Queering the Kotel

The following is a drasha that I gave at our historic event — Queering the Kotel — and I wanted to share it here. (Sorry in advance for all the typos….)kotel picture facebook pride

We are here tonight at this holy place to try to connect to the energy of the Temple Mount, to draw that energy out into our selves, and into the world, to help achieve tikkun haguf and tikkun hanefesh, the mending of the body and soul, of Israel and humanity.

In order to get at the nature of this holy space, the Temple Mount, also known in our sources as הר ציון and הר המוריה, I want to juxtapose it to another holy space, הרי סיני. Unlike Har Tsion, Har Sinai is out there somewhere, in the desert, outside of Eretz Yisrael, in an unmarked place. Imagine for a moment that you are Moshe Rabeinu in the beginning of chapter three of exodus, you’re wandering the desert with your sheep. You’ve fled Egypt with a price on your head, and you are, as far as you know, in the middle of nowhere. You don’t know what you have reached — Horev, Sinai, the Mountain of God. And then you encounter the bush, the presence of God, and your divine calling and your life is transformed: you are to go back to Egypt TO free the slaves.

And now we fast forward in time and again Sinai is the place of encounter with God. Now it is not just Moshe but the whole People of Israel, and again, you are standing in the desert, which stretches out in reds and browns of sand and stone, its bright and hot in the day, and cool and clear in the night, and now it is in between, early morning, and you stood where Moshe stood, but this time, the mountain is on fire, and it even rises up into the air, and there is a great blast of a shofar, and you see the sound of the shofar, and you transported into another state a consciousness, the consciousness of encountering God.

And now imagine yet another time at the mountain, at Sinai, Horev, Eliyahu, worn out from his trials as a prophet who has been ceaselessly trying to draw Israel back to faithfulness to the covenant, has given up, he is enraged, but feels broken, and has gone back to the Mountain of God, outside the boundaries of the land, to seek God in a great storm and in an earthquake and in fire, but he does not find God in those things, but only in a קול דממה דקה, still small voice, or better yet, a voice of silence, maybe it was a such a voice that Moses first heard when he encountered God at this place.

That’s Har Sinai. The Mountain of God. The unmarked unknown place in the desert that is like a portal into another dimension. It is the ultimate liminal space, the doorway to beyond, like when you stand and feel the expanse of the heavens above you, or when you stand on the edge of the sea and feel how it has no sides. Moshe and the Children of Israel and Eliyahu walked through that doorway, they stepped onto the other side of the looking glass, and encountered the ultimate, that which cannot be grasped, that which simply blows your mind, there you see a flash of the big picture, what the world is about, where you are in it, and what you must do. Let me repeat that last line: What the world is about, where you are in it, and what you must do – or in other words, the Word of God, the Torah.

At Sinai, the Torah was revealed, and in the Torah, there is talk of another holy place. That place is

הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בּוֹ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם

The place where God will choose to make God’s name dwell there. That place is here. The place where God’s name will dwell. What does that mean? What is the name of God, rather than simply God, and how can the name of God dwell in a place? And what is the difference between these two holy places, Sinai and Moriah.

In Jewish tradition, there were two central institutions that were meant to stand on the Temple Mount. One institution was the Temple. The second institution was the Great Court, בית הדין הגדול. The Temple was the place where the people met God in a much more structured way then they did at Sinai. Three times a year, with specified structures and sacrifices, at appointed times, and through the mitigation of the priests, the people met God on the pilgrimage festivals. The Temple is a place where we encounter God but in a limited, defined, structured way, not like the great wildness of Sinai. And the Great court, the second institution, was the place where justice and morality were turned into public policy. The Great Court, was the center of Israelite government, seeking to turn the call of love and justice heard at Sinai into the form of politics, economics and law.

I think these two institutions help clarify what it means for God’s name to dwell in a place. If Sinai is the place where God blows your mind, The Temple Mount is the place where you translate what God reveals into the stuff of actual human life. At Sinai, we stepped through the doorway into the unmarked unknown space of God, at Moria, the temple Mount, God steps through the doorway from the unknown and into the center of our religious and political lives. Sinai is about encountering God. The Temple Mount is about connecting to the divine energy so that we can construct our society in light of the values that we learn when we meet God. The name of God, as opposed to God Godself, is written clearly on the Temple Mount, in fixed letters, a constant presence, as opposed to the storm of otherworldliness at Sinai. The concrete name of God dwelling here means that it is here, in this physical space, that we try to turn our religious energy into justice and a spiritually sustained way of life.

It was for that reason the prophet Isaiah three thousand years ago envisioned that this place, the Temple Mount, would expand beyond its role inside the people Israel and become a global center for the presence of God in humanity as a whole. Here is part of the vision as I understand it:

ישעיהו פרק ב, ב-ד

ב וְהָיָה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים

It will be in the end of days

נָכוֹן יִהְיֶה הַר בֵּית ה’ בְּרֹאשׁ הֶהָרִים וְנִשָּׂא מִגְּבָעוֹת

The mountain of God will rise up above all the mountains of the earth so that it can be seen from all places

וְנָהֲרוּ אֵלָיו כָּל הַגּוֹיִם:

And the nations of the world, the families of the earth, will flow to this place, because in his vision, this place is not just a place but is a living embodiment, more than a symbol, of humanity’s potential for spiritual transcendence and for just government. This vision will not be a victory of Judaism over other religions or of Israel over other nations but rather the three Abrahamic religions that have found God in this place will come together, and build here the third temple, a shared temple of religious tolerance, and an international human rights court, as in the vision of Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn, so that together we may translate the call of love and justice which arises from our encounter with God into concrete structures that enable humanity to realize her potential to embody the image of God.

And the prophet’s vision continues

וְשָׁפַט בֵּין הַגּוֹיִם וְהוֹכִיחַ לְעַמִּים רַבִּים וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים וַחֲנִיתוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת לֹא יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל גּוֹי חֶרֶב וְלֹא יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה: פ

And the embodied spirit of God, embodied in our spiritual lives as represented by the Temple and in justice as represented by the Court, that spirit of God will show us and all humans a path to global peace through just government, in which we will cease to invest our resources in weapons that we use to kill ourselves and each other, and instead invest those resources in human security and development, as the prophet says, they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And they will not learn war – nor oppression nor exploitation nor discrimination – anymore.

But if this is the meaning of this holy place, and this is the vision of the prophet, why then is the Temple Mount not leading us all to a world of love and justice? Why is there is so much hate here? So much intolerance? How can the place where God’s name is meant to dwell be involved in so much violence and ignorance?

It is because we have forgotten a fundamental truth about how we are meant to interpret religious tradition. Tradition is not meant to blind us and drive us forward like the blinders and bit of a horse. We are meant to look into the tradition and see what was an expression of a past age and what we are meant to do now. There’s no way to do that except with s’vara, a sound mind and independent judgement as Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn and many other chachamim taught.  This is not an axiom of liberal Judaism but of all Judaism.

There is no alternative to making the judgement but you can do it in one of two ways: you can recognize it and take moral responsibility for it. Or you can pretend that the meaning of the tradition is fixed and refuse to take moral responsibility for what you say that the tradition means. That second path, faking it, is extremely dangerous, because it allows people to use Judaism as a tool of oppression, exploitation and violence without feeling that they are responsible for it. They assume an impossible fixed objective meaning to the Torah, and thus feel that they owe you no additional explanation. As a general rule, liberal Judaism takes responsibility for its interpretation, and Orthodoxy usually (but not always) fakes the fundamentalist illusion. This is one of the reasons that so many Orthodox institutions propagate homophobia, as well as racism, chauvinism and religious intolerance. This truly transforms Judaism from a vessel of God’s will to a שור מועד (a dangerous ox) of ignorance, oppression and discrimination.

Those who have made the judgement and told the truth about what they are doing laid out a path for us to follow. The Rambam, for instance, in the third part of the Guide says that the sacrifices themselves were only an expression of a past time, but the message about focusing on God through spiritual work and through political justice is forever. Rav Kook disagrees, and thinks some aspects of the sacrificial service are forever, because the sacrifices are a sublime mystical way of worshipping God, but he thinks that eating meat and sacrificing animals was a thing of the past and that the Torah is designed to move us toward vegetarianism and even towards moral and spiritual solidarity with other life forms. In both cases, they explicitly show how the Torah always seeks to realize our moral and spiritual potential but also how some structures must fall away in order for the Torah’s goals to be realized.

The reason that the Temple Mount is not fulfilling its role, why there is so much hate and violence here, is because we have not liberated this place and our sacred tradition from certain structures that must be left behind, that must be broken down and abandoned, in order for this place, and our Torah altogether, to push us in the right direction.

The structures that I am talking about might be called the pre-modern architecture of oppression. You can think about it as four terrible weights at each corner of the Temple Mount that prevent the mountain from rising up and serving its divine function. Or you can think about it as four broken wheels that ground Yechezkel’s chariot, preventing it from moving us closer to God.
See Diagram:

four corners of kotel

The four corners are objective limitations in the ability of pre-modern Jews, and more or less all other pre-modern people, to recognize the full humanity of people who fall into the following four categories.

  1. Not male
  2. Not Hetero
  3. Not Members
  4. Not Adherents

We can now clearly see the fully humanity, beautify and holiness in people who live in other sacred stories, in other “races”, and of all queer varieties. And we know that women share the qualities that require equality before the law and state and in religious life. We see a truth that pre-modern people could not see. We cannot pretend that we don’t know what we do know. We know about the limitations of pre-modern humans to see the full humanity in women (particularly in regard to equality before the law and state), in queers, in other “races” and in other religions. And we also know that we can see today what they could not. This means that rejecting homophobia, racism, chauvinism and religious intolerance must be bedrock to our religious commitment. We start with this knowledge whenever we interpret the Torah.

And this means a greater coherence in the way we approach halacha. It is true that halacha is a discipline with its own inner logic, and by delving into that logic and maintaining its structure we give structure to our religious lives. But at the same time, halacha does not occur in a vacuum and the basic contours of our moral understanding are not determined by legal or formalistic reasoning. It is an absolute moral and rational obligation that we recognize the structure of oppression inherent in all pre-modern thinking about these four categories of less-than-fully-human others. The recognition of the full humanity of these people, a humanity which requires full legal, political and religious equality, is about recognizing the truth, not about making personal choices.

It is true that there is more than one way to be Jewish, but racism, chauvinism, homophobia and religious intolerance are not legitimate ways. These are not legitimate choices but rather reflect a false picture of the world that has catastrophic moral consequences. While the particular halachic methods of leaving behind the structures of oppression and embracing truth and morality may vary based on religious approach, the bottom line cannot change: full equality and inclusion. That means full equal citizen rights for non-Jews in a Jewish state. And that means full inclusion of all Jews, men and women, hetero and queer, in Jewish religious life.

These struggles are not unique to Judaism. All human beings are struggling with overcoming this architecture of oppression. And those that draw on the powerful religious traditions of the past, even as they in some ways have much to offer, struggle with this architecture even more. And thus we have hard work to do, but also much to offer. We need to get down into the bedrock, underneath the four corners of brokenness, to the powerful redemptive vision that lies below.

Underneath the racism, homophobia, chauvinism and religious intolerance that so often covers up the holiness of this site, and of all world religions, there is the redemptive power that inspired the prophetic vision of the house of prayer of all peoples and the vision of global justice for all humanity. Tonight, we are connecting to that energy, and we seek to lift off the structure of oppression, so that the powerful redemptive divine energies that flow beneath can rise up, and flow into us, and through us, flow out into the world.

About the Author
Shaiya Rothberg lives in Jerusalem and teaches Jewish Thought and Kabbalah at the Conservative Yeshiva. He's also a human rights activist focused on resisting the abuses of Israel's discriminatory West Bank regime. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and a B.A. in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan. He made aliyah in 1988 and served as a soldier and officer in the I.D.F. from 1990-1993 in the military government of the Gaza strip. The opinions in his blog are his own and do not represent any institution.
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