Yesterday morning, I once again joined Women of the Wall for an uplifting Rosh Chodesh tefilah at the Kotel. Around 180 women gathered to celebrate a bat mitzvah, and to sing out to God.
We began to daven, and other women protested by banging and whistling loudly in an attempt to drown out our tefillot. We called out “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokaynu Hashem echad, Listen oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” and young yeshiva boys called us Nazis and Amalekites. We said the words of Hallel and they told us to go home. Although this time, I did not get egg on my face, the tension was palpable. I couldn’t sing the words from Hallel, “pitchu li sha’are zedek, open for me the gates of righteousness,” because we were being told that we didn’t belong, I had trouble feeling the embrace of song and prayer, because I was surrounded by injustice, rather than righteousness. There was no tolerance and understanding of our differences. For the protesters at the Kotel, it appeared, there is only one way to express Jewish values, only one way to pray to the Divine.
Israel is a country that usually polemicizes most of the big issues, whether political or social. There does not seem to be much middle ground. In a space that by its very nature is surrounded by walls, I started wondering if it is possible to break down the metaphorical walls between Jews. Is it possible to carve out a space between the two sides — the women praying at the wall and the Haredim — a middle ground that can help us move forward? Is there a space where we may find compromise and place to pray, where we could meet in the middle?
The middle ground occupies an auspicious position in Tanach. On the second day of creation, God declared: “Yehi rakiah b’toch hamayim, let there be an expanse in the midst of the water.” (Bereishit 1:6). Between the Heaven and Earth, God created a vast space, a middle ground. It is in the middle where humans eventually populated the world, and began our own human creativity. And, when God split the sea in the aftermath of the Exodus, God created a space, in the middle of the water so that the Jewish people could move forward. It was in that space that we found our way towards freedom.
In the talmudic Amoraic period (230-250 CE), there were two main yeshivot, two centers of rabbinic study. Rav was founder and dean of the yeshiva at Sura, and Shmuel was the dean of the yeshiva in Nehardea. Rabbi Yehuda was a disciple of both rabbis. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehuda often quotes rabbinic teachings in the name of Rav, and other times, in the name of Shmuel. I imagine Rabbi Yehuda as a seeker, traveling back and forth, between the yeshivot of Sura and Nehardea, searching for truth. But rather than follow directly in either of his rabbis footsteps, Rabbi Yehuda created his own yeshiva, and Pumbedita emerged in the middle, in the space between Rav and Shmuel.
Perhaps Rabbi Yehuda offers a model for creating a new entity in the space, in the middle. We don’t have to fully reject or fully embrace either pole. Rather, we can build a safe haven that at least inspires two extremes to find a way to meet and talk. And within that space, we may aspire to grow.
In order to do so, one basic principal has to be acceptance — that the space of the Kotel belongs to everyone, and is not held hostage by a self-selected few, who have appointed themselves guardians. They claim the right to determine who can pray to God at the Kotel and who cannot. Adopting this basic foundational ethic will allow all people to call out to God in a way that feels authentic to their values, whether it be with a mechitza (divider), in a women’s prayer group, in a partnership tefilah (service), or a service with flutes and drums.
Yizhar Hess, the CEO of the Masorti movement in Israel, came to the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to discuss the politics of the Western Wall. He has been involved with attempting to navigate an agreement between pluralist worship at the Kotel that would meet the requirements of Orthodox practice as understood by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz. Hess, with great nostalgia, described the period right after the Six Day War where the newly won Kotel belonged to everyone. Jews from within Israel, and all over the world, flocked to the old city and the Wall, a resounding symbol of freedom. For just a brief time, the Kotel belonged to everyone. However, within a year, the ministry created a mehitza , with a small women’s section, and designated it as an Orthodox shul, with Orthodox standards.
What would it look like if the Kotel returned to being a symbol of connection between the people and the land of Israel? If the plaza could be a place where Jews could choose how they would like to pray? Where we could gather to celebrate milestones, both national and individual smachot (joy)? Perhaps then, no one group would demand ownership; no one group would feel permission to rip a siddur, with Shem Hashem, with the name of God, as one man did publicly yesterday while we were praying. And young boys and girls would not throw derogatory terms and words that they barely understand, at other Jews. Our people have never been monolithic in ideas or expression. We should not let a distorted sense of history or corruption of power rule the day.
Perhaps, this idea is an unattainable dream. It certainly feels that way to me now when I try to daven at the Kotel. But, it does not have to be that way. Let the Kotel be a space where we can dream about possible redemption and unity.
The famous Israeli poet and writer, Amos Oz, writes, Israel is “a dream come true. As such, it is bound to be flawed and imperfect. The only way to keep a dream intact is never to try to fulfill it…Israel is flawed and imperfect precisely because it is a dream come true” (The Land of Israel, 259).
Israel may have its flaws. But if we get stuck and lost in her imperfections, we will never have the fortitude to build the metaphorical yeshiva of Pumbedita — that space in the middle. The space where the Kotel will belong to everyone.