The Talmud reports that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews. On Monday, on Rosh Hodesh Av, the day that begins the intense mourning period for the destruction of the Temple, I witnessed the Talmud’s words come to life.
I accompanied my wife and 300 other women and joined Women of the Wall for their monthly prayer group. We were called Nazis and Amalekites, Israel’s ancient sworn enemy. A few eggs were thrown. My friend’s daughters were spit on. We continued to pray. We sang, “Ozi v’zimrat yah—my strength and songs to God will be my salvation.” (Psalm 118:14)
The morning began, ironically enough, at Liberty Bell Park where the police insisted we gather before traveling to the Wall. There we boarded buses for the short drive to the Dung Gate. We were accompanied by police cars and then escorted by officers through the entrance to the Western Wall plaza. Haredi, ultra-Orthodox, leaders had bused Haredi girls to the Wall ahead of our arrival and filled the women’s section with 5,000 young girls. The police determined that it would be impossible for Women of the Wall to pray at the Wall and so they only allowed the group into an area just inside the entrance. We stood in a group, enclosed by police and their barricades, and surrounded by thousands of screaming Haredi men on one side and women on the other. They shouted at our prayers. They blew whistles to drown out our singing of Hatikvah.
I never imagined that in the sovereign Jewish state my wife and I would require police protection to pray as we have done all our lives. I felt as if we were the young African American students struggling to integrate a high school in the American South of 1957. The tragic circumstance of the Wall is that it has become a Haredi synagogue. Too often the State has colluded with Haredi leaders to enforce their mode of Jewish prayer on others and more significantly to legislate their form of observance in all public places.
Natan Sharansky recently argued that the Kotel, the Western Wall, belongs to the entire Jewish people. All Jews should therefore be allowed to pray at this national treasure as they deem fit. His proposal of building a third area at the Wall for pluralistic prayer would be a welcome change. For years the Wall that our prayers imagine unifies the Jewish nation instead divides my family. When I first went there I could not stand with my mom. When I next touched its stones I could not stand with my wife Susie, and then some years later not with my daughter Shira. My son Ari and I stood on one side. Susie and Shira stood on the other.
Haredi means to tremble. The term comes from trembling before God. The ultra-Orthodox place yirat hashamayim, fear of heaven, before all other Jewish values. I have come to believe that at a certain point fear of God becomes fear of everything. The Haredi appear to tremble before everything that is unfamiliar and fear anything that is not theirs. They are terrified by modern values. Nonetheless their posture is their choice and their right. I of course have a different orientation. I wish to learn from modernity. I welcome its teachings. And so I dream of praying at this ancient site, standing alongside Susie, Shira and my mom. Why should this be such a fanciful vision?
On Friday evening I walked to the newly renovated train station to welcome in Shabbat. There I discovered hundreds of Israelis of every different affiliation, and of course many American rabbis. Some wore kippot. Tzitzit could be seen on others. A new liberal synagogue, Nava Tehila, led Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, accompanied by musical instruments and song. Following services the nearby restaurants and shops filled with people. Secular Israelis found tables there. Orthodox Jews walked along the promenade to their Shabbat dinners. I sense a renewed spirit in the songs of my people joined together. “My strength and songs to God will be my salvation.“
Families walked up and down this new Derech HaRakevet, the Train Path. This path was once the train line into Jerusalem, first built in 1892. The train has not run through the German Colony neighborhood, where I stay, in years. Its tracks accumulated piles of garbage and abandoned cars. Now it has become Jerusalem’s Highline. I have walked the path many evenings. I have jogged along its length through the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa.
The air in Jerusalem feels different. Perhaps change is even near.
This week we read about God’s promise of the land of Israel. We are still struggling to transform that promise into its full blessing. On some occasions when I return to Judaism’s holiest place of the Wall I begin to lose hope in the promise. More often than not, as I walk along the new Derech HaRakevet I feel as if the blessing is near.