Standing at the Wall
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Taking a Stand at the Wall
Recent events taking place at the Western Wall two made me feel a particular type of embarrassed regret. Last January, Nathan Sharansky, the well-respected political activist and Soviet Refusenik, helped broker a compromise on behalf of the Jewish Agency between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox denominations (including Women of the Wall) with regards to accessing the Western Wall. The conditions of the compromise were that the Western Wall would remain in the hands of the Ultra-Orthodox while the Southern part of the Wall, also known as ‘Robinson’s Arch’ would be made available for egalitarian prayer as per the custom of the Reform and Conservative Movements. The government promised to start construction works on Robinson’s Arch (which at the moment is a not very accessible archaeological site) and hoped to complete the project in a year or two. This was met with great enthusiasm in the non-Orthodox world and I must admit that I had a niggling feeling that being assigned Robinson’s Arch, tucked away to the south side, was like being put at the back of the bus. However, after decades of stalemate, I was excited by the prospect of having a properly designated egalitarian prayer space.
I have davened with Women of the Wall once, and it was an exhilarating, intimidating and important experience. I’ve spent a few summers in Jerusalem studying Hebrew and Talmud, including in 2010. I decided to join Women of the Wall for their Rosh Chodesh minyan for Rosh Chodesh Av. I joined the other daveners and surreptitiously pulled out my tallit and draped it across my shoulders. I felt some trepidation because in 2010, the law was such that any woman who had the ‘temerity’ to don tallit and/or tefillin at the Kotel could be arrested and imprisoned up to seven years.
All of a sudden, a mitzvah that felt deeply personal, in which I feel profoundly obligated as an egalitarian woman, felt ominous and dangerous.
Our group started reciting the prayers and we were discouraged from wrapping tefillin until we would start our Torah reading at the poorly-accessible Robinson’s Arch. We huddled together on the Kotel Plaza, about 20 metres from the Wall itself – not even close to being able to touch it. As we sang our liturgy, the atmosphere became increasingly grim and at one point, a Chareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) woman walked past me, eyed me balefully and hissed, ‘ha’resha’im yashmid!’ – ‘the wicked shall perish!’ a citation from Ashrey (Psalm 145). That kind of sinat chinam seemed perversely appropriate for Rosh Chodesh Av: the start of the month which remembers the destruction of the very Temple by sinat chinam by whose buttress wall we were standing. Even so, we got off light. At other Women of the Wall prayers, the daveners had been pelted with stones, soiled nappies and even chairs.
It was profoundly disappointing to hear that 10 months later, the government had dragged its feet on implementing the Sharansky plan and construction on Robinson’s Arch had not even started and Orthodox minyanim had started co-opting Robinson Arch with gender-segregated prayer during Sukkot. This disappointment was compounded when Prime Minister Netanyahu cautioned the non-Orthodox world to remain ‘patient and tolerant’, saying "The less publicly we talk about it, the better chance we have to resolve it. The last thing we need is more friction, as that will make a solution more difficult." Both the Reform and Conservative Movements felt that after over two decades of threats and violence, we had been patient for long enough and that the government’s foot-dragging deserved an activist response. In that light, the non-Orthodox movements held a peaceful protest prayer vigil with over a dozen Torah scrolls on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan.
Predictably, this peaceful march was met with violence: Ultra-Orthodox men tore Sifrei Torah from worshippers’ arms, struck rabbis and pushed them to the ground. The Kotel police initially didn’t intervene.
Suffice to say that this is yet another setback in intra-communal relations and I felt that very regretful embarrassment when the story hit the non-Jewish media. ‘Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh’, the Talmud (Tractate Shevuot 39a) states, ‘all Jews are responsible for each other’ and it is mortifying to note that we cannot solve basic issues of religious pluralism in the Jewish State. How can we be an ‘or l’goyim’, a Light among the nations, if we cast ourselves into the darkness of religious discord?
This idea of regretful embarrassment is not new, of course, and not only the province of Jews. God feels this regretful embarrassment in this week’s Torah reading, parashat Noach, when God is repulsed by the violence and moral degradation of the ‘dor mabul’, the generation of the Flood. The Torah tells us:
‘Vay’ar Adonai ki rabah ra’at hadam ba’aretz, v’chol yetzer machshevot libo, rak ra kol hayom. Vayinachem Adonai ki asah et ha’adam b’aretz, vayit’atzev el libo’. (Gen. 6:5-6)
‘And the Eternal saw that the evil of man on earth was great and that all of his daily thoughts in his heart [mind] were only for evil and the Eternal regretted that He had made man on the earth and it grieved Him in His heart’.
It was God’s disappointment that led Him (or Her) to want to start over again by wiping away the generation of the Flood (exploring that is a sermon for another time!) as well as appointing Noach as His/Her emissary to save all life and repopulate the Earth.
‘V’Noach matza chen be’einei Adonai… Noach ish tzadik v’tamim hayah b’dorotav, et ha’Elohim hit’halech Noach’ – ‘But Noach found favour in the eyes of the Eternal… and Noach was a righteous and pure man in his generation and Noach walked with God.’
The Midrash quibbles whether Noach was meritous because he was the only righteous man of his corrupt generation or whether he was only meritous by comparison. In any case, the portion offers a potential solution to embarrassment, regret and strife – and it isn’t to drown everyone in a flood! Our response to troubling events in our Jewish (or non-Jewish) world should not be to lash out in retribution and perhaps that is the lesson that God needed to learn too. Rather, it is to transform our regret – nocham – into consolation – nichum: both words share the same nun-chet-mem root, a root in common with Noach’s name – nun-chet – also meaning consolation.
We should work to offer not baseless hatred but limitless love, not regret but consolation, not hatred but a resolve to pursue justice. When God sent the Flood, He offered the world no recourse. But when He sent Noach, the ish tzadik, He offered a glimpse of what it takes to redemptively ‘walk with God’. This paved the way for Abraham who would not only walk with God but face injustice head-on.
The conflict over the Kotel is heart-breaking and embarrassing. Yet, we can only confront such adversity with the values that the Torah scrolls paraded onto the Kotel Plaza speaks of. We must show the Jewish state and its citizens, and the world entire, how inspiring, relevant and compelling our non-Orthodox, Progressive, Reform Jewish values are – that we believe in a Judaism of uncompromising equality and radical inclusion, and that we wish to empower all Jews to define their own ‘walk with God’. We must pursue that vision relentlessly for that is the justification for sending our prayers heavenward at the Western Wall.