Welcoming the First Soferet Torah in Texas – Knowing Before Whom You Stand
A few years ago, when I was in Jerusalem in the summer, I attended a morning Rosh Hodesh service – a service to welcome in the New Month – at the Kotel – the Western Wall – a place that is considered holy in Judaism. I was attending with a large group of rabbis who, like me, were studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem – and we were going mainly to support a long-standing initiative, sponsored by Women of the Wall of having women sing and read aloud from the Torah while wearing traditional Jewish ritual items, like the tallit, tefillin, and kippah. As a man, I intended to show my solidarity with those women who regularly are heckled, insulted, and threatened by others who come to shout, whistle and throw things at them, for wanting to show up in this incredibly meaningful place to offer their devotion to God.
From my apartment, with a few friends, I walked to the Kotel, and I got there a little bit late – we knew there would be demonstrations and that the police would be out in force on the Kotel Plaza. We were not allowed in by regular entrances on that morning, and long story short – once we gained entry, I got separated from my friends, and ended up on the aggressive side of the barricade, a barricade lined by police, that separated those men and women seeking to pray together on one side, and those men who were pressing against the barricade with their bodies, spitting, and jeering at the top of their lungs, trying to disrupt and diminish these prayers, on the other.
It was a hot morning – and I was dressed in my customary black pants and short-sleeved white shirt. Not realizing it, as I arrived at the throng, many of the men made room for me – and encouraged me to shout, disrupt, and agitate against many whom I knew on the other side, just a few feet away. Truly, it was an unreal experience – I was seeing many friends, who were looking at me quite quizzically as I was squeezed together with those yelling hate – encouraged to do so, because I looked like them, and most superficially, seemed to match their conception of resistance to women’s expression in prayer.
After a short while, I and a few discomforted colleagues who came to the barrier from the other side, were able to convince a policeman that I was on the wrong side of the barrier, and as I crossed over, I then saw the dropped, stunned faces of my instant acquaintances now facing me, who realized that while I looked like them, and even prayed like them, I was choosing to support the rights of everyone to pray together and for women to read from and carry the Torah — and their invective was doubly drawn against me on that sticky, humid first morning of the New Month – calling me names that would shame me to offer to anyone ever, let alone to share in our timeless, holy space.
A few weeks ago, I was in Los Angeles, participating in an annual retreat sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. This is a week of prayer, silence, meditation, movement, and study. I was asked to lead the closing prayer service – to tie together the themes that we were studying – this time, our material happened to be about Moses and Miriam and the masculine and feminine energies in Judaism as taught be the mystical work called the Zohar, and the writings of Reb Nachman of Breslov. We were learning about the staff of Moses – the burning bush that was not consumed that Moses saw, and the rock at Merivah – that Moses hit, instead of speaking to it – and the consequences, thereof.
As part of my leading the service, I first gathered everyone together in a very compact part of the sanctuary, and walled it off with blue rolling chairs and many blue yoga blocks. I also taped most of the doors to the room shut, so that everyone would have to enter through a couple of specific doors. This was certainly not something that they were used to – and when we sang Mi Chamocha in the morning, and everyone broke through the barrier – and metaphorically, into the split sea – there was a palpable relief of a bigger space – of a sense of freedom, and there was dancing and much rejoicing in this empty space, newly filled by their presence. I had to cut it short, and in preparing them for the Amidah – their own spontaneous song of the sea – I mentioned to everyone, that while they were no longer bunched tightly together, they still weren’t completely free – that they still had to break through the tape that was holding the glass doors to get outside and to experience a freedom beyond the freedom that they were now in and thought was sufficient. This instruction was met by a sweet understanding – and as I was told later, animated everyone’s personal prayers in an uncommon way – as those doors were flung open – and the people left the space to encounter God individually, with bursting, grateful hearts, outside of any fabricated confinement.
It can be treacherous to walk on this narrow path – celebrating traditional Judaism in a fully egalitarian setting. Of course, having daughters, sisters, and mothers read from Torah is not universally praised, and too, to live according to Shabbat time and with a full liturgy seems retrograde to others. We endeavor to fully embrace the struggle to work within the halacha of Judaism – Jewish law – and to make it meaningful and relevant. What keeps me up at night is the quest to understand the relevance and importance of my synagogue community – when there are attractive alternatives of practice and community on both edges of our community, located in near proximity. What does my community – Agudas Achim – A long-standing Conservative congregation in Austin, Texas, stand for?
It was this question that prompted us to demonstrate who we are – as we commission the first Torah in Texas to be written by a woman – this task of bringing a new Torah home this weekend is a perfect blend of our values and aspirations. Immersing ourselves in learning, study, and the rigor of spiritual and intellectual acuity that is open to all. Our inherited traditions are important. The observance of an unplugged Shabbat. Keeping kosher. Daily minyan. How do we live our values in a meaningful way – when do we recognize where we are standing in relationship to the barrier? How much more can we do to teach grounded and creative approaches to our tradition – bringing anyone who desires, into thriving relationship with God and our people?
We are to see the freedom that we think we have, and then work to open and move past those glass ceilings still stubbornly embedded in our culture. Judaism teaches us to pursue a freedom beyond freedom. This is the relevance and the vitality of our community – v’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham – that we shall make a sanctuary for God, and that God will then dwell among all of us – in our physical spaces, in each of our supernal, loving hearts, as we regard each other in relationship, and as we walk in the world, representing the lessons of the Torah that we imbibe, wherever we stand.