“And Isaac entreated [G-d] in the presence of his wife…” (Genesis 25:21)
When someone is in distress, platitudes like “I completely understand what you are going through” have a perverse way of betraying the empathy they are intended to convey. No, you do not understand, may be the instinctive response of the recipient of this consolation.
The distance between the experiences of the marginalized and of those determined to stand on the side of justice on their behalf, is often frustratingly difficult to transcend. However, when ally evolves from a noun to a verb, pathways toward genuine solidarity and shared action expand before us. This sort of solidarity, which prioritizes the needs of the group excluded from the mainstream, is built on deep listening and committed, ongoing action. The kind of action that defined Rabbi Aaron Panken’s (z”l) days.
What does it mean to fight for someone, alongside her, while acknowledging your respective positions? Like Isaac’s model in his “parallel prayer” for, and with his barren wife, Rebecca, such a mode requires seeing the other person fully, listening to her perspective instead of making assumptions. It means fighting relentlessly for the “other,” without paternalistic conceit or presumption. It depends on making space to pray and act together, in each others’ radiant “presence,” “l’nochach.”
Rabbi Aaron Panken embodied this devotion to justice through amplifying women’s voices where it mattered most. Like Isaac’s humble, yet impassioned, prayer to G-d on behalf of his wife, Rabbi Panken walked the path of justice with empathy and sensitivity, invested fully in Women of the Wall’s struggle, while recognizing his distinct positionality in the context of our battle. Using his strengths and opportunities, Rabbi Panken championed religious freedom and gender equality at the Western Wall and in Israeli society writ large.
In 2017, when Western Wall security authorities subjected Women of the Wall participants to invasive and humiliating body searches, Panken was among the first and most vocal figures to speak out on our behalf. He lived as a model of “do not stand idly by,” unwilling to be passive in the face of inequality. While recognizing the differences in our experiences as men and women, Rabbi Panken fought to amplify silenced voices, with a heartfelt concern for his sisters.
Rabbi Panken is remembered for his deep faith in the Jewish people and in Israel, and fought accordingly for healing the wounds of injustice in these vital systems. He clung tightly to Torah by opening his arms to give to others. Refusing to surrender to the discriminatory status quo, Rabbi Panken was a prominent face on the front lines of Women of the Wall’s ongoing battle for women’s right to bring and chant from a Torah scroll at the Kotel.
To Aaron Panken, the Torah was not truly whole until all those reaching for it had access. Etz Chayim hi la’machazikim bah; “it is a tree of life for those who grasp it.” In his legacy, may we all continue to fight for all who cling to the Torah for life.