Thursday, February 4, 2016

Compromise at the Kotel

It’s a bit hard to know what to make of this week’s historic compromise regarding the use of space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem by non-Orthodox prayer- and tour-groups. Certainly, that any compromise at all came about is remarkable. (The Ḥareidi types who run the show at the Kotel—the Western Wall—and anywhere in Israel where the Chief Rabbinate holds sway are not renowned for their willingness to cooperate when on-paper conciliation might conceivably lead to actual on-the-ground concession.)  And, yet, there they all were on the front pages of all the Israeli newspapers and on-line news sites agreeing not to make a ruckus about a significant portion of the Western Wall Plaza—nearly 10,000 square feet, double the size of the area currently assigned to non-Orthodox groups—being assigned formally to groups independent of the Chief Rabbinate and its minions for their liberal use. (An area that size can accommodate about 1,200 people, so this really is a serious amount of space.) Perhaps to suggest the fact that this compromise should be taken as a sign of unity rather than divisiveness, there will still be one single entrance to the site. Nor has it been made clear exactly how the different sections will be labelled on public signage—an issue that will seem unimportant only to people unfamiliar with the level of almost venomous dislike that characterizes more or less any situation in which ultra-Orthodox Jews and more liberal types in Israel are obliged to reference each other in print or orally. Yet signs there too there will somehow be…and they will have to say something.  (What they won’t say is “Fundamentalist fanatics to the left and heterodox iconoclasts to the right,” however, which is ironic since that is precisely what the average secular Israeli actually does think of both parties to this week’s agreement. Saying so on a sign, however, would be contrary to the spirit of the accord. And, at any rate, such a sign would only be half right!)

The Orthodox end of the Kotel, what most of us have always thought of as “the” Kotel, will, at 21,500 square feet for both the men’s and women’s sections, still be the larger piece of property. And it also bears saying that the feel to the Orthodox space at the Kotel—the size, the location, the demeanor of the people in charge, the strictly enforced adherence to Orthodox rules in terms of prayer and Torah reading, and the absolute segregation of prayer groups by gender—will remain unchanged. Indeed, the casual visitor dropping by once all these changes are put into place who isn’t specifically looking for them will probably miss the whole thing. And that, sadly, is why the compromise had a chance in the first place: not because the parties to it are eager to embrace each other as respected neighbors or cherished brethren, but precisely because the way things will be laid out on the ground will make it more or less possible for neither group to see or hear each other, or be obliged even to take begrudging note of each other’s presence. In our country, “separate but equal” was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1954 because the situation on the ground was so much more separate than equal that the concept was deemed to be meaningless. This week’s compromise too will yield results more separate than equal, but it is such a vast improvement over the situation that has prevailed in these last years that it’s hard to see why we should not embrace it. It’s not perfect and it’s certainly not the ideal—which would be for the entire Western Wall to be free and open to all without anyone insisting that anyone else hew to standards not his or her own solely to make the insister slightly more comfortable—but that will simply never happen. So this is what we’ve got and I say we should run with it. But why it matters so intensely to so many people…that is the more interesting question, I think, and it’s the topic I’d like to address this week.

The Western Wall was never part of the actual Temple, but was one of the support walls built to keep the Temple Mount from collapsing under the enormous weight of the stupendous structure that once sat atop it in precisely the space currently occupied by the Dome of the Rock. (The Dome of the Rock itself was built in that place in the seventh century C.E. by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik specifically to stress the ascendancy of Islam by positioning its most gorgeous shrine precisely on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple.) So the Wall itself wasn’t part of the Temple…but whether there actually are physical remains of the Temple in any of its iterations—the First Temple built by King Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E., the Second Temple constructed on the spot of the first by the returnees from exile in Babylon, or the enhanced version of that same structure refurbished almost to the point of being rebuilt by King Herod towards the end of the first century B.C.E. only to be demolished by the Romans in 70 C.E.—hidden in the earth under the Temple Mount,  no one knows. Nor, mostly for political but also for practical reasons, will anyone ever know. And that leaves us with what we actually do have: the part of the western support wall that is visible to all at the Kotel Plaza today and from there south to the end of the Temple Mount and the part of the wall that is accessible to visitors only through the so-called Western Wall Tunnel that extends underground in the other direction as far north as the Via Dolorosa.

It sounds like an ancient artifact, something like the Jewish version of Hadrian’s Wall or the Great Wall of China, yet that couldn’t be less how it feels when I’m actually present in that place. And I should know because I’ve been there in almost every conceivable setting: late at night and early in the morning, in the bright sunlight and in the rain (but never in the snow that occasionally falls in Jerusalem), on Shabbat and on weekdays (and on every other holiday except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), on Tisha Be’av (the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction both by the Babylonians and by the Romans) and on Yom Ha-atzma·ut, Israel Independence Day. My first visit was in 1974 when I was a callow youth leading a teen tour to Israel only five or so years older than my charges. (When I first visited Israel in 1966, the Old City of Jerusalem was still in Jordanian hands and thus fully inaccessible to Jewish tourists who might otherwise have entered from Israel.) My most recent visit was the day before we left Jerusalem last summer and I went there to say my prayers before leaving. I’ve been called to the Torah there and I’ve dukhened there as well—many times, actually. It is the one place in which I find myself willing to put up with those people for the greater good of worshiping in that place. And it is the one place in which, despite my usual inclination to anchor any ruminative thinking about the future of the Jewish people in anxiety and fretful apprehension, I find myself unworried about the future and secure in God’s promise always and ever to watch over the House of Israel and the Land of Israel. This is not how I usually frame my thinking about the future, but it’s how I feel when I’m there. And that alone is why I generally gravitate towards the Kotel as soon as I arrive in Israel. Even after all these years, it’s still hard to describe the feel of the place or the power it somehow exerts on me almost as soon as I catch a glimpse of it from afar. But that power is real and I succumb to it always.

When I was in graduate school, I was very taken with the four-volume work called the Ḥemdat Yamim, a work of unknown authorship first published in Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1735. Of a similar genre with other works of kabbalistic ethics that also appealed to me greatly in those days (and which haven’t entirely lost their allure for me even after all these years), the Ḥemdat Yamim managed to conjure up—for me personally at least—the image of a kind of Jewish life that was beyond appealing: rich, tolerant, intelligent, honest, fully observant without being exclusionary or arrogant, and at least theoretically attainable by regular people such as myself and ourselves. Here and there, though, the author asks a lot of his readers. For example, one of the most famous passages in the book describes the experience Rabbi Abraham ben Eliezer Halevi Berukhim (1515-1593) had at the Kotel in 1571. He was sick unto death in those days, sinking fast and unable to find a doctor to restore him to good health. And it was then, in what would likely otherwise have been his very last days, that his teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the holy Ari, told him to go to the Kotel and there to encounter the Shekhinah, the living embodiment of God’s presence on earth. And there he went and, amazingly, he had exactly the experience of seeing the Shekhinah wandering down from the Temple Mount, Her head uncovered as though in mourning for Her temple. Seeing Her in such distress, he burst into tears and ran for cover into a nearby house only to miss the doorway, run into a wall, and knock himself out. And then he awoke to find his head cradled in the Shekhinah’s lap as She dried his tears and told him to calm himself, that he wasn’t done with this life after all, and that he would recover. And that is what happened exactly: he returned to his master in Tzfat and lived another twenty-two years.

I’m not sure why exactly that story spoke to me so deeply, but it has stayed with me from the moment I first read it decades ago when I was first encountering the Ḥemdat Yamim. Admittedly, it sounds like just a folktale, like the kind of fable Jewish people once told easily about their rabbis and those rabbis’ disciples. It sounded that way to me too…until I returned to the Kotel for the first time after reading it on my honeymoon. Joan was in the women’s section and I was in the men’s. (What God had put together, the Kotel had no problem setting asunder.) And so there I was trying to daven, but all I could think about was that story and how entirely plausible it felt to me as I stood there in the shadow of the Wall and felt myself fully suffused with the palpable presence of the divine. It really is hard to explain what I mean. I’m not sure I can find the right words even to explain it to myself fully, let alone even not fully to others. But there is holiness in the world and then there’s holiness, the kind you can feel spreading over you when you find yourself in exactly the right place at the precisely correct moment. For me, it was that first visit to the Kotel on our honeymoon that sealed my fate: even though I was still working on my dissertation and was formally preparing myself for a career in academics, I knew at that specific moment that I would end up working in the congregational rabbinate. It took me a while to talk myself into acting on that decision—I accepted my first pulpit only six years later—but it was that specific moment at the Kotel as I filtered what I could remember of the Ḥemdat Yamim’s tale through the actual experience of standing before the Kotel as a married man and a rabbi and an almost Ph.D. that sealed my fate.

Over the years, people have often asked me when it was that I knew I wanted to be a rabbi. Now you all know. Is it odd that that moment came years after I was ordained, after I had already spent all those years in rabbinical school studying for ordination? I suppose it is! But that is how life truly is: sometimes a road to travel on, sometimes a barrier to be turned back by…and sometimes, if you are lucky enough to be standing in exactly the right place at the precisely correct moment, a gate to step through

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