There is a Wall in Your Way

Jerusalem-15412

At the Wall, all anyone can do is look at the Wall.
From all her angles.
At the Wall all you can do is close your eyes because there’s nothing to see there.
There is a Wall in your way…

– From “Along the Wall” by Rabbi Joshua Bolton

I had the joy of joining with Women of the Wall this evening to help kick off the group’s 25th anniversary. A few of us from school were asked to songlead during the opening ceremony, and I welcomed the opportunity. Tomorrow, I will join their Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel (from the men’s side of the mechitzah), in support of my peers, colleagues, and friends.

My visit to the Kotel tomorrow will only be my second since arriving in Israel over four months ago (the other being on Tisha b’Av). I have a tenuous relationship with the Kotel, and as of late, I do not find it spiritually conducive to my Jewish practice. As an aside – is it absurd to speak in terms of having a “relationship” with a pile of old stones?

In commemoration of the Women of the Wall’s celebrations, a group of girls from NFTY came to Israel to represent the Movement. Speaking about the history and significance of the Kotel, one particularly wise teen said to me – “but it’s just a retaining wall!” That’s a pretty concise yet accurate statement of where I’m at these days. This statement is indeed true, but there is much more to this truth. Certainly, I recognize the immense historical significance and symbolic relevance of the Kotel, and this is something that I do connect strongly with. But as a symbol of Orthodox hegemony and oppression of the rights of women and Jews, I find it to be an incredibly challenging and emotionally draining place. Which is why I don’t go much these days, even though I live and study steps from its ancient stones.

While discussing the challenges at the Kotel, a friend of mine remarked that she really values the unique roles Judaism ascribes to each gender, and finds deep meaning in what she is empowered to do as a Jewish woman. And that it is precisely for that reason that she, too, finds the Kotel to be a challenging place, since the imbroglio takes away from her ability to pray there as a woman, in a Jewish environment surrounded by women who aren’t trying to silence her.

For me, alongside my deep commitment to a fully egalitarian Judaism, I also identify strongly with the various ways that Judaism welcomes men and women to access their Judaism in different ways, at times using different language. I have no problem referring to the shekhinah any more than I do speaking of Avinu Malkeinu. To be sure – not withstanding the historical bias towards a male-oriented language that Jewish history has had – I relish the different metaphors and allegories we use to talk about God and our relationship with Her/Him.

It is for that reason that the Kotel’s hijacking by the Orthodox disturbs me the most – precisely because it is being done by my fellow Jewish men, in the name of a Judaism to which I – and the majority of both Israelis and Jews around the world – don’t ascribe. When I go to the Kotel and bask in the vastness of the men’s section, I can walk freely up to the ancient and holy stones without having to push my way through a crowd, as the women do. I don’t have raw eggs thrown at me for wearing tallit and tefillin, and I can pray the words of the Shema without fear of being arrested. For me to do these things, while other Jews cannot, requires immense cognitive dissonance; that these offenses are committed by fellow Jewish men towards women because they are not men causes me great distress.

Yet tomorrow, I will join thousands of other people in recognition of the ongoing struggle to make Israel a better place. Surely, I can’t just sit on the sidelines whenever the fight gets dirty. Often, it’s important to get a little closer to the things that make us uncomfortable, to get a better perspective, and to push ourselves to right the wrongs we see in the world. As we sang tonight, overlooking the gates of the Old City: “Open for me the gates of righteousness, I will enter and give thanks to Adonai.”

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2 thoughts on “There is a Wall in Your Way

  1. huh says:

    How are the Orthodox hijacking the Kotel any human being is welcome to pray at the Kotel at both the main plaza and now the brand new Ezrat Yisrael. The issue at the main Kotel plaza is that Traditional Jewish practices are respected because if not Orthodox Jews would not be welcome. I have seen numerous non-Jewish dignitaries and Jews of every denomination pray at the Kotel. I think it is misleading to try to make people think that they can not!

    • For the time being, I will set aside the fact that not all human beings are actually welcome to pray at the Kotel, given that many human beings are barred from entering Israel.

      For those that are indeed able to pray at the Kotel, it may be true that they can physically be present, but it is obvious that it is not in a way that fulfilling. Separate but equal is not equal.

      The issue at the Kotel plaza is actually whether the Kotel is a de facto Haredi synagogue, or if it is a holy worship space that is open to the prayers of all Jews. Unfortunately, your own statement argues that the lowest common denominator should be whether or not Orthodox Jews feel welcome, instead of all Jews being welcomed. This rejects and nullifies the vast majority of Israelis and Jews worldwide.

      I would also ask what you mean when you refer to “Traditional Jewish practices” that are respected – what is “Traditional”? Whose traditions are you referring to? Do you believe there is singular, monolithic thing called “Traditional Jewish practice”?

      A simple search of Wikipedia will show that the history of the Kotel as a segregationist, oppresive Haredi synagogue is a relatively recent development. This is why I chose the picture that is at the start of this blog post – until recently, men and women were in fact able to pray according to their own customs, without the influence of the Haredi hegemony. This is what I mean when referring to the Orthodox “hijacking” of the Kotel. Of course, you could just pick up any Israeli newspaper to find additional examples of minority Orthodox rule over the non-Orthodox majority in Israel…

      You state that I am “misleading” others by making “people think that they can not [be at the Kotel]…” However I didn’t say that, and in no place does my writing make this case. Rather, I draw attention to the ongoing struggle at the Kotel for the rights of all Jews to pray.

      If you disagree with the rights of women to pray Jewishly at the Kotel, feel free to make that case here… but please don’t twist my words.

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