The Western Wall
The Western Wall, with its rich past and countless controversies, has seen its fair share of history. This ancient wall in Jerusalem is considered by many a holy place and a site of pilgrimage, sanctity, and unity— from the Jewish boy at his Bar Mitzvah to the Christian who wants to get in touch with the roots of her religion, countless people have flocked to this sacred location.
The Western Wall we know today is associated with the second temple built, and is not actually part of the temple at all; it is a portion of the surrounding wall. The first temple was built in Jerusalem on land acquired by King David, who wanted to build a temple for God but was rejected due to his sins and ambition. It was not built until the 10th century BCE by King Solomon and its exact location remains unknown, as no direct remains have been found. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in the year 586 BCE by Babylonian forces, with much of the city burnt and the walls torn down. Cyrus II the Great, king of Persia, allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple in 538 BCE. Nehemiah 4:1-3 discusses this return and the backlash associated, specifically the rage of the surrounding peoples when they saw what the Israelites were doing, saying:
Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”
The construction was, after some setbacks like those described in Nehemiah, completed in 515 BCE. Ritual as directed in the Torah could restart and the Jewish cultural identity, much like the temple, was restored. Simon ben Yohanan, or Simon the Just, refurbished the new temple in 200 BCE. It was even more substantially updated by the half-Jewish king, Herod the Great in the year 19 or 20 BCE. It was destroyed in 70 AD by a Roman attack that left no part of the temple unravaged, but left a portion of the wall which would become what we know as the Western Wall.
The Western Wall was not declared a holy place for quite some time. In fact, the area was used as a dumping ground by local Arabs when the city was under Muslim rule. However, in 1536 AD, Sultan Suleyman restored part of the wall and encouraged Jews to return to worship there. When an earthquake hit the region ten years later, the sultan declared that the rubble of Jewish homes lost in the earthquake be cleared away and that it become a site of worship. This decree lasted for over 400 years and was honored by his successors. Regular prayer there did not begin until the 19th or 20th century. By 1941 it had become such a center of worship that regulations were set in place, some of which involved gender segregation. From 1948 to 1967, no Israeli Jews visited the wall due to Jordanian rule in the area. In 1697, the Six-Day war occured and on the third day Israeli paratroopers took control of the wall. Soon after, surrounding houses were bulldozed to make room for the plaza that now exists for worship.
Controversy has always surrounded the temple, dating back to its destruction by the Babylonians and the attempts by surrounding nations to sabotage its rebuilding. Modern people have also expressed frustration at rules surrounding gender in the area. On one side, people feel frustration at the separation of men and women, as many see God as accessible to all, regardless of gender. Rabbi Philip Rice of Congregation Micah called the Western Wall “a very holy place, but misogynistic.” The ultra-Orthodox side is opposed to the idea of women and men being mixed at the wall, and even the prospect of women leading prayer meetings at the wall. On January 31, 2016, it was decided that the area would be an egalitarian space and the first mixed-gender service was held on February 25 of the same year. However, this decision was reconsidered and repealed in 2017, and many attributed this to President Netanyahu’s fear of the Orthodox Jewish reaction.
The Sabbath (Friday afternoon through Saturday) is the most popular time to visit the wall, as it is a holy time for Jewish people and an ideal time to worship and pray. Going to the wall is a special time, and Rabbi Saul Strosberg of an orthodox synagogue in Nashville, Congregation Sherith, says, “There’s a longing for the wall, to return to the wall, so even when I went there for the first time it felt like I was coming back to the wall… knowing that prayer is always going on there 24/7, every day of the year, every moment in time, is huge.” Since the diaspora, there has been no set place for the Jewish people to reside, and the wall remedies that in a way, but also brings about a sort of unity for others; Rabbi Strosberg also said, “There’s a beauty of seeing everyone from the world just come in and come to that space and just behold… you don’t have to be Jewish to see that it’s a holy place… you can just feel the presence of God in this one contained place.”
From devastation to reform, from dumping ground to holy space, from attack and division to peace and unity, the Western Wall remains a fixture in the world. Though it has been plagued by controversy for years, it remains one of the most widely recognized holy places in the world and serves to unite people across the world in the presence and knowledge of holiness. Perhaps the world should pursue the resilience of this place. Though we have our tensions and destruction, we must all continue to pick up the pieces and come together again, as demonstrated by the Western Wall.