Friday, June 10, 2016
I was so shocked by the proposal to split the Western Wall into two separate prayer spaces, and the bitter debate that followed, that I decided to come up to Jerusalem to see if I could do something for the sake of achdus. The Kotel (the Wall) is the one place where every Jew should be welcome, and equally so. I may be only one person, but in a Jewish world so focused on division I am one voice for unity, and at this urgent time we need every person we can get, here, at the Wall.
I came to the Kotel at night time on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the month) of Adar II. At night, the Wall is crowded with ultra-Orthodox Jews in black-and-white, studying Torah or swaying in prayer. I stood in the outer plaza for the longest time, trying to decide "which Kotel" to go to. Do I express support for the liberal movements and go to the southern end? Or do I go to the place that has always been the Kotel for me, where I connect to G-d? I chose to go to that one and only place for all of our people.
In the morning at the Kotel there is a special neitz (sunrise) prayer service, when everyone begins the main prayer at the instant the sun comes up. I've been praying the neitz service at the Wall nearly every day now for the last three months. It's not without challenges, though; some of the ultra Orthodox try to interfere - standing in front of or near me, or talking to me as I pray. Thank G-d, I'm always able to complete my prayers. But I often find myself thinking, "How can it be like this here? Everyone has a right to come and pray at the Wall."
That's how it was one sunrise 49 years ago, when the Western Wall was liberated in June of 1967.1 Two hundred thousand Jews came to the Kotel as the sun was coming up, on the day of the festival of Shavuos, that year. After two thousand years, the Jewish people were finally free again to come to their holiest site, and everyone came together. The report by the Jerusalem Post is well known:
"Every section of the population was represented. Kibbutz members and soldiers rubbing shoulders with Neturei Karta. Mothers came with children in prams, and old men trudged steeply up Mount Zion, supported by youngsters on either side, to see the wall of the Temple before the end of their days.... Some wept, but most faces were wreathed in smiles."
That's how it was at sunrise about 3,300 years ago, on the first Shavuos in Jewish history, when a united Jewish people stood around Mt. Sinai to hear G-d speak:
"And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a shofar exceedingly loud; so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with G-d; and they stood at the lower part of the mount."2
In every generation, we come together on Shavuos morning as one people, whether it's at Mt. Sinai, at the Western Wall, or some day soon at the Temple in Jerusalem. By joining together in unity on this day, we're able to have a one-on-one connection with G-d. In Jewish tradition, Shavuos is like the wedding night, and day, between the Jews and the One; we're the bride and G-d's the groom, or vice versa.
People often say that Shavuos, unlike the other major festivals, has no mitzvah (commandment) of its own. On Passover we eat matzah. On Sukkos we live in sukkahs. There is a custom to study the Torah all night on Shavuos, but it is not a biblical or even a rabbinical mitzvah. But I note that the Torah passage describing the yearly festivals does, in the same language used for the mitzvahs of the other holidays, give instructions for Shavuos:
"And you should come together on that same day; it should be a special gathering for you; you should do no work on it; as a law forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations."3
In the present-day Jewish world, people don't talk about gathering together on Shavuos. Instead, the rabbis describe Shavuos as the day that we got the Torah, and so they emphasize the custom to study Torah (in particular, Talmud) on Shavuos night. It's true that G-d spoke the Ten Commandments to all of the Jewish people that day, beginning to give us the laws of the Torah. But the main purpose and meaning of Shavuos was that all of the Jewish people came together as one, and literally met G-d at Mt. Sinai.
You can see an unusual emphasis on the Torah in Shavuos observance in the siddur (prayer book) too. In our prayers for the three festivals, we praise G-d for the holidays, saying: "And you gave us, HaShem, our G-d, appointed times for gladness, festivals, and times for joy:"
Unlike the Passover and Sukkos prayers, which express the feelings connected with those holidays - "freedom," "gladness" - the Shavuos prayer sounds oddly plain: "the time of the giving of our Torah." While G-d did start to give us the laws of the Torah, what we really recall each year at this time is the excitement of coming together, experiencing the "Revelation at Sinai," and being intimate with G-d. It is "the time of our unity," "the time of our closeness," even "the time of our love."
Today in Jewish life there is a big emphasis on "the Torah" in many other areas, and not enough focus on a living, meaningful Judaism. This is partly because of the relatively recent rise of ultra-Orthodox, specifically Chareidi Judaism, which values Talmud study above all else. It's also partly due to the fact that the rabbinate, with its focus on Torah teaching and study, has dominated Jewish spiritual life during our long two thousand year exile.
That began to change about 100 years ago, however, with the Zionist movement and its focus on Jewish peoplehood. But it was not without resistance from the rabbis. In 1967, not long after that wonderful Shavuos of achdus at the Western Wall, the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate took control of the site.4 They set up a mechitza, separating women and men, and have forbidden prayer by other denominations. Today, the Women of the Wall face harassment for trying to pray at the Kotel in a gender equal way. And even a more modern Orthodox Jew like myself can't get too close to the Wall for too long.
In the bigger picture, we're now seeing a generational change in Jewish leadership playing out at the Western Wall. The Kotel is, after all, the site of the Temple, which is a recreation of the Mt. Sinai experience in permanent form. The Temple represents the one place where we can "come together" and connect directly with G-d. In the rabbinic period, the Torah is the intermediary in that relationship. But to re-establish our connection, we need everyone - women and men, and every type of Jew. Only a fully united people can make that one-on-one connection with G-d. And that's why the rabbinate resists any Kotel deal that gives equal access to everyone. Full achdus at the Wall would be a big step out of the rabbinic period and into a new era of the Temple.
In the last 100 years, the Jewish people, with G-d's help, have made miraculous progress at emerging from the dark night of exile and into the dawn of connection. And it looks like there's not much farther to go to complete the reunion with each other and with G-d. The Western Wall is, more than any other place, the key location to restoring our achdus. And at this Shavuos season of love, let's all recognize that this is the time for us to come together. I, for one, am standing here at the Wall, watching the clock tick toward the one instant of sunrise, when everyone joins together in praying to the One. All I need, now, is you.
1 Domnitch, L. Magic of Shavuot 1967. aish.com. Retrieved from http://www.aish.com/jw/j/48965971.html↩
2 Shemos 19:16-17↩
3 Vayikra 23:21↩
4 Timeline of the Kotel. Makom Israel. The Jewish Agency for Israel. Retrieved from http://makomisrael.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Timeline-of-the-Kotel-A5.pdf↩