Wall-to-wall Judaism


ON arrival in Melbourne, I was struck by the realisation that houses in this city have a life cycle. The estate agent’s blurb goes from “brand new” to “potential to develop”, and thence to “renovate or rebuild” with the obvious but unstated implication as to which is the recommended option. Eventually, a property suffers the sad fate of being advertised without the usual picture cannily highlighting its beauty, but with just a bare rectangle demonstrating the area of the plot where the new owner will inevitably start again. Architects plan their designs for a limited period only.
Herod, the master builder of Israel some two millennia ago, was different. His edifices were built to last. Although many of the Herodian structures are now in ruins, usually having been razed by the Romans in their attempts to eradicate Jewish presence in Judea, the fact that walls and floors remain at all is a testament to the vision and engineering brilliance of their creator.
This is most obvious when viewing the greatest Herodian construction of all – the Temple Mount. Participating in a tour of Israel with a group of families from our school last week, we were able to fully appreciate the vast complex of the Second Temple as we explored the archeological discoveries around the Western and Southern walls of the mount, saw computer-generated visualisations of the area as a thriving centre of the city, and traversed, through tunnels, nearly the entire length of the Western Wall itself.
Herod’s Temple is no more, but the Wall remains, and it continues to project the history contained within its stones. Built more than 2000 years ago, surviving the Roman onslaught, lent against by more walls and arches added in each successive century and epoch, yet bearing witness to the unbroken chain of generations of Jews who never ceased approaching it, the last link to the Temple, in prayer and yearning.
Each of the members of our group was overwhelmed, in different ways, by walking along the same flagstones that paved the street beneath the feet of Jerusalemites so many generations and exiles before; by touching the stones that had fallen from the top of the Wall on the day that a Roman legionnaire had cast them down; by seeing the spot from which the shofar was sounded in the Temple each Friday afternoon to mark the onset of Shabbat.
But suddenly, there was a moment when the Wall became not just a witness to the Jewish past, but a player in the story of the Jewish present. That moment was Friday night.
They came. From all over the city, from all over the world, they came. Young and old, men and women. Ultra-Orthodox and secular, all converging on one small plaza and one Wall. Not even the rain and the biting cold of the suddenly-arrived Jerusalem winter could dampen their spirits.
The “Kotel Experience” has become an essential component of the itinerary of any tour of Israel. To sing, dance and pray, or merely to be part of the throng, has become an introduction to Shabbat, to Jerusalem, to connecting with the Jewish people for hundreds of thousands of visitors.
At the same time, the “Kotel Experience” is also a natural part of life for the Jews who visit every week or even every day, except for them it is called nothing grander than “going to the Kotel”.
Herod built the Wall in order to literally keep the Temple Mount together. The plateau sitting astride Mount Moriah was an artificial construction, surrounded by retaining walls to maintain it in place.
Remarkably, these walls with their huge stones and no cement have served that purpose faithfully ever since. But today, it is the Western Wall that not only holds a man-made mountain together, but an entire ­people.
Every Friday night of the year, the Kotel forges disparate communities into one. It unites individuals with so little in common except Jewishness, into one group, one people.
And last week, as a small speck among the huge crowds, were the 11 families of our group, together with 60 year 10 students on their own Israel tour. At that moment, we were not Australians, or even foreigners, but Jews, welcoming Shabbat and praying together with other Jews just like us, all brought together by the Wall.
The Kotel, along with so much of the land of Israel and, indeed, many Jewish customs and traditions, link us to the past. Yet it is so much more than a historical relic. This link to the past itself impacts on the Jewish world both today and tomorrow. In the shadow of the same wall that once overlooked pilgrims visiting the Temple, a new experience is born, which plays a critical role in present-day Jewish life, and builds the Jewish future.
Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus College, Melbourne.