I’ve always felt linked to the month of Av. In it we mark horrific moments of Jewish history, and so a nickname for the month is “Menachem Av,” or “Comfort the Parent.” (Hence my feeling of connection.) The first day of a new month is a particularly holy time, and even though tradition teaches that when Av begins sadness decreases, the special prayers for Rosh Chodesh are beautiful and celebratory.
Today holds that beauty. But today was also an ugly day. I don’t want to talk about it, and I don’t want to share parts of what I witnessed this morning. But I believe we’re supposed to bear testimony, that that’s the only way things ever change.
Let me start with the beauty: my wife, my sacred partner, my teacher, Neshama Carlebach, is a tower of light, radiating blessing and love. She stood today with Women of the Wall Nashot HaKotel, to help lead their monthly service at the Kotel, the Western Wall. It had been 6 years since the last time she davened with them, and it was our first time at the Kotel together. Wearing her new tallit, she lifted her voice with a community of women gathered together in the only communal Jewish space in the world that arrests Jews for the way they pray. Two young women were to celebrate their bnot mitzvah, and someone had arrived at 4am to smuggle in the Torah, as Torahs are prohibited on the women’s side of the Kotel. (The Kotel was originally a national landmark, but it has become, in recent decades, a Charedi synagogue, where only male voices are allowed and religious diversity is prohibited.)
I, along with a dozen or so male allies, including the father of the Bat Mitzvah girls, stood behind a barrier positioned to keep men away from the women’s section during WOW’s prayers. Some of us had earpieces, broadcasting the service, so that we could participate from the distance and offer our amen’s to the women’s blessings.
I want to focus on the nationwide protests for democracy and not assess the almost-lynching I witnessed today. I want to focus on the glory of two young women taking their places as adults in Jerusalem’s Jewish community. I want to reflect the majesty of my wife’s presence. And I will. I always will. But, with shaking hands and even shakier-spirit, I’ll share more than the good parts. And, in so doing, my joy will decrease, as the month of Av prescribes.
As we entered the Kotel Plaza, the men and women separated. An older man in our group was suddenly blocked by a young boy who kept moving into his path. He looked to be about 10, perhaps of Yemenite descent, with payot/earlocks. It was clear that his obstructing was deliberate, so I positioned myself at the older gentleman’s side and “set a pick,” so that the boy couldn’t block the way. Immediately, the boy shoved me, and I brushed by him, using my shoulder to clear my own way. Suddenly, about 20 young men surrounded me. Another member of my group pulled me from the group and guided me to not respond. Soon, there were thousands of men, screaming at our small group of men, shouting Jewish curses at us, and as a throng, pushed into us. It was very scary.
I stood as close to the wall overlooking the women’s tefilot/prayers, put on my tallit (that my wife gave me for our wedding, inscribed with the words ‘Olam Chesed Yibaneh/Build from Love’) and my tefilin, and tried to focus on prayer. But the Rabbi of the Western Wall had installed an elaborate loudspeaker system to drown out the prayers of the women. So we did our best. I prayed for a new light to shine upon Zion, for God to bless Jerusalem with love, for Divine Abundance to shower down upon us all. All the while, thundering in my ears was the chant, “Amalek, tistalek” (roughly translated, Amalek is the enemy of the Jewish people, and the chant was for us to disappear).
I tried to attune myself to the prayers of our divided group, singing along as much and as loudly as I could, but my focus was continually interrupted by songs my father-in-law composed, weaponized into an abusive sound-bomb by a Charedi mob, amplified by the Western Wall amplification system.
At some point, I felt a commotion happening behind me. I turned around, and the mob was roughly shoving another older man from our group. I grew scared for him. A young man from France, currently studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, managed to bring the older gentleman back into our small pocket of safety.
I looked over to the women, and the Jerusalem police were trying to take away their Torah. The women embraced the woman holding the Torah, creating matriarchal circles of safety and protection, cradling the Torah in a kind of collective womb. It was beautiful and it was horrible to see this happen.
Again, I wish to only focus on the light pouring in upon the entire Kotel Plaza, the stones who have witnessed the rebirth of our People, the ancient worship that once took place just beyond the Wall. But, in these days of terrible struggle against abuse of power in Israel (and, of course, in many other parts of the world), it would be rabbinic malpractice to only report the heroism and holiness. The harshest part of today was the clear and imminent danger latent in the Jewish mob that could have ignited into truly terrible violence. I was very, very scared. For myself, for the other men, for the Bnot Mitzvah, for my wife, for the women who dared raise their voices in prayer. I’ve done too much work in the world of American Civil Rights to not recognize a potential lynching. From the shoes thrown at the Bat Mitzvah girls to the mob (of men and women) spitting at the Women of the Wall, from the shouts we men endured and the physical intimidation that surrounded us, the leap to more serious violence is a small one.
The tragedy that dominates the temporal landscape of Tisha Be’Av is the destruction of the second Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. (Many dark moments in Jewish have since been mythically appended to this day, but the Temple’s destruction is the centerpiece of the sadness.) The rabbis of antiquity, transcending the geopolitics that led to the Temple’s destruction, created the concept that the Temple was destroyed because of ‘Sinat Chinam,’ free-flowing hatred. I’ve taught lesson this many, many times myself. I’ve even used it as a framework for our proclivity toward inner-communal judgment. But I’ve never felt afraid of its actualization. Not until today.
All this only happened a few hours ago, and I have a lot of processing to do. My admiration has deepened for Anat Hoffman and the decades of passion the Women of the Wall have demonstrated, often under even worse circumstances. They are in dire need of support so that they can hear themselves when they pray. No governmental allocation is forthcoming, and they are fighting the considerable financial and cultural power of the world that sees Jewish diversity as the enemy and treats them as such.
Here’s what I will say, for now. Jewish weddings end with the breaking of a glass, sometimes two. We often recite the traditional formula, “those who remember the destruction of Jerusalem will be part of the great rebuilding.” I often, when officiating at a wedding, then look at the couple’s eyes and say, “we are counting on you to break the brokenness with your love.”
May we be so blessed, soon and in our days.
Chodesh Tov. May it be a good month.