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The shofar’s call, then and now

The plan for a separate plaza for egalitarian prayer is yet another way to silence Jews wishing to pray at the Western Wall

During this month of Elul, we have heard the sound of the shofar, waking us up to the challenge and the promise of the New Year. We great each other with the words: “Shana Tova – may it be a good year.”

“Shana” also means change…so we are also wishing each other “a good change.” The plan Secretary Avichai Mandelblit presented at Sunday’s cabinet meeting that would move the Women of the Wall out of the main prayer area of the Kotel and give them a separate spot near Robinson’s arch represents a very bad change.

Notice the painful irony reflected in the following story from the memoirs of Rabbi Moshe Segal (1904-1985), a Lubavitcher Chassid:

In those years, the area in front of the Kotel did not look as it does today. Only a narrow alley separated the Kotel and the Arab houses on its other side. The British Government forbade us to place an Ark, tables or benches in the alley; even a small stool could not be brought to the Kotel. The British also instituted the following ordinances, designed to humble the Jews at the holiest place of their faith: it is forbidden to pray out loud, lest one upset the Arab residents; it is forbidden to read from the Torah (those praying at the Kotel had to go to one of the synagogues in the Jewish quarter to conduct the Torah reading); it is forbidden to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. ..On Yom Kippur of that year [1930], I was praying at the Kotel…. I overheard people whispering to each other: “Where will we go to hear the shofar? It’ll be impossible to blow here. There are as many policemen as people praying…” 

I listened to these whisperings, and thought to myself: Can we possibly forgo the sounding of the shofar that accompanies our proclamation of the sovereignty of G-d? Can we possibly forgo the sounding of the shofar, which symbolizes the redemption of Israel? True, the sounding of the shofar at the close of Yom Kippur is only a custom, but ‘A Jewish custom is Torah’! I approached Rabbi Yitzchak Horenstein, who served as the Rabbi of our ‘congregation,’ and said to him, “Give me a shofar.”

“What for?”

“I’ll blow.”

“What are you talking about? Don’t you see the police?”

“I’ll blow.”

The Rabbi abruptly turned away from me, but not before he cast a glance at the prayer stand at the left end of the alley. I understood: the shofar is in the stand. ..

I opened the drawer and slipped the shofar into my shirt. I had the shofar, but what if they saw me before I had a chance to blow it? I was still unmarried at the time, and following the Ashkenazic custom, did not wear a tallit. I turned to person praying at my side, and asked him for his tallit. My request must have seemed strange to him, but the Jews are a kind people, especially at the holiest moments of the holiest day, and he handed me his tallit without a word.

I wrapped myself in the tallit. At that moment, I felt that I had created my own private domain. All around me, a foreign government prevails, ruling over the people of Israel even on their holiest day and at their holiest place, and we are not free to serve our God. But under this tallit is another domain. Here I am under no dominion save that of my Father in Heaven. Here I shall do as He commands me, and no force on earth will stop me…

Women of the Wall are responding to God’s call no less than Rabbi Segal was. Women of the Wall understands the spiritual power and connection to Divinity that comes with being wrapped in a tallit during prayer. Women of the Wall know what it feels like to be forced to go to another place for their Torah reading. With this new decision, again, Woman of the Wall will be forbidden to pray out loud at the Kotel, so as not to upset other Jews (not so kind!) who don’t believe women’s voices should be heard.

The shofar then as now calls upon Jews to wake up both as individuals and as community to the truths of their lives. The truth is that there is more than one way to be a Jew and that the Kotel belongs to all of us. To paraphrase Rabbi Segal: No force on earth can stop us from continuing our struggle to make this truth a reality. Only then will it really be a “Shana tova”

About the Author
Rabbi Laura Geller is Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California. She was named one of Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America and featured in the PBS Documentary called “Jewish Americans.” Rabbi Geller is a Rabbinic Fellow of the Hartman Institute, and a Fellow of the Corporation of Brown University from where she graduated in 1971. She was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1976, the third woman in the Reform Movement to become a rabbi.