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Adam S. Ferziger
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Selihot prayers in Jerusalem as counter-rallies: Two interpretations

As all walks of Israeli society meander through Jerusalem this high holy day season, their organic gatherings smack of a new mode of prayer
The concert at First Station, with Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum and musicians. (Facebook, Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
The concert at First Station, with Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum and musicians. (Facebook, Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

For Israel, this has been the year of the rallies. So much so that any mass outdoor gathering begs the question: is this a rally?

No doubt, there have been many demonstrations throughout Israel’s history, but the sheer numbers, the regularity, the noise, the geographic spread, the disruption, the degree to which they have shaped our lives throughout the year — wherever we stand on the political spectrum — has been extraordinary.

This realization came across to me the past two nights when I went for late-night walks around Jerusalem. Making my way from the Mesilah Park and The First Station down to Sultan’s Pool, up to the Mamilla Mall past Jaffa Gate, and then along the Old City Walls to Safra Square and on to Ben Yehuda Street, I was dazed by the thousands of women and men who filled the parks, the paths, and the roads after 11:30 p.m. Most were teens and young couples, but there were plenty of families and older groups as well. At some points, I had to stop completely because there was literally no room to pass!

To be sure, I knew that most were heading toward the Kotel (Wailing Wall) for the midnight selihot penitence prayers that are customary during the high holy day period and climax as we reach Yom Kippur. Others were participating in selihot-style sing-alongs with well-known local performers. Indeed, we only moved back to Jerusalem last summer, after over three decades in Kfar Saba, and what I saw may be a yearly occurrence. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help asking myself whether there was a relationship between this enormous human turnout and the overall demonstration culture that has taken root?

There is no clear answer, but here are two polar conjectures, one tragic and one optimistic. In either case there is a “rally” character to the event, even if that was not the intention of the participants.

The tragic one is that, without necessarily intending to make the point, the thousands who came to Jerusalem to pray, sing, and connect with sacred spaces are a completely different sector from those who populate the anti-judicial overhaul protests on a regular basis. The latter could be described, for the most part, as committed to liberal values, predominantly Ashkenazic, live nonobservant lifestyles, or are on the progressive side of the religious spectrum, are academically educated, seek territorial compromise with the Palestinians, and vote exclusively for parties currently in the opposition. Those I saw last night, by contrast, could be characterized as fully observant or highly traditional, including a considerable percentage of Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews and Haredim, identify with the nationalistic tropes, support the right of Jews to settle the entire biblical land of Israel, and voted for parties within the current government coalition.

In this scenario, selihot evenings in Jerusalem have Jeremiac quality, a show of force that shouts out: “Don’t be fooled by the numbers at the anti-government rallies, our bloc is bigger and growing; our power is incontestable because it is grounded in our commitment to God!”

Alternatively, selihot are a completely different type of counter-rally. Rather than intensifying the divide, they offer an opportunity to demonstrate points of connection and consider what we may share. For a brief period at the beginning of the new year, a special season that is appreciated by a wide range of Israelis, masses can exclaim that political differences — even painful debates over critical issues of governance, are not the exclusive litmus tests for collective identify and common bonds.

I’m not naïve and the first interpretation, unfortunately, has compelling evidence to support it. In fact, I admit that as I walked through the crowded Jerusalem streets, it was my initial reaction. In retrospect, however, there were also substantive indications that the selihot pilgrims were not of one ilk. At the least, they offered glimpses of the possibility that the immense attraction and energy of a beautiful, cool, early autumn Jerusalem eve, alive with fresh-faced youth intermingled with an assortment of pious, reverent, and intrigued adults from across the country, could hedge against the apocalyptic predictions of civil war that are bandied around with increasing alacrity.

Revisiting the various stops in the course of my “footsteps in Jerusalem,” I drew optimism from: the hundreds – some appearing observant and others outwardly not so – who sang together at The First Station with Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum, of the egalitarian Kehillat Zion, and a group of local musicians; the thousands who came to hear and dance to traditional Sephardic melodies mixed with popular Israeli ones, performed by a diverse collection of singers at Sultan’s Pool; the raucous high school “ulpana girls” dancing their way toward Jaffa Gate; the middle-aged couples of every variety from across the map that participated in the “selihot outings” organized by the Jerusalem municipality; the newly-arrived foreign gap-year students discovering perhaps for the first time that the magic of “learning in Israel” is punctuated by unique experiences that are not limited to the four walls of the study hall; and, of course, the scores of uniformed female and male IDF soldiers sitting in small circles in parks and plaza’s throughout the city deep in conversation and debate with their guides provided for them by the educational corps.

Taken together, what struck me most about this more optimistic perspective was the contradistinction to the high holiday formal synagogue prayer framework. With all due respect to the sanctity of the synagogue, the closed edifice intensifies the ability to sequester oneself off from those who are different, whereas the meandering through Jerusalem’s streets and open-venues necessitates encounters with a far broader array of sounds, scenes, and people.

The prophet Jeremiah offers ample backdrops for the tragic prospects of my initial pessimistic response to this past week’s “selihot counter-rallies.” Conversely, while Isaiah’s visions often seem overly utopian to ever come to fruition in reality, one of his images is close enough to what I saw to offer a modicum of hope:

שְׂאִי סָבִיב עֵינַיִךְ וּרְאִי כֻּלָּם נִקְבְּצו…

Look up all around you and see:
They are all assembled…

(Isaiah 49:18)

About the Author
Adam S. Ferziger is professor in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, where he holds the Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Chair, and is co-convener of the Oxford Summer Institute on Modern and Contemporary Judaism, University of Oxford. His most recent monograph, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism (Wayne State University Press, 2015), won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of American Jewish Studies.
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