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Big Tent Judaism, Kotel style

With spiritual introspection, the squabbles that threaten to tear us apart become insignificant

I went to Jerusalem’s Western Wall this morning, forgetting the implications of going there on the first day of the Jewish month. Those in the know, of course, recognize this day as the one that brings the controversial “Women of the Wall” to come and pray there.

In the recent past, this group has drawn tremendous attention in the press. More than anything else, it is the fierce and sometimes violent opposition that it has met from certain segments of the Orthodox population that has taken this rather small group into the headlines and, in turn, forced the hand of the Israeli government and courts to try to deal with situation.

For whatever reason, today was rather quiet. Not that the women were quiet, they were actually rather loud, though thankfully usually on key. There was also a group of even louder men not too far away – I couldn’t tell if they were there to drown out the women, to support them or simply enthusiastic about their prayers. I didn’t ask and I didn’t really care. And that’s what made it special. No one else seemed to care either. Even more special.

Going to the Wall has always been an ambivalent experience for me. There is an overwhelming sense of holiness that makes it easy to remove oneself from the world and feel a profound connection to God, to the Jewish people and its history. At the same time, the host of tourists, beggars and loud bar mitzvah ceremonies with the myriad video cameras has made the Kotel into a palace of distraction.

My focus this morning was less broken by the Women of the Wall and whoever those Men of the Wall happened to be than by the custodial staff who are hired to endlessly move chairs and tables for no apparent reason except to annoy worshipers who seek to put down their backpacks or ritual objects only to find them halfway across the Plaza, if they are not too careful. Then there was the rival prayer group who decided to set itself up two meters away from my group when most of the Plaza was empty, making it almost impossible to hear the authentic and impossibly gentle Yemenite Torah reader in my group. But somehow we accept it all. That’s simply the way it is at the Wall, and as long as a true minimum of decorum is kept, almost anything goes.

So I was glad to see everyone ignoring The Women of the Wall. I strongly disagree with their views and I am no liberal when it comes to issues of religion and state. But I came at the Wall to pray, not to be annoyed.

But there is something else. I didn’t care about the Women of the Wall because I was involved in something that made everything else pale in comparison. All of a sudden it’s not just the Plaza that becomes much bigger, it’s the entire world. In that world, there is room for just about everyone.

And as Maimonides says so beautifully, in such a state of mind, one can only feel one’s own smallness. At that point, who has an interest in criticizing others?

When I reflect on this morning, I can’t help but feel that the answer to so many of our social and political problems actually lies within ourselves. As a person focuses on what is really important, so many squabbles and issues turn out to be rather minor.

Israel marks another anniversary next week. We are stronger than we have ever been politically, economically and militarily. But none of this insures our long term success. From my perspective, the real question is whether we are stronger spiritually. If so, we can weather all the inevitable storms that come our way. If we are not, however, we will inevitably fall. Surely, we are no worse than most other nations on that score. But from the perspective of a nation that thinks of itself as eternal, this can be of little solace.

We should celebrate on Yom Ha’atzmuat; there is much to be happy about. But if we want to continue celebrating in the long run, we should take just a little bit of time to introspect, to take the best of the Plaza and bring it to the rest of Israel.

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.
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