My entry on “My Journey Back to the Kotel” has elicited numerous responses. Many people are extremely supportive: they feel that I am expressing their views, giving them a voice, defending our traditions. Others found my essay offensive. According to them, I am stepping on their toes, judging them, and trying to take away their right to pray. It is amazing how two people can experience the exact same thing, and have totally opposite reactions.
Though I am fascinated by this dichotomy, I am also surprised. It was never my intent to try to tell other people how to pray. I hoped to give a voice to those who treasure and wish to protect traditional religious practices at the Kotel. My intent was to counterbalance some of the negative publicity in both the Israeli and International media designed to make religious Jewish women look like mindless pawns, and paint all religious men as misogynistic bullies who all yell, scream, blow whistles and spit when a woman prays freely. I was hoping to illustrate that the majority of religious men and women are intelligent, mindful of their life choices, and not subjugated followers. I also wanted to call attention to individuals who have made conflicting statements about WoW’s goals, and have publicly stated that the liberation of the Kotel is just a stepping stone towards ultimately dismantling the status quo in Israel in general, even in communities where gender segregation is an integral part of their culture and lifestyle..
In my personal life, I am a proponent of live and let live. Living in the melting pot that is NY City, I work with people of all shapes and sizes. I work daily at helping people within the confines of their own cultures and beliefs. I have learned how important it is to be sensitive to these differences from the first interaction, as one false move can destroy the possibility of creating a therapeutic relationship. One small gesture, such as shaking hands, dressing a certain way, sitting on the same couch, using a person’s first name, making eye contact – all things which are the norm in westernized cultures – can be viewed as rude, disrespectful and forward by another.
In the context of Jewish History, my 12th grade teacher put it best when he told us, ad nauseum, that the most important thing that we would ever learn in his class was that “Judaism was never a monolithic religion.” From day one we have been part of a nation with many distinct identities, which ideally would complement and support each other. Yaakov Avinu had 12 sons, and each received a distinct blessing. Our distinctions were exacerbated being dispersed in the diaspora for thousands of years and being exposed to different cultures, different perspectives and different ideals. The introduction of new movements such as the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist in the early to mid-nineteenth century took this to a new level. Efforts were made to alter interpretations of Halacha, in order to make Judaism more palatable to those who wanted to hold onto some aspects of Judaism, but felt that certain Jewish principles were unrealistic for those in the modern era.
This has led to a phenomenon where many people still identify themselves as Jewish but have beliefs that are different and even contradictory to beliefs of Traditional Judaism. Where one person may believe that the Torah is the ultimate truth given to us by G-d, another may think it is a fairy tale. Where one person may see a picture of a woman with a Talis and Tefilin and see inspiration, another sees a perversion of thousands of years of tradition. Where one woman believes that sitting in the back of a bus enhances her modesty and privacy, another sees a Civil Rights violation. In addition, I bet that there are 70 other opinions that fall somewhere in between. How do we cope with these differences? How do we accept the “other” even when our basic belief systems are so different?
As a child of Baalei Teshuva, I have been exposed to the entire gamut of the American Jewish experience. My family ranges from “Chareidi” to unaffiliated. These differences have at times resulted in social and religious situations where I was left feeling strange, different, even foreign. As a defense mechanism, due to my own ignorance of their lifestyles, sometimes I found myself confronting the other, blaming them for my discomfort, blaming them for not understanding me. As I matured and spent more time getting to know the “other,” I felt less strange, uncomfortable or awkward around them. I worked to understand where they were coming from, and, as much as possible, modify my actions accordingly.
When I recall these memories of discomfort from my youth, I can relate to the struggles of the individuals who participate and support Women of the Wall’s (WoW‘s) prayer protests. I have read numerous testimonials explaining that when non-Traditional Jews come to the Traditional area of the Kotel, they feel strange in the sea of black and white, long skirts and sleeves that usually dominate the Kotel plaza. This is not how they are used to living and praying. As a result of their discomfort, they demand change. They do not want ancient interpretations of halacha to dictate their life or their religious experience; they want to bring a new, more modern spin to the Kotel.
While reading these testimonials, one part of me wonders: why do you wish to fill the same space but insist on remaining separate, distant, and foreign, modifying our ancient traditions? Why do you demand to pray differently, disturbingly, with loud voices that rise above your sisters, with Shofars blowing, almost as if you are sending out a call to War? But another part of me realizes that these individuals are coming from a different place, a different understanding, a different belief system – and that is their choice.
To date, the Kotel welcomes all: men, women, Jews and non-Jews alike. What has been demanded of visitors is that certain rules of decorum and dress are met, in order to respect and honor those who still believe in traditional Jewish practices. Tension and infighting occur when more liberal interpretations of halacha differ from the traditional Mesorah. My question is, how do we cope with these differences, how do we respect the Traditions of the “other,” while still protecting our own? Sometimes it feels impossible.
But then I think back to my 12th grade Jewish History lesson. I remember that if Judaism has never been monolithic, we will never all agree. Each of us, though, can do our part to monitor and put limits on our own behavior and speech, and acknowledge that there are legitimate differences that, at times, separate us. Instead of digging in our heels and vilifying those whose views are foreign, we have to learn to respect the “other.” Perhaps if we can come to the table in a spirit of understanding and compromise, we can bring peace and unity back to the Kotel and to the Jewish People.