I could never have imagined that I would find something missing in the Western Wall, that epic monument to Jewish suffering and collective memory that I have been visiting for decades.
It would never have occurred to me that something was limiting my experience as I faced those giant and ancient stones, still standing strong and erect, a symbol of Jewish resilience if there ever was one. They may have destroyed our Temple, those stones said to me, but look, we’re still standing, as proud and solid as ever.
The Western Wall has always been a place to feel more than to think. You feel the miracle of Jewish survival in a way that links you directly to our ancestors and how they worshiped God. It’s all there, in one extraordinary package— peoplehood, God and Torah, in the heart of the spiritual center of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.
So, what on earth could be missing?
I found out this week when Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Action Center in Jerusalem, took me on a tour of the secluded area adjacent to the Western Wall, known as Robinson’s Arch, that is being planned as a pluralistic prayer area. The space, which is larger than I expected, will be designed by architect Michael Arad, who designed the World Trade Center Memorial.
It’s well known that the Western Wall has long been administered by strict Orthodox rules, which has made it extremely difficult for the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism to hold egalitarian prayer services at the Wall. Decades of struggle finally led to an agreement last year to expand and build out the area at Robinson's Arch, which is already being used as a makeshift space for pluralistic services.
Let’s put aside for now the distressing signals that the government, under pressure from Charedi members of the coalition, is having second thoughts about the agreement. Let’s assume that the agreement will go through. One reason I think it will is that the two areas are completely separated– the new area is far out of sight, separated, as it were, by a thick wall hugging an embankment.
This is the mother of all mechitzahs, invisible, distant and fully sound proof.
It is in this new, pluralistic area that I had a revelation of what was missing in the Western Wall I have cherished for so long: broken stones.
You see, this new area doesn’t just have the remains of a wall to remind us of the Second Temple. It also has these huge stones that fell to the ground, stuck forever in time.
When you pray in this area, you see a wall, yes, but you also see the fallen stones.
If the wall reminds us of our strength, the stones remind us of our weakness. If the wall makes us proud, the stones humble us. If the wall is a huge exclamation point, the stones are many questions.
It is a beautiful experience of wholeness. A visible and ancient reminder of Jewish duality. I must be proud, yes, but I must also be humble. I know, yes, but I also don’t know. I seek answers, but I also seek questions.
This is what I will miss when I will pray at the Western Wall. I will miss the brokenness. The struggle. The humility of stones that fell and never got picked up.
How deliciously ironic that a pluralistic prayer area, after decades of struggle, would end up in a place that features a physical monument to brokenness.
Maybe there is poetic justice in the struggle to complete the agreement, even after it has been agreed to. Maybe this, too, is a reminder of the Jewish story, a story of an eternal struggle that is never meant to end.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at [email protected].