Elyse Frishman
Elyse Frishman

Fear and Trembling in Jerusalem

“Aren’t you afraid of God?” a secular Israeli asked recently. “That God will strike you for your sins?” A fascinating query, since this man wasn’t religiously observant at all. Yet he’d been taught to be afraid of the Jewish God. He’d been misinformed.

Fear of God isn’t mortal fear. It’s yirat Adonai, which means to be astoundingly in awe of God. Shabbat 31ab affirms it as our highest aspiration.

God has many names. Adonai means “Mercy.” To experience Yirat Adonai means to be radically in awe of Mercy.

The Merciful God embraces. The Merciful God doesn’t strike a child for sin. The Merciful God guides and loves. Who would be afraid of this God?

Over time, halachic restriction on the roles of men and women in prayer masked yirat Adonai. I asked this secular Israeli, “Do you think it is a problem when women pray and sing alongside men?” He quickly said, “Yes, because it’s a sexual thing; the men will be distracted.” “Why are women punished for that? If a woman is raped, is it her fault that the man can’t control himself?” He saw the point. Of course the fundamentalist Jew would respond that women aren’t obligated and men are in prayer. But that is a man-made construct, evolved over time; it is not divine.

One might pray from fear, to a God who would strike one down for not following rules. Better to pray from awe, with humility, gratitude and profound appreciation for the gift of life. Why are so many Israelis secular? Perhaps because they have no idea that spirituality exists in Judaism! Perhaps they’re only aware of the fundamentalist orthodox construct, and it doesn’t make sense.

The Tannaim and Amoraim saved Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, reshaping priestly culture into a rabbinic one. But their best efforts to uphold the Jewish people blended brilliant wisdom with superstitious lore. Talmud is a repository of layers of conversations over centuries, and never was edited quite enough. When we study and enact its wisdom, we shine. When we quote that which never should have been recorded, we are diminished.

We are responsible for what we draw from our heritage, what we teach, and how we behave.

Who is a serious Jew? A serious Jew is intentional about Jewish life, devoted to the Jewish people, to faith and heritage. A serious Jew grows, seeks wisdom and humility, practices gratitude, perceives blessing.

A serious Reform Jew listens and isn’t afraid of “the other.” Life is observed through the lens of social justice, and that Jew is inclusive rather than exclusive. There are millions of serious Reform Jews.

As often as possible, I join the Women of the Wall at the Kotel to celebrate Rosh Chodesh. This month of Tammuz is auspicious. It presages major destruction with the onset of many smaller quakes. These quakes are generated by people not God. We’re in charge of our fate by virtue of whether or not we uphold yirat Adonai. Our sages declared: the Second Temple was lost because of sinat chinam, the hatred Jews demonstrated against one another. Hatred comes from fear, which is deeply emotional. It may have a coating of reason to give it substance and shape. But scratch a bit, and the darkness explodes.

And that is at the core of conflict at the Kotel. It isn’t about men and women praying together. It is about sinat chinam.

As we pray and sing at the Kotel, fundamentalist men and women scream and blow whistles to drown out sweet, joyful song and prayer. They drown out yirat Adonai! In months past, Women of the Wall have been attacked by these men and women – kicked and punched. It’s reprehensible, a blow to civil rights, and a strike against the God of Mercy. The God of Love.

Have you seen paintings of the Kotel that predate 1967? For hundreds of years, artists captured the scenes women, children and men praying together there.

This changed fifty years ago. When east and west Jerusalem were united, the great Reform Rabbi Alexander Schindler z”l organized the gathering of a large contingent of Reform Jews to pray at the Kotel – together, of course, per Reform egalitarian minhag — demonstrating the Reform movement’s love of Zion. The Israeli Orthodox Chief Rabbi responded, not with yirat Adonai, but with barrier. He erected the first mechitza! For hundreds of years, Jews had prayed side by side. Suddenly in 1968, there was a mechitza splitting the Jewish people.

On Monday morning, 2 Tammuz, I shared breakfast with my friend, Anat Hoffman, chair of the Board of Women of the Wall. Our conversation would be interrupted by a radio interview with her, discussing the government’s reneging on the egalitarian plaza at the Kotel. Unbeknownst to her, the journalist had also invited an ultra-orthodox rabbi known for his vitriol. That rabbi referenced the Women of the Wall with the Talmudic quote about “prostitutes who put makeup on each other.” He implied that the Women of the Wall were whores!


Like many of his forebears who study Talmud, he neglected to wean the chaff from the wheat. Afraid of people with expansive mindsets, he confused those passionate about human rights, with those who take liberties with morality. Worse, he publicly humiliated others. That’s far from yirat Adonai.

He wasn’t finished. Knowing that American Jews are passionate about the egalitarian plaza at the Kotel, this rabbi arrogantly queried why Americans sitting by their barbecues in Miami should have a voice in this decision-making. (Anat retorted, “How is it that an American in Las Vegas should have such influence?”)

Interesting that the rabbi imagined Americans sitting at barbecues. The korbanot, the holy sacrifices, were indeed a holy barbecue. The korbanot brought everyone together, closer to one another and closer to God. Yirat Adonai.

Now to the context of that rabbi’s earlier quote from Shabbat 34a, implying that Women of the Wall are prostitutes. Come and hear. Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai was asked to determine whether or not a particular plot of land had corpses buried therein. His investigation would impact the priests. He studied the breadth of the land. Based on the condition of the earth, soft or hard, he ruled which sections were cemetery and which were not. His opinion was accepted.

The passage continues: “A certain Elder said in ridicule and surprise: ‘Ben Yohai purified the cemetery.’ Rabbi Shimon got angry and said to him, ‘Had you not been with us, and even had you been with us and were not counted with us in rendering this ruling, what you say is fine. You could have said that you were unaware of my intention, or that you did not agree or participate in this decision. Now that you were with us and were counted with us in rendering this ruling, you will cause people to say that Sage are unwilling to cooperate with one another. They will say: If competing prostitutes still apply makeup to each other to help one another look beautiful, all the more so that Torah scholars should cooperate with each other!’”

Cooperation begins with what was already agreed upon. The Orthodox Rabbi of the Kotel, Shmuel Rabinowitz agreed in January 2016 to the compromise at the Kotel, allowing for an egalitarian area for worship. Yet, he reneged. One can imagine Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s angry reaction to Rabbi Rabinowitz.

Alongside the reneging of the Kotel agreement is the Knesset bill to abrogate the rights of converts and marriages performed, legally, under conditions the haredim now renege.

Here is a truth. Many religious paths lead to the Holy Place. Many Jewish paths, too, lead there. It is the nature of fundamentalism to be rigid, and the nature of liberal vision to see expansively. The orthodox by their very nature cannot be generous or open-hearted. But that’s not Judaism. Generosity, then, becomes the essential responsibility of the broader Jewish State – to affirm and support the diversity and plurality of all its citizens, protecting us all.

From Berachot 30a: The holiest place in the Temple in Jerusalem was where the ark of the covenant stood, behind a curtain the High Priest could enter just once a year. It was called HaMakom, The Place.

The text teaches that when we pray, we should face HaMakom. That’s why, when Jews pray, we face one direction. If a Jew is in the west, the Jew should pray facing east. If the Jew is in the east, then turn to face west. If in the north, face south. If in the south, face north. “Thus” says Talmud, “all Jews direct their hearts to one place, HaMakom.”

So if we all face the same place, HaMakom — north to south, south to north, east to west and west to east — what do we see? Each other. It’s no coincidence that HaMakom is also God’s Name. When we actually see each other, we experience HaMakom, God.

When we experience God, that is yirat Adonai, and we are not afraid. We are filled.

We need a rosh chodesh, a new head. We need new leaders, religious and secular, fundamental and liberal, who aspire to yirat Adonai. Who love the entire Jewish people. Who interpret Judaism with an open heart and a wise mind.

Maybe then we will attain the real unification of Jerusalem – Yerushalayim shel ma’alah v’shel matah.

Shabbat 31a: Rabba bar Rav Huna said: Any person who has Torah in him but does not have fear of Heaven is like a treasurer [gizbar] to whom they gave keys to the inner doors of the treasury but they did not give keys to the outer door. With what key will he enter? Although the Torah is the inner key, without fear of Heaven one cannot gain access to the genuine Torah. Similarly, Rabbi Yannai would proclaim: Woe unto one who does not have a courtyard, and who makes a fence for the courtyard, i.e., a person who lacks fear of Heaven and is nevertheless involved in Torah study. Rav Yehuda said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, only created His world so that people would fear before Him, as it is stated: “And God has so made it that men should fear before Him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14). The Gemara also related that Rabbi Simon and Rabbi Elazar were sitting. Rabbi Ya’akov bar Aḥa passed and went adjacent to them. One said to the other: Let us stand before him as he is a man who fears sin. The other said to him in response: Let us stand before him, as he is a man of Torah study. He said to him: I said to you that he is a man who fears sin, and you said me that he is a man of Torah study? The former is much greater praise than the latter. – translation from the William Davidson Talmud from www.sefaria.org
Note from author: “sin” in Hebrew means “miss the mark.” The context here is that merely to study Torah is insufficient if one doesn’t realize that all study should be towards yirat Adonai; otherwise, one misses the mark. Hence God’s aspiration for us is to study for the sake of greater mercy and love. Torah study used to demean or condemn people would be despicable – sinful.

Berachot 30a: One who stands outside of Israel should direct his heart towards Eretz Yisrael, as it says, ‘And they will pray to you by way of their land,’ (I Kings 8:48). One who stands in Eretz Yisrael should direct his heart towards Jerusalem, as it says, ‘And they will pray to God by way of the city which You have chosen,’ (I Kings 8:44). One who stands in Jerusalem should direct his heart towards the Temple, as it says, ‘And they will pray towards this House,’ (II Chronicles 6:32). One who stands in the Temple should direct his heart towards the Holy of Holies, as it says, ‘And they will pray towards this place.’ (I Kings 8:35)… Thus, one who stands: in the east – turns his face towards the west; in the west – turns his face towards the east; in the south – turns his face towards the north; in the north – turns his face towards the south. Thus, all of Israel directs their hearts to one place (makom).

About the Author
Rabbi Emerita of The Barnert Temple, Franklin Lkaes, NJ. Editor of Mishkan T'filah, the Reform movement's siddur.