism. For that reason, Leibowitz advocated the dismantling of the Wall.

The Wall is important to the Jews as a symbol of their national aspirations over two millennia, not as an object of religious worship.

The Kotel, also known as the Western Wall Plaza, is a magnet for Jews and tourists visiting Jerusalem’s Old City. The ostensibly sacred site lies below the real sacred area for Jews, the site of the ancient Holy Temple, according to Moshe Git. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

The Kotel is a magnet for Jews and tourists visiting Jerusalem’s Old City. The ostensibly sacred site lies below the real sacred area for Jews, the site of the ancient Holy Temple, according to Moshe Git. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

The holiest site in Judaism is the location where the temple was. While there are divergent opinions as to the exact location of the ancient temple, it very likely was incorporated into the Dome of the Rock. All scholars agree that the temple was within the confines of the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary). One of those scholars was my Hebrew University physics professor, Asher Kaufman.

Because of the Temple Mount’s supreme sacredness, many rabbis forbade the ascent of Jews to the area without first undergoing a purification ritual. In fact, at the time of the Temple, gentiles were forbidden to enter that area. This is attested to by Josephus, the Romano-Jewish historian from the first century. Archeologists have found ancient stone markers admonishing gentiles not to enter the Temple compound.

Sir Moses Montefiore, the renowned 19th century British Jew who paid for adding some rows of stones atop the Wall to strengthen it, was carried on a stretcher by Arabs when he visited the site, so that he wouldn’t defile the ground by stepping on it unpurified. And Menachem Elon, when he served as an Israeli Supreme Court justice, immersed himself in a mikva before entering the site to clarify legal matters.

The Wall is sacred to Muslims, who believe that their prophet, Muhammad, tethered Buraq, his horse, there and then ascended to heaven astride the steed. For generations the Muslims regarded the confines of the Temple Mount, which included the Western Wall and the present plaza west of the Wall, as property of the Waqf, a religious endowment in Islam.

The 1929 riots, in which Jews in Hebron were massacred, were triggered by Jews daring to pray at the Wall. Interestingly, after the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel formally expropriated the Wall plaza area from the Waqf (kind of exercising an act of eminent domain), but failed to do the same to the Wall itself. Thus, by Israel’s own legal standards the Wall is still Waqf property.

In recent years, Muslims have been up in arms if they suspect that a Jewish visitor utters words of prayer on the Temple Mount. However, it is ludicrous that Arabs complain that Israel interferes with their right to pray on the site and with their “religious freedom,” while the Arabs don’t let even a semblance of Jewish prayer to take place there.

To calm the situation, and to assuage the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared that only Muslims would be allowed to pray in the Mount area — which had been the accepted practice. One may talk but not say even a single sentence of payer, not even silently.

This stand is wrong and raises many questions: How will the Israeli or the Waqf guards know who is a Muslim and who is not? What right does the Israeli government have to interfere in a religious matter by discriminating against Jews? Isn’t the Jewish visitor’s right to utter words of prayer protected by the freedom of expression principle?

If our Jewish federations want to do something valuable, they should protest against the Arab attempt to usurp the Temple Mount for themselves, and petition the U.S. government and the UN to let Jews conduct prayers in that area.

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Moshe Git lives in Minnetonka.

(American Jewish World, 11.6.15)

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