In the Absence of Wholeness, God Cries With Us
They call it the “Wailing Wall.” Hakotel hama'aravi, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is known for wailing.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a hard time detecting the wailing. The noise at the Kotel on the first morning of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan was the whistling and cat-calling of Jews fighting Jews. I was there to participate in a peaceful demonstration led by Reform and Conservative movement leaders. We were at the Kotel to show solidarity with women seeking religious equality, and to demonstrate what it looks like when Jews pray in an egalitarian fashion at a site precious to us.
Earlier this year, the Israeli government negotiated with our movements to create a space for egalitarian Jewish prayer at the Kotel. But, fearing a backlash from Orthodox parties, the Netanyahu government has refused to act on its word.
On the morning of November 2, approximately 200 of us – some cradling Torah scrolls in our arms – gathered at the entrance to the Kotel, proceeding at a cautious pace toward the security area. Some press reports described our group as “wielding Torah scrolls” as if we were threatening to hurt others.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
We were peaceful as we called for and walked with dignity. After all, we were heading to a place where pilgrims come to offer prayers. Though I knew we would not receive a warm welcome, I wasn't afraid we would be in harm's way.
I was wrong. Dead wrong.
A poisonous response awaited us. Fellow Jews swore at us. Their children called us Nazis. They tried to grab Torah scrolls from our arms and we had to push back to protect them. I didn't have to throw a punch or duck one, but others did. A man spat in my face. Shoving, pushing, fighting, and intimidation were laid bare.
It has been two weeks since I saw with my own eyes the very thing our rabbis warned us about at the ancient Temple: sinat chinam, abundant, unchecked hatred. The live feed of the demonstration showed my congregants back home an unusual sight: their rabbi shoving and pushing to protect others from such hate. I was jostled between Israeli police and counter-demonstrators, both groups seeking to stop us from worshipping the way most of the world's Jews pray. What no video or photograph could show, however, was that as stoic as I looked on the outside, internally I was a wreck.
Running through my head were these questions:
- Just how pious and spiritually upright is it to treat others in our community with such malice?
- How can individuals claim to act with Jewish values when, in fact, they hurt or humiliate others?
- Is it Jewish to make women feel unsafe? Is it an expression of our values to keep women from Torah?
You know the answers. None of these actions is pious. They are not proper observance of mitzvot. What we encountered at the Kotel was stupefying, ugly conduct. We witnessed actions well beneath the level of human civility. Although I realize it is difficult to see people practice our faith in a way that expresses different values, placing others in harm's way is entirely out-of-line and unacceptable.
After our demonstration and our Rosh Chodesh services were completed, I approached the Kotel and I wept. I listened, too, to those around me. As the tears flowed, I remembered a teaching I often share with groups when we visit this site together. I tell them that the wailing at the Kotel is not coming only from those around them. It is also the sound of God's own cries. Why does God cry there? Because the Kotel is not a whole place. It is a fragment of something that once was whole. God, remembering the unchecked hatred that destroyed its wholeness – and feeling our pain – sobs with us in empathy.
El Ha-Rachaman, O Merciful God, cry with us and help us to heal the wounds we inflict on one another at the Kotel. Help us to act there under your guidance. Help us to restore peace and truth to Jerusalem once and for all.