A Midrashic Mirror Reflects What It Means to Be a Jew Today
Bright and early on Thursday morning, November 16, I pushed through my jet-lag from the flight to Israel the prior day to be at the egalitarian prayer space adjacent to, but hidden from, what is publicly recognized as the Kotel – the Western Wall. That morning, I joined about 100 members of the Israel and North American Reform community – lay leaders, rabbis, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) students – as we began a day-long celebration of the ordination of the 100th Israeli to finish the rabbinical program at HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus.
As is well-known from the news reports this past year, the place where we prayed, near the archaeological site beneath Robinson’s Arch, is seen by the progressive Jewish movements as a placeholder for what we envision as an egalitarian space accessible from the main Kotel plaza and in public view. Creating that vision, unfortunately, has been stalled by the current Israeli government.
After we finished our private, beautiful prayer service and Torah reading, which was held facing the southern extension of the Kotel wall, the Reform Movement leaders guided us all to the main Kotel plaza to share this momentous achievement in the history of Israeli Reform Judaism with the public. Our walk and arrival at the Kotel plaza was met with a nasty response as has been reported. Nonetheless, we persevered and danced with joy with each other and the Torah scrolls we had brought for the occasion.
While all this was going on, I was thinking of a powerful rabbinic midrash I had learned a week before during my regular practice to study a midrash collection about the book of Exodus, known as the Mekhilta (2nd century CE) – a study project that has been ongoing for almost two years.
I want to share this text without getting too “rabbinically wonky” about the niceties of this interpretation of a verse in Exodus. In planning for the eventual building of the tabernacle, the Israelites who have just left Egypt are instructed: “Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it” (Exodus 20:23). Nakedness is understood non-literally by the midrash so that the entire verse is a warning against displaying brazenness in the way one approaches, and behaves, before the Altar. But the midrash is not content with this commonsense teaching about proper decorum in a sacred space; the most profound part of the teaching comes next:
There is an opportunity to extrapolate from this a broader principle by comparison: If concerning stones which don’t have the consciousness to do bad or good, God says don’t behave towards them in a way that brings shame, dishonor, and humiliation, how much the more regarding another person created in the image of the One Who Spoke and the World Came into Being that you should not behave towards another in ways that are shameful, disrespectful, and humiliating.
This text is one example of the many places Jewish tradition teaches that worship is only meaningful when it reflects our commitment to be just and kind in our human-to-human behavior. To apply this midrash to the way we experience the Kotel means to understand that its value is not extrinsic. So, on that bright and sunny morning when we stood before the Kotel to celebrate the newest Reform rabbis in Israel, I saw the glittering stones as a midrashic mirror, reflecting kindly on the way Progressive Judaism has made social justice and peace cornerstones of what it means to be Jew in today’s world.