The Wall, Women at the Wall, Dialogue, Encounter, Efrat

My First Night in Jerusalem and Women at the Wall

In Israel this past winter I lived in a room in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City- “the Rova Yehudit.” A few minutes’ walk up and down narrow twisted alleys filled with observant Jews and pilgrims from all over the world to “the Wall.”

Before I even had the conscious thought of going to Israel this year, my first trip, I had already experienced the mysterious power of the Wall. My younger daughter, Jill, went on a Birthright trip to Israel a few years ago. (If you ask Jill, she will tell you she was brought up by a Buddhist. She’d mean me, having joined me at numbers of retreats and teachings, including in our home in Brooklyn, with Thich Nhat Hanh and his community.)

Jill had told me her experience at the Wall in Jerusalem- when she approached it for the first time, on Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday night) she had burst into tears.

I felt curiosity arise in me. And it never left. What was this physical and spiritual place that stirred something so deep in my daughter?  The power of the Wall……..

So I had imagined that my two months’ retreat in Israel would be doing  a slow, mindful walking meditation everyday from my room to the Wall, then meditating and praying there, feeling the holy connection, contemplating this place that is the center of so many worlds, of so much of our world.   I landed at Tel Aviv airport on the first Sunday afternoon in January. That evening, under a splendid almost-full moon over Jerusalem, after a class on Zohar in Sarah Yehudit’s apartment on Chabad Street, without any particular plan, I found myself walking along the Old City Ramparts Walk, startled at the breathtaking views of the hills sparkling with lights, to the Wall.

Historical footnote: When Rome destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., only one outer wall remained standing. We can only speculate why the Romans did not destroy that wall- perhaps a dark cloud scared them away. The Wall today is apparently an outer wall that surrounded the Temple Mount of the Temple .  Centuries ago, for the Jews, this remnant of what was the most sacred building in the Jewish world quickly became the holiest spot in Jewish life. Throughout the centuries, Jews from throughout the world have traveled to Palestine, and immediately head for the Kotel ha-Ma’aravi (the Western Wall) to thank God. The prayers offered at the Kotel were so heartfelt that non-Jews began calling the site the “Wailing Wall.”   Today I heard it called “the Western Wall” or simply “the Wall.”

As at any hour, the plaza surrounding the Wall was brightly lit and filled with people. Men on one side, women on the other. I expected this and am used to it, from Hindu temples and ashrams, Buddhist monasteries and Orthodox Jewish synagogues. Here, at least, the separation- called a mechitza- went up the middle- women were not walled off from the Wall, we had our own side.

The entrance to the Wall plaza was guarded by very young Israeli soldiers- young men and young women- European, African, North African- so much more diverse than what I had ever experienced before in the U.S. I walked through the security, into the vast plaza, down into the women’s side. Right up to the Wall itself- and waited for tears, some movement of heart. It didn’t come. Great disappointment.  For weeks, I went back to the Wall almost every day, waiting, waiting for some momentous experience. For some experience of prayer that raised me in a new way.

Inside the Southern Wall excavation, where I could to sit alone for an hour-right up at the Wall with no one around, no one visible to my eyes, yes, this was deeply moving and meaningful for me. But at the Western Wall- maybe every now and then some brave little spark- chanting with the Brazilian women (I wrote about this in another blog).

I felt disappointed. I wanted some deep meaning and mystical connection to this place that has drawn Jewish people for centuries. That had drawn me to Israel, to itself my first night, that had moved my daughter. That was moving the hundreds and hundreds of people I’d see there every day, every night, fervently pouring out their hearts.

Finally this happened when I joined Women at the Wall on Rosh Chodesh Adar (the New Moon, the beginning of the month of Adar, the month of Purim, which comes on the third full moon of the solar year.).

Prayer as Civil Disobedience. Prayer comes alive. A community of prayers.

Early on that Monday morning I cradled my tallis- prayer shawl- in my arms, and wound through the Old City alleys to the Wall. I felt vaguely alert and alive, that feeling when I’d sneak out of my house as a young teen in Brooklyn. I was living in a building in the Rova where I had only seen men wearing tallis’, I’d felt a longing in me, seeing them walking in the mornings enveloped in large prayer shawls. On this morning, I felt strong and wonderful just holding the tallis in my arms, as if I were now wrapped in a protective, nurturing communion with the Divine.

Gathering with a group of 100 or so women, mostly younger women, from all over the Jewish Diaspora, to pray at the Wall wearing our tallitot- prayer shawls- singing, chanting.  I felt exhilarated, enlivened. A community of women to pray with, and praying in my own way, with my own voice as loud as I wanted. I realized, this is what people who are comfortable with the Wall’s set up must experience often- a feeling of such uplifting and energetic arousal from prayer.

I prayed with women at the Wall a few more times in January, February and March. I was present in that moment with Abraham Joshua Heschel, our great Jewish teacher and mystic, who,  walking with Martin Luther King in Washington DC in 1963,  said,  “I felt as though my feet were praying. “

This wasn’t by any means the only experience I had in Israel where I, as a woman, struggled to find my voice, my place, in the spiritual life of Israel. Of course it brings up so many painful and challenging questions- what is the benefit of religious life  to the world ? As commentators are currently framing it, as Hilary Clinton said last week, how can Israel remain a Jewish and a democratic state? And I want to add to that, included in Jewish state, I want a place where, like Tibet, like India, like other places where the religious spiritual path is so concentrated, in this modern world, how can we also protect and preserve and value the concentrated religious life- so we have a chance to see what benefits it brings to the world- like the sometimes seemingly crazy and out of proportion steps we take to preserve endangered species- little fish in the Hudson River taking precedent over everything else.

Are you with me? Does this make sense? It does to me. I don’t want a world where everything is homogenized to the point where there are no enzymes- anything to help us digest life, to take in life so completely that new life arises.. I want a world where we can celebrate diversity and the unknown. Where we honor and make room for it all.

And I want that in a way that doesn’t cost the freedom and stability of others. Where the needs of the thriving and concentrated orthodox Jewish practice are met, not at the expense of the needs of secular Jews and Palestinians and the rest of the world. When the needs of the Palestinians and Arabs, and secular Jews, and religious Jews , all seeking a physical and spiritual home in Israel, are met in ways that enhance each other, not destoy each other.

This all comes up for m when I recollect Efrat:

I’ve seen Efrat, spilling over the hillside toward Bethlehem, as I stood looking out the window from Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem. I’ve enjoyed connecting at Shabbat meals with young people who live in Efrat and I feel deeply blessed to have had a teacher from there, to have celebrated at a wedding of a family from there. I was going to go to Efrat after I came back from Bethlehem, at a time when I was feeling terribly angry and confused and estranged from “Jewish settlers.” I know that if I went there and met people I would be able to see them as people  as human, as fellow seekers and parents and children, and that I needed that direct contact to break through the enemy images of them that I had developed as my pain over the suffering of Palestinians rose. So I planned a trip to either Efrat or another settlement, Beit Ayin. I wanted to go to Beit Ayin because I had heard about a group of Jewish women settlers and Palestinians women who had met regularly in a weight watchers group and, through that community of women and our bodies, come to new levels of understanding and peace with each other. Sounded like a special place.

Then Sarah Yehudit said to me, you don’t have to go anywhere to visit a settlement- as far as the Arab world is concerned, you are living in a settlement- the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. I was startled and confused to hear that. It took a day or so to soak in. Yes, the people I am living with- me- we are as much “settlers” as people living in those spanking new communities that dot the hills surrounding Jerusalem. Settlers. Me!  I started to feel sick in my stomach- I’m one of the white South Africans or Rhodesians. I’m one of them. There is a “them: and I’m one of them. Hopelessness started settling in. Shock, fear, hopelessness. How can this be?

I turned to Nonviolent Communication, to the work with what we call “enemy images” for clarity and understanding and relief. Instead of looking at myself and others as” settlers”, what am I just seeing- people living. People with tsitsits (Jewish ritual fringe garment) praying here. Families with more than four children, women with head coverings, walking here. People creating stores they are comfortable shopping in.

And other peoples with little or no business- the Palestinian grocer on my alleyway.

This is the practice of returning to observation- of becoming aware of the filters through which I am seeing the world- “settler”- a filter filled with judgment and blame and aversion-  and returning to just what a video would record- with this way of looking at the world, there is no such thing as “settler.” There are people living in a place that other people want to live. There are people speaking in one language who are living in a place where people who speak a different language want to live. There are people building houses for expanding families on land that others want to preserve for graceful ancient olive trees and open spaces.

From this perspective, there is no judgment of good and bad and right and wrong. Ican easily see what I may value more- open spaces and olive trees, over more housing maybe, because I long for a world where olive trees and open sky are available. Yet don’t I also value families having spacious safe places to live? Don’t I also value families having choice in where and how they live? And don’t I also value a world where space and permission and respect is given to communities that are struggling to emboy ancient spiritual practices and traditions? That is something important to me- whether it be ashrams, monasteries or family-based Orthodox Jewish communities. I deeply value the contribution the spiritual life brings to the world and the meaning and purpose and elevation of our human lives this can bring.

When I can hold all the values and needs, on all sides that are precious to me an d to all the people involved, I want to find  hope of arriving at a common view of what is happening. When I put all the needs and perspectives of everyone on the table, when we all see them, there is hope of more commonality in viewing the situation.

Then we look at what feelings does this situation generate in each group? Anger, fear, frustration, hopelessness.

And we don’t blame these feelings the other group. We recognize that these feelings are caused, generated when, energies that we  call needs or values-  energies so fundamentally deep and important and crucial to the people involved- are met or unmet- that these strong feelings are generated. We do not blame each other for our feelings; we recognize that our feelings are caused by what is important to us. Arabs and Palestinians feel scared and upset and angry and frustrated when they see people speaking English and Hebrew moving onto lands where their grandfathers and fathers harvest olive oil. They feel this way because they need respect, to be seen, to be valued. They need freedom and sustenance.

And the English and Hebrew and French- speaking Jews who move there, into these settlements, into the Old City,  also feel scared and upset and angry and frustrated- they want the same things–stability and freedom and quality of life for their families, and respect and choice for their way of life. We can all connect to these basic human longings. This is what we all long for.

Can we enter into dialogue with each other and connect with each others’ longing? Can we taste and feel our common humanness and create enough trust to hear the commonality? How to create the trust? When I can trust that you care as much about meeting these needs of mine as you care about you meeting yours; when you trust that I care as much about you meeting your needs – then we can have trust. How do we get to that point? To the place where everyone is celebrating the interconnection between us- to the interbeing of us all- the knowing that our own needs will only be met, truly and deeply, when we value meeting the needs of the other?

There is guidance in Torah and Jewish text:

God said to Moses, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 23:9.

        The Baal HaTanya,  writes that before morning prayers, one should say, "Hareni mekabel alai mitzvath asei shel 've'ahavta
l'reiecha k'mocha'." - "I am accepting upon myself the positive
commandment of ' should love your neighbor as yourself'."

In the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a:
Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

For guidance in this I look to Torah. I study Torah. And it is there. Clearly. Ok and with a bit of digging.  Last weekend I participated in a four day retreat at Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC with Encounter..

I love what Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, co founder of Encounter, says about interconnectedness of all the peoples from Torah :

Contemporary commentator Aviva Zornberg adopts the… rabbinic portrayals of Yitro ( Jethro, Moses’ father in law- the head Midianite priest)  while turning them on their head.

  • In Zornberg’s reading, Yitro does not confirm our superiority through assimilation, but rather instructs us, modeling the very disposition we need to stand at Sinai: courage, humility, the willingness to stretch our prior assumptions and conceptions of the world.
  • The story of Yitro immediately precedes the story of Sinai because Yitro exemplifies the very destabilization of identity that revelation at Sinai demands.
  • Yitro’s protean flexibility is to be venerated, not distrusted. The Israelites are called on to be equally available to transformation, to allowing their identities and narratives to be ruptured in the experience of revelation before the Transcendent Other.
  • Yitro’s very name, as the Mekhilta points out, means overflowing. Yitro is the yeter, that something more that we encounter in the face of the other, which cannot be contained in any system or construction of truth. The revelation of what lies beyond us, and urges us on to new understanding.

Perhaps the story of Yitro immediately precedes the story of revelation because Yitro teaches the Israelites, and all of us in turn, that Sinai occurs when we allow our own assumptions to be overflowed through encounter with the other. We ascend Sinai not when we require the other to be our replica, our “yes-man,” or our perceived undoing, but rather when we lay ourselves open before the undomesticated face of the other, when we allow him or her to enter us, unravel us, and initiate us into new revelations.

At the Encounter retreat, I was in the Beit Midrash track. Early rabbinic literature, including the Mishnah, makes mention of the beth midrash as an institution distinct from the beth din and Sandhedrin. It was meant as a place of Torah study and interpretation, as well as the development of halakhah (the practical application of the Jewish Law).

The origin of the beth midrash, or house of study can be traced to the early rabbinic period, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The earliest known rabbinical school was established by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh. Other official schools were soon established under different rabbis. These men traced their ideological roots back to the Pharisees of the late Second Temple Period, specifically the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, two “schools” of thought.

By late antiquity, the “beth midrash” had developed along with the synagogue into a distinct though somewhat related institution. The nature of the connection between the “beth midrash” and synagogue is related the question of rabbinic authority in late ancient Judaism — a matter of considerable debate among scholars today.

In our Encounter Beit Midrash, we looked at Torah and also Talmud and other commentary by great Rabbinical sages that have become the core of Jewish teachings.

This will be the subject of the next blog entry.

Happy Pesach!!