Monday, April 14, 2014

Equal Access to God - Pesah 5774

My eldest son’s bar mitzvah was in Israel two-and-a-half weeks ago. He lives at Kibbutz Ein Gev, which might just be Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), located on the eastern shore of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. We put together complete, Conservative-style, fully egalitarian Shabbat evening and morning services there for family and friends and kibbutzniks, but we started the process in Jerusalem, two days earlier at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. There, on Thursday morning, we held a service where Oryah laid tefillin and read Torah, accompanied by his immediate family.

What was particularly unique and interesting about this day for me, in addition to my son’s bar mitzvah, was that this Thursday morning service took place not at what most of us think of as the Kotel, but at what might be described as a new ancient location: the southernmost area of the Western Wall, just under the archaeologically-significant outcropping of the wall known as Robinson’s Arch. (It was named after the early 19th-century American biblical scholar, Edward Robinson, who identified the arch on a visit to Palestine in 1838 as part of the ancient bridge that led to the Temple plaza from Jerusalem’s downtown prior to the Roman destruction in 70 CE.)

To distinguish it from the main plaza in front of the Western Wall where most people congregate, this area has come to be known informally in recent years as “HaKotel HaMasorti,” the Conservative Western Wall (Masorti being the international term for the Conservative movement).  But now it has a new name: “Ezrat Yisrael.” It’s really a very clever name: it’s the name of an area in the Second Temple that was open to all Israelites (i.e. those who were neither Kohanim or Leviim). However, to the speaker of modern Hebrew it suggests a place that is open to all Jews, differentiated from the women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue called the ezrat nashim, the women’s section that is separate from that of the men in any Orthodox synagogue; this name also derives from ancient Temple, where there was also an ezrat nashim.

Since last September, when the Israeli government finally agreed to make access to the Masorti Kotel easier, there are a couple of new features at the Robinson’s Arch area. There is now a huge, expansive platform with several rolling lecterns overlooking the site, which may be reserved in advance by anybody wishing to hold an egalitarian service there. There is also a special, separate entrance adjacent to the main entrance to the Kotel Plaza, with a sign saying “Ezrat Yisrael” and a security guard (although no metal detectors, as for the traditional Kotel). These innovations have made the whole experience far more pleasant and convenient and accessible than the site had been previously. As I passed through the new entrance, I thought, Pithu li sha’arei tzedeq, avo vam odeh Yah. Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter to praise God. (Psalm 118:20 - We sang those words a few minutes ago in Hallel.) It has been a long time coming that this prayer space of equality, where women and men may worship in contemporary style, where all can be seen as equal with respect to God, where all may participate fully, is now open to the public and functioning respectfully.

We held our service on the new platform, overlooking the ancient walls built by King Herod nearly 2,000 years ago, and enjoyed the relative peace and serenity of the scene as compared with the hubbub of the traditional Kotel area.

A little basic history is called for here: Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, Judaism was mostly centralized. Worship was governed by the kohanim, the priests, and included pilgrimage and agricultural sacrifice.  When the Temple was destroyed and the role of the priesthood effectively nullified, a new group of leaders, scholars that went by the title of “Rav” or “Rabban” or “Rabbi” developed a new way to engage with God: through words of prayer and words of study. As a result, they redefined what it means to be holy for Jews. Holiness would no longer be assigned to one central place, but would be carried with the Jews in their hearts and minds wherever they went throughout the world. We each carry within us the spark of holiness, and wherever we gather to sanctify time or to engage with the ancient words of our tradition, that holiness multiplies itself to make a miqdash me’at, a little place of holiness.

(As an aside here: It was this portability and effective democratization of Judaism that enable us to survive. As I referenced on Shabbat Hagadol, we could have disappeared when the Romans ceased the Temple service. But instead we found a creative workaround. This is why the Dalai Lama convened a bunch of Jewish leaders back in the early 1990s to learn strategies on how a people may maintain its faith in exile; this tale was the subject of Rodger Kamenetz’s book, The Jew in the Lotus.)

That said, I must confess that I have become, in recent years, somewhat disenchanted with whole Kotel experience. It has become an obsession for our people - these ancient stones. Certainly, they are laden with history, and certainly, it is a place that speaks with great emotional power. But since the Roman destruction, there really are not holy places in Judaism like there are in, say, Islam. Holiness is where the Jews are, and is not tethered to any particular location.

But the fascination with that big, open-air, continuous pick-up minyan adjacent to an ancient retaining wall is challenging to me. It has a faint whiff of avodah zarah, idolatry. The history of the Temple Mount is powerful and inspiring, incorporating the ancient Jewish tale of destruction and rebuilding coupled with hope and Divine connection, but it has never been, and was never intended to be what it has become in recent years: an Orthodox synagogue. We do not worship rocks, ladies and gentlemen. We worship only God.

Today, the Kotel has a mehitzah (that was not always the case) and an Orthodox rabbi appointed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, who has expressly forbidden mixed minyanim, or even women-only services that feature women singing out loud like men do. I continue to read accounts of how some of the worshippers there have become increasingly bold about telling others how to behave / pray / walk / dress and so forth in the plaza. Ladies and gentlemen, there are many paths to God, and if my approach differs from yours, that’s fine. We should make an effort to accommodate each other where possible, and respect each other’s path.

When I am at the Kotel, I too feel the ancient reverberations of our history and our tradition emanating from that wall. And I feel the sadness of loss, the hope of rebuilding, and the yearning of two thousand years of exile. Indeed, the ancient ruins of Israel, the wellspring of our heritage, made it not just possible but mandatory that the Jewish state be located there, and not in Madagascar or Birobidjan or Brooklyn or Vilna.

But even more, I feel the pain of divisiveness, the arrogance of those within our midst who want to tell others what to believe and how to act, the anger at the insulting and even dangerous behavior of those who have somehow incorporated intolerance into their religious zeal.

If those Herodian rocks could speak, what would they say? Can’t you people all just get along? Can’t you just accept that there are many paths through Judaism, that every Jew should be entitled to visit this venerated, historical place and access God through whatever means he or she chooses? If those rocks could speak, wouldn’t they remind us of the Talmudic passage that tells us that the Second Temple was lost due to sin’at hinam, causeless hatred?

The victory of the last year, when the Netanyahu government agreed to created this open prayer space for egalitarian groups at Robinson’s Arch, is of utmost importance because of the message it broadcasts to the Jewish world: Women count too. And this message, which is a bridge we crossed at Temple Israel in 1976, has not yet infiltrated into much of the traditional Jewish world. Pesah in particular is a time when we should actively recall this, because of a passage in the Talmud related to the seder (Pesahim 108a):
ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו, שאף הן היו באותו הנס.
Ve-amar Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: Nashim hayyavot be-arba’ah kosot halalu, she-af hen hayu beoto hanes.
R. Joshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated for the Four Cups, because they too participated in the same miracle.
It may be hard to believe for the frummer residents of Beit Shemesh and Boro Park, but half of those who were redeemed from Egypt were female. And so they deserve a place at the table as well, not relegated to another room or behind a mehitzah. And not just on Pesah, but in all aspects of Jewish life.

Why do we need to continue to focus on the equality of women? Because there are Yiddish signs in neighborhoods of Brooklyn asking women to step off the sidewalk in deference to a man. Because there is an ongoing campaign in Jerusalem and other primarily Haredi cities to remove women from sight: prohibition of women on advertising billboards, or when they do appear, vandalization by anonymous zealots. Because an eight-year-old girl, Naama Margolis, was harassed and spat upon by Haredi residents of Beit Shemesh two years ago because they felt that her dress was was not sufficiently modest. Eight years old!

This is all the more reason why the Ezrat Yisrael is so important. While certain quarters of Judaism are busy trying to make women invisible, we have succeeded in elevating them by actually building a raised platform. We have physically elevated those choosing to worship adjacent to the ancient site of Beit HaMiqdash, and thus raised them spiritually as well.

Chairman Mao famously said, “Women hold up half the sky.” Well, they did in ancient Israel too, and in Egypt, and they do so today. (Maybe even more than half.) But that does not mean that our work is done - on the contrary, we must continue to strive to make men and women equal partners in holiness, with equal access to God.
By bringing together the sparks of holiness found within every one of us, male and female, we can only raise ourselves higher.

Hag sameah.

No comments:

Post a Comment