In 1987, on my first visit to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program*, I visited the Kotel, the Western Wall, as every Israel tour group does. And out of nowhere, it seems, tears welled up from deep within me, from some ancient place in which Jewish history and theological yearnings meet and tap into our collective grief and our enduring optimism. I bawled as I leaned against the warm, ancient stones. So did everybody else in my group, including the one guy out of the 80 or so of us who was not Jewish. I was seventeen.
Fast forward thirteen years to 2000, when I was in cantorial school at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, I experienced an unusual thing that at the time seemed quite avant-garde, even slightly illicit: an egalitarian shaharit / morning service at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex. At the time, there was no proper area for such a service – it was just a spot on the ancient Roman roadway at the base of the wall, under a rocky outcropping referred to as Robinson’s Arch, within the archaeological park that covers the southern vicinity of the Temple Mount. I don’t think there was even a table; just a few cantorial and rabbinical students with tallit and tefillin and our own siddurim.
What seemed like a covert operation at the time, a solution arrived at to allow egalitarian groups to daven / pray in the style that is customary for 85% of North American Jews, was a compromise – an attempt to allow mixed groups to do it their way without upsetting the more traditional, men-and-women-separate prayer that goes on in the plaza that is often thought of as the Western Wall (even though that portion of the outer retaining wall is really only a small fraction of Herod’s rebuilt, 2000-year-old plaza). Our ability to meet there was granted by the Israeli government to solve the problem of Haredi groups harassing egalitarian daveners (people who are praying) and throwing chairs and even human feces at them.
For more than a decade afterwards, that Roman road under Robinson’s Arch became a well-known location for egalitarian groups, and particularly for destination benei mitzvah services conducted by Jerusalem-based Conservative and Reform rabbis who were grateful for the business. The road was uneven, and there were no chairs, and portions were roped off because it is an active archaeological dig, but it was a special and unique experience to don tallit and tefillin and read Torah among the ancient rocks.
But struggles continued at the traditional Kotel plaza, where (in particular) a group known as Women of the Wall gathered regularly on Rosh Hodesh (the first day of each Jewish, lunar month) to attempt to hold services in the women’s section, wearing tallit and tefillin (according to the various customs of the individual participants) and reading from a sefer Torah. These Rosh Hodesh gatherings became a focal point for many shocking confrontations between more traditional worshippers, the police, and the Women of the Wall participants, who were verbally abused and physically harassed and occasionally arrested.
For the last three years, there has been a solid, yet temporary and somewhat inelegant platform in the Robinson’s Arch area, just south of and out of sight of the “traditional” Kotel plaza, and this platform has made the area seem a little bit more official. About a year ago, the Israeli government agreed to complete the “upgrade” to the Robinson’s Arch area to make it a fully-functioning option for egalitarian groups.
But, Israeli politics being what they are, promises made by the Netanyahu administration were never quite fulfilled. Activity was stalled. Feet were dragged. Religious parties threatened. Nothing happened.
And the groups that had been advocating for change pressed charges, bringing their case to the Israeli Supreme Court. Just a few weeks ago, the Court handed down a verdict which said that the prohibitions against mixed tefillah, against women wearing tallit and tefillin and reading Torah were all the Israeli equivalent of “unconstitutional” (although Israel has no constitution and no principle of separation of church and state), and that the religious leadership of the Kotel (Rabbi Shemuel Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation) would have 30 days to demonstrate why all people could not pray according to their own customs.
According to the JTA article on the verdict:
[The Israeli Supreme Cout] also declared that women should not be subjected to body searches before entering the plaza. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run body that oversees activity at the site, has authorized such searches to prevent worshippers from entering the women’s side with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, tefillin and menorahs…
The [administrative] parties “must explain why the petitioners should not be allowed to pray in accordance with their custom at the traditional plaza, or alternatively allow them to pray in accordance with their custom at a place which has access to the Western Wall similar to [the access] at the traditional site,” the court said.
Kol hakavod to the Supreme Court for standing up for what is right here, and against the forces of fundamentalism in our midst. It is truly ironic that religious protection seems to exist for non-Orthodox Jews in every democratic country in the world except Israel.
It is worth pointing out that religious restrictions such as these are not limited only to the Kotel. In 2011, I took 37 teenagers to Israel, and we stayed one night at Kibbutz Shefayim, a secular kibbutz just north of Tel Aviv. It so happened that the following morning was Monday, a Torah-reading day, and as we gathered in the hotel’s synagogue for shaharit / the morning service, we were told by the hotel staff, secular Israelis, that we were forbidden from using the hotel’s sefer Torah by the local religious authorities because we were an egalitarian group.
In the weekly cycle of parashat hashavua, the weekly reading of the Torah, we are right now in the middle of reading the Exodus story, arguably the most powerful and moving narrative of the Torah, and certainly the one that has spawned the best biblical films. It is a tale of the struggle against oppression, against hatred and fear, and of overcoming authoritarian rule. But it is also a tale about egalitarianism, about equality between men and women. Let me explain.
Some of you may have heard (from some others in the Jewish world) that the only positive, time-bound mitzvot / commandments to which women are obligated are lighting Shabbat candles, separating a piece of hallah when making it, and immersion in the miqveh (ritual bath) following the menstrual cycle. But that is not true. Those are, you might say, “alternative facts.”
In actuality, there are many other positive, time-bound mitzvot that are identified in the Talmud to which women are obligated, and one of them is drinking four cups of wine at the Pesah seder (God’s promises to the Israelites that serve as a basis for these four cups were found in today’s parashah, Ex. 6:6-8). The Talmud’s reasoning for this is (Talmud Bavli Pesahim 108a-b):
ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו, שאף הן היו באותו הנס
Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi: Women are obligated to drink these four cups, because they too were part of the miracle [of deliverance].
In other words, the Exodus was not just for men; all of the Israelites were saved. And we all are obligated to celebrate this egalitarian deliverance today. That statement for freedom and against oppression continues to resonate in every corner of the Jewish world, not only on one side of the mehitzah. And given the centrality of the image of our people’s redemption from Egypt as a justification for treating all people with equity, the poor, the widow, the immigrant and refugee among us, it is undeniably an imperative to ensure that all of us have access to God and our tradition, that none of us are excluded due to gender or any other status.
And there is plenty more material here – the idea of a mehitzah (separation barrier between men and women) is actually medieval; it may only date for certain to the 13th century. And never mind the fact that there was no official mehitzah at the Kotel until 1967.
So I am waiting with great excitement to see how the anti-egalitarian forces of the Israeli religious right will justify denying adherents of the progressive movements to daven in our customary way. The Talmud tells us that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, was permitted by ancient authorities to wear tefillin (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 96a). Would our contemporary zealots challenge their authority?
By way of conclusion, it is worth pointing out that there are really no holy places in Judaism. Once the Temple was destroyed for the second and final time by the Romans in 70 CE, our understanding is that the Shekhinah, God’s presence, departed from the Qodesh HaQodashim, the Holy of Holies, and has not returned. We have sanctified time, not space or objects, for two thousand years. While there is no question that the Kotel is a place of great sentimental significance – a central connection to our history, the focal point of our prayer, the physical remains of the ancient epicenter of the Jewish world – our tefillah is just as valid right here in Pittsburgh as it is in Jerusalem.
But since the Kotel has been elevated to an unprecedented level in the contemporary world, that spot should be emblematic of all of the different paths we have through our tradition. It’s not a synagogue; it’s just a very moving, very powerful location. And it should be open to all.
Let’s hope that by the time that we take our congregational trip to Israel (coming your way soon! Let me know if you’re interested!) that we will proudly be able to gather there for a meaningful service the same way we are doing right now – acknowledging that we are all equal before God.
* AMHSI is now offering free scholarships to a few lucky teens from Pittsburgh. Please see me for details.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/28/2017.)