At the Wall, all anyone can do is look at the Wall.
From all her angles.
At the Wall all you can do is close your eyes because there’s nothing to see there.
There is a Wall in your way…
– From “Along the Wall” by Rabbi Joshua Bolton
This morning, I joined Women of the Wall‘s Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel (from the men’s side of the mechitzah), for the first time. My visit to the Kotel was only my second during this stint in Israel, since arriving over four months ago (the other being on Tisha b’Av). I have a tenuous relationship with the Kotel, and as of late, I do not find it spiritually conducive to my Jewish practice. As an aside – is it absurd to speak in terms of having a “relationship” with a pile of old stones?
In commemoration of the Women of the Wall’s celebrations, a group of girls from The North American Federation of Temple Youth came to Israel to represent the Movement. Speaking about the history and significance of the Kotel, one particularly wise teen said to me – “but it’s just a retaining wall!” That’s a pretty concise yet accurate statement of where I’m at these days. This statement is indeed true, but there is much more to this truth. Certainly, I recognize the immense historical significance and symbolic relevance of the Kotel, and this is something that I do connect strongly with. But as a symbol of Orthodox hegemony and oppression of the rights of women and Jews, I find it to be an incredibly challenging and emotionally draining place. Which is why I don’t go much these days, even though I live and study steps from its ancient stones.
While discussing the challenges at the Kotel, a friend of mine remarked that she really values the unique roles Judaism ascribes to each gender, and finds deep meaning in what she is empowered to do as a Jewish woman. And that it is precisely for that reason that she, too, finds the Kotel to be a challenging place, since the imbroglio takes away from her ability to pray there as a woman, in a Jewish environment surrounded by women who aren’t trying to silence her.
For me, alongside my deep commitment to a fully egalitarian Judaism, I also identify strongly with the various ways that Judaism welcomes men and women to access their Judaism in different ways, at times using different language. I have no problem referring to the shekhinah any more than I do speaking of Avinu Malkeinu. To be sure – not withstanding the historical bias towards a male-oriented language that Jewish history has had – I relish the different metaphors and allegories we use to talk about God and our relationship with Her/Him.
It is for that reason that the Kotel’s hijacking by the Orthodox disturbs me the most – precisely because it is being done by my fellow Jewish men, in the name of a Judaism to which I – and the majority of both Israelis and Jews around the world – don’t ascribe. When I go to the Kotel and bask in the vastness of the men’s section, I can walk freely up to the ancient and holy stones without having to push my way through a crowd, as the women do. I don’t have raw eggs thrown at me for wearing tallit and tefillin, and I can pray the words of the Shema without fear of being arrested. For me to do these things, while other Jews cannot, requires immense cognitive dissonance; that these offenses are committed by fellow Jewish men towards women because they are not men causes me great distress.
Yet today, I joined with close to a thousand other people in recognition of the ongoing struggle to make Israel a better place. Surely, I can’t just sit on the sidelines whenever the fight gets dirty. Often, it’s important to get a little closer to the things that make us uncomfortable, to get a better perspective, and to push ourselves to right the wrongs we see in the world. As we sang together, looking at the gates of the Old City: “Open for me the gates of righteousness, I will enter and give thanks to God.”
An earlier version of this post appeared here.