Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Moving the Kotel

I recently led a special delegation of 16 Rabbis from across North and South America to be with Women of the Wall (WoW) on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, and to meet with Knesset members, lobbyists, and the WoW Board. Two days after we celebrated the 25th anniversary of (WoW) at the Kotel with over 600 women—and with little of the usual chair-throwing, whistle-blowing and cursing that they normally endure monthly—Avigdor Lieberman donned a tallit and celebrated his acquittal at the Kotel. I was struck by the juxtaposition. For 25 years these pious, multi-denominational, serious women have tried to pray at the Kotel with tallit, tefillin and Torah, and have only recently won the tenuous right to the first two but not the third. But Lieberman can swagger right up to the front and be sure he will be welcome.

In previous months, busloads of yeshiva girls have been encouraged to jeer, intimidate, and by sheer numbers, push WoW out of the Wall itself into the plaza. We were determined not to let that happen so on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, we arrived an hour early to “stake out” a portion of the women’s section. At the last minute the Bnei Akiva Rabbis called off the buses. The few 15 year olds who came stood defiantly, yelling and finger-waving at women the age of their mothers with a rudeness I still cannot believe. We tried to be dignified as we sang to their taunts. Soon WoW participants swelled and filled most of the section, and 20 female police officers made a line of protection around us.

I cannot fully describe the sound of 600 women singing with fervour. From the men’s side—unusually sparse that day—a microphone drowned out our voices. But just as we began the Shema, the microphone suddenly went silent. We were stunned to find out that the police had cut the electricity, allowing us to proceed without having to engage in a prayer-shouting match.

Unafraid for the first time to don tefillin or tallitot at the Kotel, we held up 6 empty Torah mantles, symbolizing our desire and our inability to read from a Sefer Torah, since a new order from the Rabbi of the Wall gave him ultimate authority over who gets to bring in a Torah scroll. 

The most moving moment for me was holding our tallitot over our heads in a “group” aliyah. If you have ever witnessed the the priestly blessing done on holidays with hundreds of black-and-white tallitot covering the men, imagine instead tallitot of all colours, silk and lace and rainbow. Words cannot fully do justice to the sight. We were “priests” for the first time in our lives.

I understand those for whom the Western stones are the only stones which have the weight of tradition. In my dreams, I want a Western Wall where every Jew feels welcome, nurtured, and valued. But that Kotel does not exist, and for me the Western stones have been sullied since their “liberation” in 1967. 

Women of the Wall now face a critical crossroad. Some believe that if they fight hard enough, women’s prayer with tallitot will one day be welcome there. Others know this is not possible, will never be possible, and in the meantime the right of tallit and tefillin hang on a thin thread. This group, represented by the Board of WoW, has agreed to move the monthly service to the southern part of the Western Wall. There you stand above fallen Herodian stones which share the same antiquity as the Western ones, minus the visual optics of being “The” Wall; without the iconic paratrooper liberation photo of 1967. Until the government builds a beautiful, appropriate and equal southern site, WoW will continue to fight for space and dignity in the women’s section. But if WoW’s demands are met— including one entrance for all, visible and equal choice between 3 sections (men’s, women’s, mixed), equal funding for all 3 sections, equal State recognition for all 3 sections, and authority over the new section to co-ed advisors from all denominations— WoW can have a Rosh Chodesh service with mechitzah at the southern stones of the Western Wall and all of us will be able to pray without harassment.

Which do we want more: to get what we want, or for the Haredim to not get what they want?

Women of the Wall aren’t moving from the Kotel. They are moving the Kotel  itself. Women of the Wall may go down in history as having reinvented the Kotel. The same imagination that allowed us to envision a woman in a tallit when we had never seen one, a woman leading prayers when we had never heard one, and a woman Rabbi when we had never met one will get us there. While these Southern stones may not be the stones we remember, they will be the stones our grandchildren remember. This will finally be a truly pluralistic Kotel for a truly pluralistic people.

When all the WoW demands are met,  the new Kotel will be ready and those stones will gain a deep sacredness just like the others. We will, to be sure, miss the old Kotel, like immigrants miss the old country.  And while Avigdor Lieberman may still be welcome at the old Kotel, but I will finally be welcome at the new one.