A Sofer at the Kotel

Jews around the world just finished reading the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and promptly began to start the Bible again from the beginning. The time between finishing the public reading and recommencing the weekly recitation was only a few minutes. For Jews, the Bible is a living document that is always being read and learned. There is no “finishing” the Bible; just completing it and commencing again in rapid succession.

The holiday of completing the weekly Torah readings is called Simchat Torah, the Joy of the Bible. The Jewish religious denominations take different approaches to mark the holiday. Hasidic men may be seen dancing in circles with Torahs in the streets; many Reform Temples unfurl the entire Torah with men, women and children holding a section in a large circle. There is a common moment of celebration, but unique methods of celebrating.

With such thoughts about the recent holiday, it is time to advance a principle which is inscribed towards the end of the Pentateuch: to write a Torah.

Some biblical commentators believe that biblical commandment is only applicable to kings; others have said that the king need not actually write the Torah, but to own one. Still others have suggested that the commandment is for everyone to participate in the writing of the Torah, perhaps by paying a scribe, a sofer, to write one on their behalf.

This post is a proposal is to have a permanent sofer at the Western Wall, the Kotel, so everyone can participate in the mitzvah.

Background Issues

  1. Political. Discussions regarding Jerusalem, the Old City and the Kotel have been trapped in politics for many years. Who has or should have sovereignty and control is debated everywhere, with various advocates supporting Israel, the Palestinians, the Jordanian Waqf and the international community. Many leaders have sought to avoid the inherent religious nature of the location as they fear inflaming passions and violence among the three major monotheistic religions.
  2. Jewish Religious denominations. The Kotel plaza is currently caught in a fight within the various Jewish denominations. Recently, a dedicated space for non-Orthodox prayer has taken steps forwards-and-backwards, such as the expanded prayer area at Robinson’s Arch being approved and disapproved. The Jewish community outside of Israel (which is mostly non-Orthodox) has taken a sharply negative attitude towards Israel on this point, which is harmful on multiple levels to Israel and Jews worldwide.
  3. Education and performing a Mitzvah. Many people who come to the Kotel do not have a deep understanding of Judaism. They are foreigners who see an archaeological site caught in a political quagmire. Their visits often lack deeper religious engagement.
  4. Bridging the Israeli Ashkenazi and Sefaradi Communities. While the two communities often lead distinct lives, there is a chance for the two groups to create something together and forge a common bond, especially in Jerusalem.

The Opportunity

  1. Large Attendance. Jerusalem’s Old City – and the Kotel in particular – attracts millions of people a year. However, there has been no concerted attempt to actively engage the pilgrims and tourists in anything of religious or spiritual consequence. The plaza is simply an open space for pictures and pan-handlers.
  2. Spiritual Center. While the most sacred spot for Judaism is not the Kotel but the Temple Mount itself, it is the Kotel that has served as the religious symbol for Jews since the time of Suleiman I in the 1500s. While there is daily prayer at the Kotel, can there be more religious engagement?

Bar Mitzvah party entering the Old City of Jerusalem through Zion’s Gate
(photo: First.One.Through)

The Proposal

  1. Sofer at Kotel. The issues above can be addressed by adding a small building (about 47 feet wide) at the back of the Kotel plaza which would house a sofer who would write a Torah six days a week from 8:00am to 8:00pm. By giving a donation, visitors would be able to participate in the mitzvah of writing a Torah, as they observe the sofer write a word on their behalf.
  2. Ashkenazi and Sefardi approved. There would be both Ashekanzi and Sefardi sofers that would be approved by the chief rabbis of each group. The finished Torahs would alternate between being housed in an Ashkenazi and Sefaradi cases.
  3. One Sefer published each year. A Torah would be completed each year around Simchat Torah. The Kotel plaza would have a large celebration at the completion of the sefer.
  4. The World’s Gifts to Israel. The first two Torahs (first Sefaradi and second year Ashkenazi) would be housed at the Kotel itself. In future years, the Torahs would be sent around Israel to shuls, schools, hospitals and army bases.
  5. Everyone can participate. A woman from sherut leumi will welcome each participant in the entry room of the building, just outside of the sofer’s room. They will accept a donation of any sum from the visitor which will go towards the Kotel Torah effort. A pruta, or penny, will be enough to “purchase” a single letter in the Torah, and minimum donation levels for a word or a sentence. The participant will have the option of having a picture taken with the sofer, and having their name, city, and country be included among the thousands participating in the writing of the sefer Torah.
  6. The Sofer building. The building would not be very large. It would resemble an Ashkenazi Torah scroll viewed from above: narrow rectangular entry and exit room on either sides (each about 10’ by 16’) and a broader rectangle in the middle for the sofer which will have a large window providing natural light and for people to peer in. The roof with have a conical dome in the middle above the sofer’s room, to resemble a Sefardi Torah case when viewed from street level.
    1. The entry room will have materials for signing in, and a digital map showing where all of the participants for the current Torah have come from. Exhibits explaining how a Torah is written will be on the walls.
    2. The sofer’s room will have materials and the desk for the sofer, and room for a photographer to take pictures with the participants.
    3. The exit room will have materials related to restoring Torahs and digital tools like Sefaria and the Bar Ilan project.

Concern

Everything around the Kotel involves a global outcry. The United Nations has gone to such extreme and absurd levels that it has condemned Israel for mundane items like placing an umbrella in the Kotel Plaza. Placing a building at the back of the Plaza might generate similar protest, however, limiting its size may ameliorate some of the concerns, as well as not having any national flags atop the structure.

Conclusion

Bringing a sofer to the Kotel will hopefully allow all Jews to engage with the Judaism’s holiest space in a religious manner. Everyone would have a chance to perform the special mitzvah – even those with no knowledge of Hebrew and limited Jewish education. Participants will not only view the site from a physical and political basis, but also from a spiritual one.

For Israel, this can be a fence-mending opportunity. The global non-Orthodox community which feels disconnected from Israel and its Orthodox religious leaders will be able to stand in line and participate in writing the very same Torah as Orthodox Jews. This is a chance to open religion and the Kotel to everyone around the world.

There is a song that will be sung in a continuous loop at the building that houses the permanent sofer at the Kotel, words from the prophets Isaiah and Micha: “For the Torah shall come forth from Zion, and the words of God from Jerusalem.” Words that will hopefully bring unity to Jews around the world.

וְֽהָלְכ֞וּ גּוֹיִ֣ם רַבִּ֗ים וְאָֽמְרוּ֙ לְכ֣וּ ׀ וְנַעֲלֶ֣ה אֶל־הַר־יְהוָ֗ה וְאֶל־בֵּית֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְיוֹרֵ֙נוּ֙ מִדְּרָכָ֔יו וְנֵלְכָ֖ה בְּאֹֽרְחֹתָ֑יו כִּ֤י מִצִּיּוֹן֙ תֵּצֵ֣א תוֹרָ֔ה וּדְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה מִירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃

“And the many nations shall go and shall say: “Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the LORD, To the House of the God of Jacob; That He may instruct us in His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.” For instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” (Micha 4:2) (Isaiah 2:3)


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Ending Apartheid in Jerusalem

Expulsion. Exclusion. Discrimination.

These are terrible actions, especially against civilians seeking to live and pray in their holiest city.

But they have been the reality in one of the great cities of the world – Jerusalem.

When the League of Nations (forerunner to the United Nations) sought to create space for Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land in 1922, it made clear that all parties should be free to live and worship according to their custom, as laid out in Article 15:

“The Mandatory shall see that complete freedom of conscience and the free exercise of all forms of worship, subject only to the maintenance of public order and morals, are ensured to all. No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants of Palestine on the ground of race, religion or language. No person shall be excluded from Palestine on the sole ground of his religious belief.”

The United Nations tried to ensure that there would be freedom of access and worship when it took up the cause of Palestine in 1947. The UN planned on placing the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem into a “corpus separatum,” an international holy basin that would neither be part of a Jewish State of Israel, nor an Arab state of Palestine. While the Jewish Zionists accepted the plan, the Arabs rejected it and went to war to destroy Israel as soon as it declared itself an independent country in May 1948. By the war’s end in 1949, Jordan claimed all of Bethlehem and the eastern half of Jerusalem including Judaism’s holiest site, while Israel took the western half of Jerusalem.


The UN’s Corpus Separatum of Greater Jerusalem and Greater Bethlehem

The Israelis gave citizenship to all 160,000 non-Jews in Israel, but the Jordanians instituted an ethnic cleansing of all Jews from the west bank of the Jordan River through eastern Jerusalem.

In April 1950, the Jordanians annexed the Old City of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the entirety in of the western bank of the Jordan River in a move that was not recognized by almost the entire world. The Arabs put up barbed wire and blockades and prevented any Jews from entering or visiting the Old City of Jerusalem including the holy sites of the Kotel, the Western Wall, and the Jewish Temple Mount.

In 1954, the Jordanians continued their discriminatory program and granted citizenship to the people of the west bank and eastern Jerusalem, specifically IF THEY WERE NOT JEWISH.

These Arab policies of expulsion, exclusion and discrimination would remain in effect until June 10, 1967.

Just as the Jordanians launched an attack on Israel in 1948, it would do so again in June 1967. And just as Israel won more land in its defensive battle of independence in 1948-9, it would take more of the land that had been allocated as a Jewish homeland in international law in 1922.

At the end of the Six Day War the Arab edicts of expulsion and exclusion were eradicated, and Jews once again moved into their holiest city, rebuilt the destroyed synagogues and resumed praying at the Kotel.

However, the stain of discrimination still exists in Jerusalem, as the government of Israel handed administrative control of the Jewish Temple Mount to the Jordanian Waqf in 1967 in an effort to forge peace. To this day, the Waqf continues to prohibit Jews from praying at Judaims’ holiest location.

While June 10, 1967 began the process of dismantling apartheid in Jerusalem, there is still some way to go.


The Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem
(photo: First.One.Through)


Related First.One.Through articles:

The Original Nakba: The Division of “TransJordan”

The Three Camps of Ethnic Cleansing in the BDS Movement

The Many Lies of Jimmy Carter

Dignity for Israel: Jewish Prayer on the Temple Mount

Visitor Rights on the Temple Mount

Joint Prayer: The Cave of the Patriarchs and the Temple Mount

The United Nations and Holy Sites in the Holy Land

750 Years of Continuous Jewish Jerusalem

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Names and Narrative: CNN’s Temple Mount/ Al Aqsa Complex Inversion

temple mount protest
(Muslim and Israeli police confront each other at The Temple Mount,
September 13, 2015. Source: AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

On September 13, 2015, CNN reported on a confrontation between “Arab youths and Israeli police” in the Old City of Jerusalem using language that inverted the facts. The news discussed:

  • Palestinian protestors,” but of what? Jews visiting the Temple Mount which they had every legal and moral right to do? Perhaps they were protesting new Israeli laws meant to keep Muslim groups from attacking Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount. The report made it appear that the “protestors” were just seeking a right to pray.
  • The “Al Aqsa Complex” that CNN mentioned gives an Islamic name to the entire 35 acre compound, even though the Al Aqsa Mosque is located on just the southern tip of the platform. This entire platform was built for the Second Jewish Temple and is therefore historically known as the Temple Mount. Using an Islamic name as the official name and only stating that “Jews… call it the Temple Mount” divorces history, reality and Jews from the site. It is more accurate to use the default name “The Temple Mount” to the entire location and state that ‘Muslims call it the Al Aqsa Complex”.
  • “…Is one of the holiest sites in the world for Muslims” The mosque itself is the third holiest site, not the entire Temple Mount platform. The story does not clarify that Jews had no interest in visiting the mosque itself, but the other parts of the platform.
  • Stating that “the clashes ended when Muslim worshippers were allowed in the complex for prayers” makes the entire event seem like all the Arab protestors sought was a right to pray (which they had already completed doing), as oppose to stopping Jews from visiting the Temple Mount on their Jewish New Year. This was another inversion of the narrative.
  • CNN’s report that “Jordan, which is in charge of the complex” is incomplete. Jordan’s Islamic Waqf has religious oversight of the Temple Mount, but it is Israel that is in charge of security on the Mount. Article 9 of the 1994 Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty clearly states that “Each party will provide freedom of access to places of religious and historical significance.” That is why the Israeli police legally deployed personnel to prevent Arab rock-throwers from attacking visiting Jews on the Mount.

Overall, CNN failed to report that Israel was legally trying to protect Jews visiting the Temple Mount, their holiest spot on one of their holiest days of the year. Instead they painted a picture of Israeli police blocking Arab youths from praying at the Al Aqsa Complex, one of their holiest places.

DSC00357
Al Aqsa Mosque at the very southern tip of the Temple Mount Platform
(Source: First One Through)


Related First One Through articles:

The Waqf and the Temple Mount

The Cave of the Patriarchs and the Temple Mount

The Arguments over Jerusalem

Tolerance at the Temple Mount

“Extremist” or “Courageous”

Names and Narrative: The West Bank / Judea and Samaria

Nicholas Kristof’s “Arab Land”

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The Waqf and the Temple Mount

Summary: According to Muslims, the Temple Mount is held in “trusteeship” by the Islamic Waqf, which assures its use and access as a mosque. The role of the Waqf has nothing to do with sovereignty of the land on which it resides.

The most sensitive issue of the Israel-Arab conflict is considered to be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

TEMPLE MOUNT

The Temple Mount is a 35 acre platform that held the second Jewish Temple from around 515CE to 70CE. Herod extended the platform on which the Temple sat southward to enable the greater flow of the thousands of Jews that came to the Temple to perform their rituals. The platform extension project ran from 19BCE to 63CE and Jews enjoyed the benefit of his work until the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70CE.

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The Old City of Jerusalem, including Jewish Quarter and Temple Mount

The area is considered sacred to Muslims as they believe Mohammed had a night journey from Saudi Arabia on a flying horse to that location before ascending to heaven. When Arabs invaded Jerusalem in 627CE, they built the al Aqsa Mosque on the southern edge of Temple Mount (completed in 705CE and rebuilt in 1033) to commemorate the importance of the location. The other structures on the Temple Mount include the Dome of the Rock, the Dome of the Chain, the Dome of the Prophet and various other structures which are NOT mosques, but shrines.

Jews had access and were able to pray on the Temple Mount until around the year 1550, when Suleiman I began a series of “improvements” to Jerusalem. He ordered the rebuilding of the city walls and moved the Jews off of the mount to an area now referred to as the “Kotel” or “Wailing Wall” or “Western Wall”, a sliver of the western retaining wall built by Herod. Since that time, prayer on the Mount has been restricted only for Muslim use.

MODERN HISTORY

Five Arab armies attacked Israel at its founding in 1948. At the end of the war in 1949, Jerusalem became divided with the western half (almost all completely established since the 1850s) under Israeli sovereignty, and the eastern half (including the Old City dating back 4000 years) under Jordanian sovereignty (which was not recognized by the United Nations). The Jordanians evicted all of the Jews and barred their reentry, even to visit their holy sites, counter to the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In 1967, the Jordanians again attacked Israel. They lost the eastern half of Jerusalem and all of Judea and Samaria, which they had annexed in 1950. Israel reunified the city and made clear that people of all religions – not just Jews – would have access and rights to their holy places.  Non-Muslims were once again allowed onto the platform, and Israel gave administrative oversight of the Temple Mount compound to the Jordanian Waqf. Israel annexed the area and the rest of eastern Jerusalem in a move not recognized globally.

In 1988, Jordan gave up all claims to lands it lost to Israel in the 1967 war, and signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. In that peace agreement, several key clauses were added to address Jerusalem, Article 9:

  • Each Party will provide freedom of access to places of religious and historical significance.
  • In this regard, in accordance with the Washington Declaration, Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem. When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines.
  • The Parties will act together to promote interfaith relations among the three monotheistic religions, with the aim of working towards religious understanding, moral commitment, freedom of religious worship, and tolerance and peace.

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Jews Praying at the Kotel, 2015

WAQF

Islam allows Muslims to place property (land or any object) into a “Waqf”. By doing so, the item comes under the trusteeship of the party specified in the declaration. In the case of the al Aqsa Mosque, the building is considered to be for the public use of all Muslims under the administration of the Jordanian Waqf.

When the al Aqsa mosque was taken over by Crusaders in the 12th century, the place did not lose its special status for Muslims. As stated in Issue 2697: ““If the Waqfed property is ruined, its position as Waqf is not affected, except when the Waqf is of a special nature, and that special feature ceases to exist. For example, if a person endows a garden and the garden is ruined, the Waqf becomes void and the garden reverts to the heirs of the person.”

Properties or entities like the Old City of Jerusalem or the Temple Mount itself can be subdivided according to Islam. As written in Issue 2698: “If one part of a property has been waqfed and the other part is not, and the property is undivided, the Mujtahid, or the trustee of the Waqf, or the beneficiaries can divide the property and separate the Waqf part in consultation with the experts.”

As described above, the Jordanian Waqf took control of the Temple Mount in 1949 and Israel has continued to let the Waqf administer the site. The Jordanian Waqf now employs 500 people to run the mosque. It does this, while Israel maintains all security controls and runs it as part and parcel of Israel.

It would appear that the actions of 1967, 1988 and 1994 laid the groundwork for a sharing of the Temple Mount between Jews and Muslims again. However, it has continued to be a struggle.

 POLITICS and PROPAGANDA

Over the last few years, the Waqf has become more politicized, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, as it was decades ago. Public statements from the Waqf:

  • Deny Jewish history at the Temple Mount
  • Attempt to deny Jewish rights of access
  • Deny Jewish rights to prayer (agreed to by the Israeli government)
  • Deny sovereignty of the Jewish State and Jerusalem municipality (agreed by many countries in the United Nations)

Consider a recent discovery of ancient Judaica near the Temple Mount. The Waqf issued a statement that the findings were “an attempt to support Israeli claims about Jewish rights in the holy city and to impose Israeli sovereignty on the occupied holy compound through the use of fake evidence….An immediate Arab and Muslim campaign is needed to stop the Israeli attempts to Judaise the holy city of Jerusalem,”

temple mt find
Discovery of Jewish artifacts at base of Temple Mount
dating to period before creation of Islam

It is interesting that the Waqf would make a claim of “Judaising” the city of Jerusalem which has had a Jewish majority for 150 years. It was also this same Jordanian Waqf that participated in expelling Jews from the Old City of Jerusalem and barring their entry from 1949-1967.

PEACE ON THE TEMPLE MOUNT

Israel’s perspective: Israel has sought a peaceful situation on the Temple Mount from the very beginning of reunifying Jerusalem. In 1967, Moshe Dayan announced: “To our Arab neighbors we extend, especially at this hour, the hand of peace. To members of the other religions, Christians and Muslims, I hereby promise faithfully that their full freedom and all their religious rights will be preserved. We did not come to Jerusalem to conquer the Holy Places of others.”

The declaration was followed by the establishment of the Protection of Holy Places Law which ensured the rights of all religions to pray at their holy sites.

Today, in an effort to appease the extremist views of the Waqf, radical Palestinians and the Jordanian government itself which threated to break its peace treaty with Israel, the Israeli government has continued to enforce a ban on Jewish prayer on the Mount.

Muslims’ Perspective: Suleiman pushed the Jews off of the Temple Mount in 1550 and Jordanian Arabs expelled the Jews from the entire Old City in 1949. Muslims and Arabs would clearly prefer that there be no Jews in Jerusalem.

However, according to Islam, there is no conflict with the Temple Mount being completely under Israeli sovereignty as detailed above.

According to the Peace Treaty between Israel and Jordan, the Temple Mount (outside of al Aqsa Mosque) should permit non-Mulsim prayer, despite Jordan’s recent protests.

Israel has continued to extend its full hand to share the Temple Mount.  Meanwhile, the Arab world took initial steps some decades ago to recognize Jewish history and rights which do not conflict with Islamic law.  Regrettably, recent history has witnessed a more hostile Arab approach.

Perhaps the future will witness peace on the Temple Mount with full access and rights for Jews at their holiest location.



Sources:

Waqf rules: http://www.al-islam.org/islamic-laws-ayatullah-ali-al-husayni-al-sistani/rules-regarding-waqf

Noble Sanctuary: http://www.noblesanctuary.com/AQSAMosque.html

Palestinian women fight Jews on Temple Mount: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/17/world/middleeast/palestinian-women-join-effort-to-keep-jews-from-contested-holy-site.html

Related First One Through articles:

Tolerance at the Temple Mount

Sharing the Temple Mount like the Cave of Patriarchs

Five holy sites in the holy land

Palestinians are “desperate”… but for what?

Palestinian Arabs control of Jerusalem for 0.5% of its history 

Divided Cities and Capitals