I live in Haifa but my wife and I love to take long weekends in Jerusalem. Every time we are in Jerusalem, we visit the Kotel, the remnant of the Western Wall of the Second Temple built by King Herod around 2000 years ago. As the sun sets on Friday, Jews from all over come to welcome the Shabbat at the Wall. You see Charedim in all different costumes, some with long white stockings and some with big furry hats, most accompanied by their wives and children in strollers. Both the men and the women help roll the strollers up the steep hills and down the twisted stairways of the Old City. There may be a division of labor once you arrive at the Wall, but on the walk to the Wall parents share equally in the burden. Although the Charedim outnumber the modern Orthodox on Friday nights, there are still lots of modern Orthodox Jews to be found at the Wall; from soldiers in knit kippot to groups of students and tourists. It is as common to hear Yiddish and English as it is to hear Hebrew on the walk to the Kotel.
I tend to stick out from the crowd. While I do own black pants and a white button down shirt, I usually dress more casually. I am not Charedi and I am not a soldier. I am obviously a tourist. Still, I am welcome in any minyan that is formed at the Wall. I am a Jew, and that is all that matters. I am counted.
I have joined many different minyanim. I have prayed with other tourists from countries as far away as South America and Australia. I have prayed with soldiers and I have prayed with students. I have joined Ashkenazi Charedim and Sephardi Charedim. Although I am familiar with the prayers, it is hard for me to keep up. Nobody uses the same prayer book as I do. I have learned that while most of the prayers are very similar, there are lots of variations. And there are lots of different melodies.
On top of that, there are always dozens of different services going on around me. Sometimes it seems like a contest to see who can pray the loudest with the most spirit. It can be hard to hear what is happening in my minyan. I am constantly looking at the prayer book of the guy standing next to me so that I know where we are.
It is thrilling to be around so many Jews from so many different backgrounds praying together. But sometimes I wish that we were really praying together. My mind often drifts when I am supposed to be concentrating on my prayers. I seem to be able to focus on prayer in 5 minute intervals. Maybe I should take Ritalin before going to the Wall. It doesn’t seem to take much to distract me. And there is plenty to distract me on Friday evenings.
My favorite thing to do is to imagine what it might be like if there was a Third Temple. Whose prayer book would we be using? Which tunes would we be singing? Would we all be wearing fur hats or knit kippot? I am convinced that when the Messianic age arrives, and I do believe that it will arrive, I will no longer stand out. Everybody will dress like me and use my prayer book.
But right now, we all pray in our own separate groups. What impresses me is how much tolerance there is at the Wall. All these groups are doing their own separate thing and nobody is criticizing the other. Everybody seems to accept that it is ok to worship according to each other’s custom. It is a great example of humility.
Which brings me to the Women of the Wall. Is it a desecration of Hashem for a woman to wear tallit and tefillin and read from the Torah? Of course not. The criticism is that they are doing it in public. The criticism is that these women are not acting with humility; these women are only doing it to draw attention to themselves and their own personal agendas. But the Women of the Wall claim they are acting out of a genuine desire to approach Hashem. I don’t want to judge them. I want to believe them. Just as every other group at the wall can pray and not be judged, I believe that they should be able to pray at the Wall and not be judged either. I think that we need to step back and stop asking other people to behave with humility, but instead to practice it ourselves. We are good at it.