Friday, July 7, 2017

It's Like Talking to a Wall

On June 7, 1967, in the words of Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the US in his book Six Days of War, “men from both the Jerusalem Brigade and 71st paratroopers converged in the (Western) wall, ecstatic and all but oblivious to the persistent sniper fire. Rabbi (Shlomo) Goren (the IDF’s chief chaplain) broke free of the three soldiers (Lt. General Mordechai) Gur had designated to restrain him, and ran headlong to the wall. He (Goren) said Kaddish … blew his shofar, and proclaimed, “I, General Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces, have come to this place never to leave it again.” Crammed into the narrow space between the stones and the ramshackle dwellings of the Mughrabi Quarter, the soldiers broke into spontaneous songs and prayers. Above them, the Star of David was hoisted.”[1]
For the first time since 1948, Jews were able to pray once again at the retaining wall, the closest site to where the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple stood, in ancient days in Israel. And for the first time since Roman days, Jews had authority and control over the Kotel, the Western Wall.
There is a picture entitled: The Western Wall on a Friday which was taken some time between 1867 and 1914.[2] In this picture, you can see men and women in traditional garb praying side by side in a very cramped almost alcove. It is striking in part because there is no mechitza, and there must not have been a religious authority overseeing the site.
Speaking of which, as I mentioned, the Western Wall dates back to the second century BCE, though the bottom stones may be part of an even older structure dating back to the first Temple. The retaining wall was expanded upon by King Herod to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. When completed the Temple represented one of the great wonders of the ancient world, that was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E. as commemorated in the Arch of Titus in Rome.
Though not part of the Temple, the Kotel or Western Wall has been viewed as one of the holiest sites in Judaism. One of the great ironies to this is that as a Diaspora people, we have been very reluctant to give places a sense of sanctity. Instead we tended to live by the words of Jacob after his dream of the stairway to heaven, “God was in this place and I did not know it.” Meaning, God can be found wherever we look for God.
All that being said, the Kotel nonetheless has become a vital symbol of Judaism and Jewishness, and no trip to Israel is complete without a visit to the Kotel.
However, following the Six-Day War, Orthodox religious authorities, funded by the Israeli government have taken control of all religious observances at the Kotel. They have erected a mechitza (a dividing wall) thus no longer permitting men and women to pray next to each other. As an aside, the tradition of the mechitza was not originally Jewish, we actually borrowed it from early Christian traditions.
And in more recent times the ruling Orthodox authorities have banned women from holding Torah scrolls, leading services, wearing a tallit and/or tefillin, or singing out loud at the site. They have also banned mixed gender worship services.
Egalitarian Jews abroad and in Israel have fought back. The most well-known group is the Women of the Wall which was formed in 1988 to fight for the rights for all Jews to be able to share in the sacred space.
As their mission states, “The Kotel is the only remaining wall left of the Second Temple- the place where our ancestors went to seek G-d. We aspire to do the same: with prayer, reverence, and joy. Freedom to worship at the KoteI is one of the most important outcomes of the Jewish people’s return to Jerusalem in 1967, but this great achievement is tainted by the fact that women are prohibited from praying freely at the holy site. The Kotel is a central symbol of Jewish unity to Jews around the world. 
If, as tradition tells us, the Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam   baseless hatred – we dare to assert that allowing our voices to be heard would be no less than a tikkun, a mending, of the history of intolerance.”[3]
Many of you have seen the pictures and videos of the hatred and vitriol spewed towards the Women of the Wall, and some of you may have or may know of others who have supported their cause. It all came to a head in 2013 when Prime Minister Netanyahu tasked the Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky to come up with a compromise which would finally enable diverse Jewish practice at the Kotel.
“This kicked off several years of very intense negotiations. It involved the Jewish Agency, The Jewish Federations of North America, Reform and Conservative Movements, Women of the Wall, the rabbi of the Kotel, and representatives of the Israeli government. It also involved archeological authorities, the Waqf (Muslim religious authorities) and even the Jordanian government. As you can see, all invested and interested parties were invited to the table to participate in the negotiations.
An agreement was reached to upgrade and in essence create an egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s arch, which is an underdeveloped section along the southern end of the Western Wall. The Knesset approved this agreement in January 2016.
Nonetheless, there was incredible pressure by the ultra-Orthodox to halt the plan. For close to 18 months, the Israeli government avoided moving forward with the plan. Then this past Sunday, June 25th, the Prime Minister and his government voted to formally freeze the Kotel Resolution.”[4]
As many of you undoubtedly know, outrage by the greater Progressive community has been swift. Rick Jacobs and the URJ cancelled a meeting with the Prime Minister. The JFNA condemned the resolution as a “threat to Jewish unity.” Even AIPAC, has approached the Prime Minister stating that this ruling could undermine support for Israel in Congress. Bibi in one fell swoop has done something not seen since the attempt to overturn the Law of Return some 30 years ago, which was to unify the non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish world. Sadly, he united it against the Israeli government.
In response the CCAR has issued the following statement, “Today's decision calls into question whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a man of his word. The Prime Minister, whose name is on the January, 2016 agreement on behalf of his government, has apparently caved in to the extremist views of his ultra-Orthodox (Hareidi) coalition partners. Moreover, this decision further strains the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel, and makes it increasingly difficult for our rabbis to make the case of support for Israel.
The prophet Isaiah, preaching of a messianic future about the Temple itself, prophesied, "Let my House be a House of prayer for all people." Our pre-messianic goal is more modest, that the Kotel could be a place of prayer for all Jews. The Kotel is a powerful symbol but unfortunately one that exemplifies the inequalities and indignities to which Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox Jews are subjected in the Jewish State every day.
Reform Rabbis join our Reform and Conservative Movement partners -- and our Orthodox partners, too, along with Jewish communities worldwide -- who will continue to struggle on behalf of Jewish religious equality at the Kotel and throughout Israel.”[5]
Locally, I have met with Gary Siepser and Lisa Green, the heads of our local federation as well as the Rockland Board of Rabbis. We will be issuing a joint statement against this ruling, and the Rockland Board of Rabbis will also be issuing its own separate statement as well. The plan is to continue to inundate the Prime Minister and the Knesset with our outrage and anger at this latest slap in the face towards the greater Jewish community and Progressive Judaism. Or as one commentator put it, “when you’re at odd with Natan Sharansky, that should tell you right away that you’re in the wrong corner.”[6]
But there are a couple of lingering questions: #1 – why should we care? And #2 – what can we do about it?
With regards to #1 – I will admit that I am not a big fan of the Wall. I have visited it many times. One of my favorite memories was going there after Kol Nidre Services where it serves as a place for all the young single people to meet and greet. Yes, I know, of all places for people to find potential dates. But the Kotel also represents a time of Judaism that I am thankful is long gone. We no longer follow the sacrificial cult, and I, for one, am in no hurry to return to it.
All that being said, if the Kotel is one of the central symbols of Judaism, then there needs to be a space for all Jews to be able to approach it according to their understandings of tradition rather than just for a select few. This fight is more than just about a wall, it is about the ultra-Orthodox hegemony over religious life in Israel, which in a way represents a de-legitimization of religious life outside of Israel as well. So yes, I believe we have a vested interest in this fight.
Also, one of the foreboding elements of the Pew Center Poll is that more and more young people are feeling not only disinterested in Israel, but even antipathy towards it. Yes, Birthright has helped to fight this. But it makes it all the more difficult to make the case for Israel, especially to those who do not have the modern historical connection like those of us who were witnesses to 48, 67 and 73. Why should they care about Israel if Israel doesn’t care about them?
Also, this is one issue we can do something about. The Jewish world is divided about issues like the security wall, the peace process, and the like. Part of the reason for this is that these issues have more to do with Israel’s security and national agenda. However, the Kotel is all about Judaism and Jewish observance, something by which we not only have a right to participate in the conversation, but I also feel, we have an obligation to make our views known as well.
Which leads us to question #2, what can we do about it? One response is disengagement. There are some out there who are saying, enough already. I no longer have any desire to be involved in Israel, to travel there, or to donate to Israeli causes. There are many problems with this approach, least of which, it will not further our cause.
Instead, we should get more involved, if anything. But more specifically involved. Yes, we are still planning our trip to Israel next spring. Even before the issue of the Kotel came to a head, the trip was planned to focus on progressive life in Israel where we were and are scheduled to meet with heads of the Reform movement and the Israel Religious Action Center in Israel. So if you are on the fence, please come and join us on the trip.
Secondly, I am hoping we can, as a congregation, focus more on our support of ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America), the WUPJ (World Union for Progressive Judaism), the Israel Religious Action Center, and the AJC. I have already been in contact with some of these organizations, and will continue to explore what we can do as a community to help support their efforts on behalf of Progressive Jews here, abroad and in Israel.
You are also encouraged to write letters to the Knesset, to the Prime Minister and even to Natan Sharansky (thanking him for his efforts). But most importantly, we are not give up hope. Israel is the only Jewish Democratic State that is supposed to represent the best in Judaism and Jewish tradition. It fails in this endeavor just as much as it succeeds. Our voices matter! If we wish to see Israel represent the homeland for all Jews, we must be part of the conversation. For it would be a shame if a wall is what ultimately came between us.

[1] Oren, Micahel B., Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, pgs. 245-246.
[4] JFNA Background: Israel Government Decision Regarding the Kotel
[6] David Horovitz “He broke it, he must fix it.” Times of Israel