All Places are Holy and No Place is Holy
Kehillat Yuval in Gedera, Israel, founded seven years ago, is my spiritual home without walls. We don’t have a permanent building. We hold Kabbalat Shabbat services in the lobby of a school in the town that long ago became too small for us all. We usually hold b’nai mitzvah ceremonies at other Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism synagogues that open their doors to the community’s families.
Recently when we tried to find a place for a group tefillin-laying ceremony, we realized that whatever happened, families would have to travel far from Gedera to participate, prompting us to hold the ceremony at the Western Wall. The first few times we met at Robinson’s Arch, and later, after new arrangements were introduced there, we met on the Ezrat Israel platform (the non-segregated, egalitarian prayer space).
Returning from one of these services, I met an acquaintance and told him where I had been. He looked at me in amazement and asked the inevitable question: “What does the Reform Movement have to do with the Wall?”
I promised him an answer.
As in other areas relating to my national and religious identity, I once again find myself torn between intellect and emotion. My rational side tells me that there is no extra value to prayers recited at the Western Wall. Yes, these stones are beautiful and majestic, and the site is important in historical terms – but it certainly does not have any special religious or spiritual significance. Some of the things that happen at the Western Wall today verge on idol worship, or even cross that line. If we add the political dimension, and the regrettable identification of this site with the Orthodox establishment, I cannot see the Western Wall as a holy place – probably because I don’t even accept the idea of a “holy place.”
My emotional side tells a completely different story. I’ve visited the Western Wall countless times with families from across Israel and around the world, and nothing competes with its still silence and splendid scenery. This is a place that evokes strong excitement for me, and for others, too. Kehillat Yuval has a strongly secular and native Israeli character, but its members come from diverse backgrounds. At the Western Wall, the excitement of a Mizrachi grandmother raised in a traditional home meets the enthusiasm of a grandfather from a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz about to be called to the Torah for the first time ever to honor his grandson’s bar mitzvah. This excitement is both similar and different from that of the American father who returns with his own children to the place where he was called to the Torah at his own bar mitzvah 30 years ago.
The Reform Movement is playing a key role in efforts to retake something that has for too long been seen as the exclusive preserve of the Orthodox. The first step was to reclaim our ownership of the Jewish library – the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud and other, later literature – challenging the notion that Jewish books and learning belong only to Orthodox Jews and that non-Orthodox Jews are not expected to be interested in them. This was certainly the easiest step, since it is still based on intellect and study. The next steps were a bit more emotional, and therefore a bit harder. We began to reconnect to prayer and to physical emblems such as tallitot, the Torah, and tefillin, recognizing that we have both a need and a right to a life that includes religious and national spirituality and emotion. The return to Jerusalem may be the next step in this process. We no longer mourn our loss of the Jewish library and its expropriation by nationalist Orthodoxy. We have taken responsibility for our prayers, ceremonies, and study groups. We no longer feel like guests on alien ground – we are at home. Likewise, there is no reason we should not have the right to shed a tear at the Western Wall, to love the site, to feel a need for it, and, yes, to expect that it will love us back.
All the places are holy, so no place is truly holy. But Jerusalem and the Western Wall are there – reach out your hand and touch them. I choose to let the Western Wall overrule me and my logic. Even if one day, Kehillat Yuvel has a proper sanctuary of our own, it’s hard to imagine that we will abandon the tradition of holding our collective tefillin-laying ceremony at the Western Wall. I will gladly be moved each time with a new group as we sing “Jerusalem of Gold” right by the Wall. Together we will read the comments in the Gemara (tractate Berachot) explaining which way we should face in prayer: “All Israel will be turning their hearts toward one Place.”