Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Kotel

Another item on my "blog idea" list is to talk about The Wall, and what it means to me. This is a perfect day to write about this, because as you may have heard, it's a big day for gender/religious equality at the Kotel (which is Hebrew for "the Wall"). In short, Israel's Supreme Court ruled today that it is not against the law for women to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) at the Kotel.

You see, the Kotel has long been officially designated as an Orthodox synagogue, which means that it falls under the auspices of the official Israeli Rabbinate, which is ultra-Orthodox. To put it mildly, they don't support gender equality within Judaism (or, for that matter, within anything). And so not only do they think that it's inappropriate for a woman to wear a tallit, which is traditionally something only men do, but they think that they have the right to tell others that they have to think, and behave, the same way.

A relatively small, but ever-growing, segment of Israeli Jewry has been pushing back against this ultra-Orthodox hegemony, and over the past couple of years they finally seem to be gaining some momentum. There was a recent decision to make a mixed/egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, to go along with the all-male and all-female sections. And now this ruling, which if it's obeyed, means the police can no longer arrest women for having the audacity to dress and pray as they wish.

As you can probably tell/guess, I not only disagree, strongly, with what the ultra-Orthodox have been trying to do for years, but I also get quite angry about it. I'm certainly not alone. Many of my liberal (non-Orthodox) coreligionists have been disgusted by the attitudes and behavior of the ultra-Orthodox for a long time now. And, partially because of that, many have started to turn away from the Wall — to no longer see it as an important, or maybe even holy, site.

There are other reasons for this attitude towards the Wall, as well. Many find the treatment of the Kotel to be somewhat idolatrous. People pray at the Kotel as if God is more willing (more able?) to hear prayers there. People write prayers on pieces of paper and put them in the cracks of the wall, believing/assuming that somehow their prayers are more likely to be answered from being placed alongside those ancient stones. I know there are good, non-superstitious reasons to pray at the Wall, but my experience makes it pretty clear that most people are using the Wall in a superstitious way — as if it had inherent power. I suppose that there's another explanation for the fact that there is a website where can input your prayer, and they'll print it out and put in the Wall for you, but magic and superstition seem the most obvious explanation. You can probably guess how I feel about that attitude.

Anyway, you add up the ultra-Orthodox control, the nasty, vicious non-egalitarian, and anti-feminist, anti-woman attitude of the powers that be, along with the (semi?) idolatrous treatment of the Kotel, and I can completely understand why some people are, quite frankly, sick of the whole thing.

But, not me.

Don't get me wrong. I am, of course, sick of everything I just described. I find it all to be, in so many different ways, the worst of our religion. But, despite that, I still find myself drawn to the Kotel, and I still love it.

Part of it has to do with my love for ancient places like that. Without assigning any extra meaning to it, I love walking on the Roman Road in the Old City of Jerusalem. Every time I'm there, I get unspeakably excited by the fact that I'm walking on the same stones upon which the first rabbis in history walked. I get chills walking into the amphitheater in Casaeria. And so on.

But, that's not it. My real love of the Kotel comes from a much simpler story. It comes from my first visit to it, ever.

It was the summer after my senior year of High School, and I was on a synagogue trip - a whirlwind tour of Israel. I went thinking it would be fun, but found it was much more than that. It was, as few things have been for me, transformative. I fell in love with the country and I can't, to this day, tell you exactly why. I just knew that Israel felt like home in a way in which few places ever have.

Towards the end of the trip we were finally in Jerusalem. We were finally going to see the Kotel, about which I had heard my whole life - it's a pretty big moment for most Jews, to say the least. But, I was angered by the gender separation. My 17-year old self was indignant about not being able to stand with my friends (well, one friend, in particular. You know how High School is). And so, we agreed to both go stand right by the mechitza - the divider between the men's and women's sections. And so, I wedged myself into that corner, and I talked to God*.

* Back then, I had a much more traditional, simpler vision of God. It made it a LOT easier to talk to Him…

The Kotel is somewhat beat up*. As it happened, right in front of me, a bit higher than my waist, was a worn out depression in the wall. It was the perfect spot to rest my hand while I talked. No big deal - just an arm-rest.

* a couple of millennia will do that to a wall.

But, while I sat there and talked (in my head, as I recall), I made a promise. I had been so taken by Israel, so completely overwhelmed by it, that I vowed, then and there, to come back. Not just to Israel, mind you, but with that kind of dramatic fervor that only teenagers seem to have easy access to, I vowed to come back to that. very. spot.

I remember even pounding my fist, gently, as I said each word. That. Very. Spot.

And so, I did. The next time I went back to Israel, for a semester of college, I found my way to the Kotel. And, I put my hand in that spot. 

Every time I visited the Kotel during that year, I put my hand in that spot.

Every time I've visited the Kotel, in my entire life, I've gone to that spot. And, I've put my hand there. 

I smile a little as I think about a girl I haven't seen or talked to in 20 years or so, and I wonder what life has brought her. I hope it's as much as life's brought me.

But, more than that, I put my hand in that spot, and I try to remember what it felt like to be a teenager, capable of melodramatic declarations and of falling head over heels in love with rocky hills and a stone wall.

That spot is mine. And no one, whatever power the Israeli government gives them or (please God) takes away, can take it away from me.

1 comment:

Warren Lieberman said...

Think of the Kotel as an idea rather than a place.