The veneration of the Western Wall always struck me as a weird form of idolatry.
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If not explicitly intercessory, there is a strong implication that the area of the Wall is an amplifier of prayer, louder and closer somehow to that unknit heavenly Jerusalem hovering overhead like a blimp, its mooring lines hanging just out of reach of our grasping hands.
A remnant retaining wall from a project of political self-aggrandizement likely started, though not necessarily finished, by the louche, murderous, and barely Jewish Herod, its holiness is a matter of proximity as much as anything else; it was part of the compound within which stood the Second Temple within which the Holy of Holies may possibly just once have been sited. Maybe.
From the perspective of an American sick to death with the unshakable centrality of the State of Israel in contemporary Jewish life, it is a kind of metaphor for all that is wrong with Israel itself: a reconstructed and backward-casting holiness barely papering over a lot of grotty and stupid territorial disputes.
In the context of the violent disagreement over access to and control over overall access to the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa between Israeli and Palestinian factions, the latest internecine Jewish fight over access to and prayer at the Western Wall seems particularly petty and small.
Having proposed and passed a plan to open a portion of the plaza to gender-integrated prayer groups, a particular sticking point for liberal Israelis and visiting American Jews alike, the Netanyahu government caved to its ultra-Orthodox partners and reneged on the promise. American Jews reacted loudly. Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union of Reform Judaism, declared a crisis. Gala invitations were rescinded. Netanyahu agreed to meet with American Jews, but left out any representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, by far the largest portion of the American Jewish population. "The activism of American Jewry doesn’t always help," he proffered, a snide dismissal sure to further enrage Americans. The future of Judaism, he said, will be made in Israel.
Netanyahu is insufferable, but he holds all the cards as long as his "brothers and sisters in the Diaspora" continue to ascribe an actual and contemporary rather than mythic and historical spiritual power to a little state that exists largely on the sufferance of the American government in the first place.
I, for one, cannot be enraged by Netanyahu or the depredations of Israel’s cruelly buffoonish right-wing government, which often makes the Trump Administration here in the United States seem like a model of devilish cunning and competence. For Israel, for the fate of who may or may not pray at the Wall, I feel mostly indifference.
I occasionally feel a slightly keener anger at Israel for its ever-rightward political drift, its spiritual evolution from the kibbutz to the complaint about the woman in the same row on the airplane, for its metastasized colonial settlements in Palestinian territory, but I am an American, and if I’m going to get really mad, it’s going to be at my own government, which provides so much cash and so many guns, and at an American Jewish leadership that will not divorce itself and its political influence from the vapid project of pretending we can liberalize a religious state, turn the whole thing into a Mediterranean Upper West Side, dull its sharp edges and remake it as a shared, beautiful dream.
This attitude, a strange mixture of veneration and parental disappointment, is a hallmark of American Jewish life in the generations preceding my own, but it feels like the relic of another era, a fanciful pining for a spiritual home that never did, and never will, exist.
One of the most interesting bits of information in surveys of a slow but broad softening of American Jewish support for Israel, is that beyond the shameful treatment of the Palestinian people, American Jews are simply exhausted by the total domination of that country by its most fanatical believers.
American Judaism, as a minority religion in a pluralistic society, grew to be widely, if not universally, open, tolerant, flexible, and accepting of change even as it preserved certain core commitments. It believed in social justice—and not just the bickering about fine shades of identity that trouble much of the political left today. It believed in equality, free speech, and civil rights and liberties, which are, if troubled in America, even less in evidence as values in either the religious or governmental authorities of Israel, a distant and very foreign state.
I’m in my mid-thirties, born in the unnamed interregnum between Generation X and the Millennials, and I feel no need ever to pray at the Western Wall in order to be a Jew. When I say, "Next year in Jerusalem," I mean it, but I do not mean it literally. I am sick of a Prayer for the State of Israel smuggling its way into services. I want a faith un-linked to the endless effort to legitimate the political project of Zionism. There is already a Holy of Holies in every temple and synagogue in Pittsburgh, and at least at the ones I visit from time to time, the women can already sing and pray out loud.
Jacob Bacharach is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of the novel The Bend of the World. Twitter: @jakebackpack