Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
TALES OF TWO CITIES
On Sunday afternoon June 25, Alice and I left for our month long summer sojourn in Israel. That Sunday morning we learned the news from Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced two cabinet decisions that cut out the heart of the talmudic dictate Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh, “All Jews are responsible one to the other.” No exceptions, no exemptions, no excuses: every Jew is responsible to and for all Jews. By rescinding these two prior agreements, Prime Minister Netanyahu does not feel responsible to all Jews; he feels responsible to his political base in Israel alone.
Bibi’s base teeters on the political knife edge of the less than twenty-percent of Israel’s electorate who are Haredi Jews. The other eighty-plus percent of Israel’s electorate are splintered among other political parties in a cacophony of political ideologies, including Israeli Arab voters. By degree, Bibi does not feel responsible to Israelis who voted for parties not included in his coalition government, less responsible to Diaspora Jewry in general, even less responsible to American Jewry, and to Reform and Conservative Jewry least of all. By the numbers, sixty-percent of world Jewry live in the Diaspora, American Jewry is by far the Diaspora’s largest community, and Reform and Conservative Jews comprise the largest Jewish community here in America. That first week we were in Israel, we had the unique vantage of looking back across six-thousand miles to see the bad blood Bibi had spilled in the U.S. Tom Friedman put it mildly in his op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled, “Israel to American Jews: You Just Don’t Matter.” Of course the converse is equally true of a segment of American Jewry who have been branded “Rhett Butler Jews” by my colleague, friend, study partner at Jerusalem’s Hartman Institute this summer and our 2004 Sajowitz Endowment Fund scholar in residence, Rabbi Jeff Salkin. Regarding Israel, Jeff says, “Frankly, they don’t give a damn.”
Both dismissive attitudes deeply disturb me. But once again, this isn’t a sermon about me. This is a sermon about us. Both dismissive attitudes should deeply disturb us.
Here is the double-edged sword that Bibi unsheathed on June 25.
First, he suspended the plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall under the joint auspices of the Reform and Conservative movements, separate from the traditional Kotel and to the south along the area called Robinson’s Arch for the British archaeologist who unearthed the remains of a ramp that led to the Temple Mount and the Second Temple two-thousand years ago. Unlike our Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, “Separate but equal is inherently unequal,” this long-fought-for Western Wall plan was accepted in 2016 as “Separate but equal is good enough.” Playing to his base on June 25, Bibi slashed the agreement.
Second, Bibi also slashed the Israeli government’s recognition of Jews whose Jewish identity fails to meet the standards of Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. To connect the dots, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate underpins the religious base of Bibi’s political base. The Chief Rabbinate then issued a blacklist of one-hundred-sixty rabbis in both Israel and the Diaspora, including some American Orthodox rabbis, as well as many Reform and Conservative rabbis, whose testimony in such matters is deemed invalid. Many of those on the list consider it a badge of honor. I was not so honored. But this isn’t about the delegitimization of these one-hundred-sixty rabbis, with not a single woman rabbi on the list. It’s about the delegitimization of Jews, from converts to Judaism, to Jews with only a Jewish father, to Jews with two Jewish parents whether they are non-affiliated, or Reform, or Conservative or insufficiently Orthodox to meet the standards of Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. From the narrowest perspective, this means every one of us here. More broadly, this means that a small minority of Israeli Jewry is telling an overwhelming majority of world Jewry that they aren’t really Jewish.
The following Saturday evening, July 1, Alice and I joined several thousand people gathered for Havdalah and a protest demonstration on the street outside of Bibi’s residence. Demonstrators carried signs in Hebrew supporting the Israeli Reform and Conservative Movements. The most popular and prevalent sign was Yesh yoter me-derech achat l’hiyot Yehudi, “There is more than one way to be a Jew.” During the demonstration, a man handed us a pamphlet demanding rights for non-Orthodox Jews. He said to us, “You’re here at a very historic juncture for Israel. Alice and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes; it seems like every time we’ve been to Israel is an historic juncture, starting with the Yom Kippur War in 1973 to our previous visit in 2014 when Hamas was launching dozens of rockets daily across Israel, and the Iron Dome missile defense system, thank God, kept us safe. Alice and I saw many familiar faces at the demonstration. How different it was from the night before when, after Shabbat dinner, I went to the Kotel.
Given the drama of the week just ended, in particular the disenfranchisement of Reform Jews from the Western Wall, I expected to see not only some people I know, as is often the case at the Kotel, but specifically many Reform Jews I know, all there to assert our presence at the Kotel and to affirm our claim to our special egalitarian section of the Western Wall.
Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel always bustles with throngs abuzz with prayer, singing and socializing. To get up next to the wall, you have to run a Jewish-style gauntlet. Thankfully, I am adept at it. En route and afterwards, I bumped into many people literally, but figuratively no one that I know. I then decided to go to the previously promised egalitarian part of the Wall, the “Robinson’s Arch” area that Bibi detonated as ground zero in Israel-Diaspora relations. As I approached from a distance, I could see perhaps a hundred people there. Aha! I was certain that I’d see people I know there. As I began walking up the ramps to the platform, I could hear the group singing L’cha Dodi, while facing the Western Wall When they came to the final verse, “Bo-i kallah,” they all turned to “Welcome the Shabbat Bride” just as I arrived! I’d say that I was embarrassed if not for the fact that something else was far more embarrassing. There was no one there I knew. No one. In fact it was clearly an Orthodox group of eighty or so men, with twenty or so women standing separately. Their prayers were beautiful, uplifting my soul. But my heart ached, ached with embarrassment, but not embarrassment for me. Where were all the Reform Jews? The Conservative Jews? The men and women praying together? Not only praying but by their mere presence protesting Bibi’s broken promise!
The next morning Alice and I went to the Shabbat service at our Reform rabbinic school Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Of course, the Beit HaKnesset was filled with Reform Jews, many whom I know. The D’var Torah given by the rabbi focused on the week’s hot button issue. His D’var Torah touched all bases, except for one.
On first base, the D’var Torah touched on the heroic struggle of Women of the Wall for egalitarianism at the Kotel, now thirty-years and counting. On second base, the D’var Torah touched on the fact that, after all, it’s just a wall, and to endow it with sanctity borders on idolatry. At third base, the D’var Torah reiterated the prophet Isaiah’s call for the Jewish people to be Or L’Goyim, a “Light to the Nations,” and the Kotel land-locks us and confines that light. The D’var Torah never made it to home plate, to the essence of the Western Wall.
The Western Wall is a symbol. Like every symbol, it has meaning. And like many symbols, it can have layers of meaning determined by its place and its cultural and historical context.
A tetraskelion is a good example of potential layers of meaning inherent in symbols. Tetraskelion is the Greek name for a geometric figure composed of four intersecting arms, radiating from one center point, with each arm then bent in the middle at a right angle with all bends facing in the same direction. Starting centuries ago, Buddhism, Hinduism and native American religions used tertraskelions as spiritual symbols of good fortune. In the twentieth century, the tetraskelion was adopted by a European political party as its symbol. They retained the tetraskelion’s ancient Sanskrit name. Ultimately it became the ubiquitous national symbol, on the flag and the arm bands worn by its leaders and soldiers. Just last month, demonstrators in Charlottesville proudly brandished it. Throughout the world its name alone still sends chills down spines. “Swastika.”
In Jewish history, no symbol could be more different from this symbol than the Western Wall.
Yes, it is merely a wall. Most of its sixteen-hundred feet length is hidden underground. If you’ve never been to Jerusalem, Kotel cams are on round the clock, focused on the traditional prayer area. That stretch of the wall is about one-hundred eighty feet long and sixty feet high, a fraction of the Western Wall’s overall dimensions. You’ll also note the Mechitza separating men and women. The men’s side is about twice the size of the women’s side. This inequity among other inequities and indignities such as unwarranted strip searches led to the demand for an egalitarian section at the southern most stretch of the Western Wall beneath Robinson’s Arch. This stretch of the wall is about the same size as the traditional prayer area, but the issue isn’t its size but its supervision.
Not only is it merely a wall, it is merely a retaining wall. As retaining walls go, the one along Route 376 downtown that runs up the bluff to Boulevard of the Allies is more massive. The retaining walls that buttress the Bahai Gardens in Haifa are more beautiful. In comparison to both, the Western Wall is modest. As such, it symbolizes the virtue of modesty that is the retaining wall supporting human character.
The Western Wall is a Jewish holy site, but no more so than Temple Emanuel or any synagogue. All such places are sanctified not by their physical building blocks but by their spiritual building blocks: their prayer books and their Torah scrolls. When compared with holy sites of other religions such as the Kaaba in Mecca and St. Peters Square in Rome, and especially compared with the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque that loom above it, the Western Wall is unimpressive. The Taj Mahal is more beautiful, but the Taj Mahal is a tomb, a monument to death. Likewise the Egyptian pyramids. The Western Wall symbolizes life. In comparison to the Great Wall of China, the Western Wall is miniscule. But the Great Wall of China was built out of fear for others. The Western Wall was built to praise God who made all humanity in God’s image.
The Western Wall symbolizes the dimensions of Jewish history, its emotional depths and spiritual heights. Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac to God on Mount Moriah, which the Western Wall was built to buttress. King Solomon positioned the First Temple so that the Holy of Holies would stand above the rock where Abraham built that altar. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed the First Temple in 586 b.c.e. When the exiles returned to Jerusalem fifty years later, they immediately rebuilt a new Temple where the old one had once stood. Centuries later, the Seleucid Greeks defiled this Second Temple, and the Maccabees reclaimed and reconsecrated it. Under Roman rule toward the turn of the common era, King Herod renovated and expanded the Second Temple to symbolize that Jews glory in God, not in the might of empires such as Rome. The Talmud rhapsodized, “One who has not seen Herod’s Temple has never seen a beautiful building.” When Rome reduced Jerusalem to rubble and razed the Second Temple, only the Western Wall endured. It then became the Wailing Wall for the next nineteen-hundred years, where Jews scattered across the Diaspora always faced and inclined their hearts in yearning to return to Zion. These prayers were fulfilled at the crowning moment of victory in the Six Day War. Israeli paratroopers wept with joy before the Western Wall as General Mota Gur proclaimed Har HaBayit b’Yadeinu, “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”
With the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque looming above it, the Western Wall also symbolizes arguably the world’s most intractable problem. Their proximity also suggests how close we could be to solving it, yet how very far away we remain.
Still, the Western Wall symbolizes the fulfillment of hopes that will never die, and dreams that can come true. As such, the Western Wall symbolizes the fulfillment of the visions of our ancient prophets promising a world where swords have been beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, a world at peace forever after.
The Western Wall is also the flashpoint of Sinat Chinam, “Baseless hatred” between Jews. This baseless hatred historically has led to the undoing of the Jewish people less often than persecutions and pogroms, but nonetheless too often. The latest installment of this self-inflicted tragedy came on June 25 when Bibi’s double edged sword slashed in pieces the mandate that every Jew is responsible to and for all Jews.
Of course this was the hottest hot button issue when my Rabbinic Torah Seminar began at the Hartman Institute July 4th. My colleagues and I were dismayed that some Jewish leaders back in the United States intended to protest by withholding their financial support of Israel, for example through the Jewish Federation. My colleagues and I agreed that this is tantamount to joining BDS, the Boycott, Sanction and Divestment movement designed to delegitimize Israel’s existence. I also learned why I hadn’t seen any Reform or Conservative Jews at the Robinson’s Arch Kotel the previous Friday night: There has never been a Reform or Conservative weekly Shabbat service scheduled there. The Reform Movement holds holiday services there or when American families bring their kids there to become b’nei mitzvah. The Conservative Movement conducts a service there once a month. I was stunned. No wonder I had found a hundred Orthodox Jews and not a single Reform or Conservative Jew there the previous Shabbat. We ceded it to them; unconditional surrender.
The Kotel is a magnet. It possesses the power to repel as well as attract. Many people feel its magnetism. Many others feel its repulsion. I have experienced both profoundly, starting in July of 1973 when I began my rabbinic studies in Jerusalem.
Those first days in Jerusalem, I had another dream, a different dream than the one I introduced on Rosh HaShana. In this dream, I was standing before a large stone wall and I was praying. It was nighttime but the wall was aglow. I suddenly sensed something looming above me to my right. I looked up and saw the letters Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, God’s ineffable Name. The letters were huge, twice as high as the wall itself, ink black like the letters in Torah, and shimmering with life. Like the Israelites at Mount Sinai who turned and fled, frightened by the voice of God giving the commandments, I turned away from God’s Name and ran parallel with the wall, as God’s Name chased after me. I awoke with the terror of the dream lingering. A day or two later, I took a walk to the Kotel. I caught my first glimpse as I was walking down from Mount Zion, with the Kotel still a good quarter-mile away. The wall in my dream had come to life in reality. Even from a distance, I was overwhelmed. I could draw no closer. The following Shabbat evening, I did make it to the Kotel, along with three classmates. As I wrote in this month’s Temple Bulletin, there I met Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who greeted each of us with a kiss and his magical salutation, “We met at Mount Sinai.”
I returned to the Kotel many times during that year and throughout the years thereafter. The dream was always in the back of my mind, baffling me. It seemed backward. I became a rabbi because I was searching for God. If anyone was chasing anyone, I was chasing God.
It took forty-one years, but the truth finally dawned on me. On July 11, 2014, our Temple Emanuel Mission gathered at the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat. As I was praying, I gazed up and to my right, when the truth appeared as big and bold as God’s ineffable Name in my dream. The dream was correct all along.
How many the times that I turned and ran away from God while God chased after me? Another truth, as big and bold: How often have you run away from God? If you’re like me, then you realize that we’re all pretty good at coming up with excuses. Realize too that the Kol Nidre prayer tonight renders all such excuses null and void. Yes, running away has been our habit ever since God spoke at Mount Sinai, Anochi Adonai Elohecha, “I am Adonai your God,” and we skulked away. But why single the Jewish people out? Running away from God is a human trait that dates back to Adam and Eve. Today it may be more prevalent and popular than ever, as humankind careens toward becoming a reality show called “A-Bomb Hot Potato” that threatens to spin this world out of its God-given orbit altogether. In a world running headlong toward this brink, thank God that God is so persistent in pursuing us.
Has God ever caught you? God can catch us anywhere we stop running away, every time we do T’shuva, “Return.” T’shuva “Return,” is not when we return to God. T’shuva “Return” means that God returns to us. This way, “Return” is simpler. All that we have to do is stop running.
Torah casts a huge net for God to catch us, whether we repose in our home or walk by the way, whatever the way. God catches us in every mitzvah we keep, every act of lovingkindness, of Tzedaka charity and righteousness, of speaking truth to power, in every prayer of praise and gratitude and in every minute we sanctify Shabbat. And then there are the sublime, indescribable moments, albeit few and far between, when God’s sheer presence overwhelms us and overjoys us. Such was that moment for me at the Kotel on July 11, 2014.
For all of this and more, I was so upset not only by Bibi swinging his double-edge sword last June 25, but also by the Reform and Conservative Jews who by all appearances have run away from the Kotel, ceding it and surrendering it.
For our second Shabbat in Jerusalem this summer, Alice and I again attended the morning service at HUC-JIR. After the service, alumni were honored at a special luncheon along with the first-year students, numbering about one-hundred all told. Afterwards we broke out into workshops. I went to the workshop led by the Provost of the Jerusalem campus, Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur. With a BA from Oxford, a PhD from Hebrew University, Rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR Jerusalem, plus his rank as colonel in the Israeli Army Reserves, Michael’s credentials comprise a mere shadow of his brilliance. When the opportunity came for me to broach the subject, I asked him if the school, only a twenty minute walk away from the Kotel, is doing anything to assert Reform Judaism’s presence, our claim, and our authority at Robinson’s Arch, for example by having the students conduct weekly Shabbat services there, not only in observance of Shabbat but also as an act of social justice and Tikkun Olam. “No, nothing, the school has never organized a student Shabbat minyan; neither has the faculty or administration done so.” Michael’s response was slightly longer, but I’ve captured the gist. Not only was I disappointed, I was combative. “I don’t think that answer will satisfy a lot of American Jews,” I said. One of the students at the workshop then interrupted and turned the conversation in a different direction.
The emotional sway that the Kotel holds over me surely had been heightened the night before when Alice and I, along with Shira and her boyfriend Ed went to the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat. We first joined the throngs at the traditional Kotel. Alice and Shira went to the women’s side. I took Ed to the men’s side, running that unique Jewish gauntlet, now with Ed, adeptly as I always do. I told Ed that I will pray for the next fifteen or so minutes, and that he should do whatever he feels comfortable doing. Ed is not Jewish, but he is interested in becoming Jewish, so when I concluded my prayers, I had Ed stand beside me at the wall and I taught him the Shema. We then began walking away from the Kotel, as is customary, backward, so as to never turn one’s back to the Kotel. As we were about to leave the fenced enclosure part of the Kotel, Ed said to me, “I want you to know that I love you, I love Alice, and I love Shira, and I would like your permission to ask her to marry me.” I replied, “Well I hope that your love is in the reverse order and that Shira is first; of course, you have my permission; Alice and I love you; but you should also ask Alice for her permission.” As we walked through the Old City back to our apartment, Ed followed my heartfelt suggestion.
Ask me how much I love the Kotel, and I will tell you that I cannot put it into words. How many dreams can come true at the Kotel? At least as many as all the dreams that we can dream together, along with three-thousand years of Jewish dreams, and every other dream of hope and goodness that everyone created in God’s image has ever dreamed.
This is why I ask you to join in this battle for the Jewish heart and soul that Bibi instigated to ingratiate his base.
I have three strategies to suggest, none of which entails going to the Kotel. The good news at the Kotel is that students and faculty from HUC have joined the fray. Perhaps my combativeness planted a seed. On Rosh Chodesh Elul last month, students and faculty, men as well as women added their numbers to the Women of the Wall who have met there every Rosh Chodesh now for decades in their efforts to conduct an egalitarian service in the midst of a cauldron of whistling, screaming, cursing, spitting and pushing Haredi Jews. One HUC student, dressed modestly to conform with the Kotel’s most rigorous standards, was taken into a private security room and told to remove her top and lift up her skirt to see if she was trying to smuggle in a Torah scroll.
I propose three simple strategies to pursue right here. First, the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation is on our side. COO Jeff Finkelstein was part of the Jewish Federation of North America delegation that was in Israel when Bibi wielded his double-edged sword on June 25. They were unanimous in expressing their outrage to Bibi. We must add our voices to theirs and to Jeff’s in ways that Jeff can advise us will be most helpful to our just cause. Cutting our support of Federation will be the least helpful way.
Second, pressure at last must be brought to bear upon Israel’s most powerful American ally: AIPAC. The time has come for AIPAC to stop advocating for the government of Israel and start advocating for the people of Israel entire. Here, your dollars will amplify your voices. AIPAC is holding its annual Pittsburgh event on October 30.
Third, there is a simple reason why many Israelis, not just the Haredim, don’t respect Reform Jews. They think that Reform Jews don’t take Judaism seriously. Let’s stop running away and making excuses. Let’s let God catch us. All the rest will then fall into place.