The ProsenPeople

The End Game

Friday, March 18, 2016 | Permalink

Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems. Invited to weigh in on recent developments at the Kotel, the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, Sara is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I love the land of Israel, irrationally—nearly everything about it—but there is only one thing that I like about the Western Wall. When I stand before its looming stones, I can’t help but marvel at the birds that make their nests in the plants that sprout there, twenty feet into the sky. How do they do that? How can green grow from rock? Oh, to be one of those birds, that makes its home in the life that springs forth, in spite of it all!

The Kotel stands in opposition to my Judaism in every other way. It is made of stone, which the Torah specifically forbids worshipping. It was the outer retaining wall of the Temple complex, where God rested between the gaze of two golden cherubs, anticipating Levinas in the most poetic fashion. It is an ultra-Orthodox prayer space, with the added perk of a post office to heaven—neither of which remotely reflect my understanding of the Divine, or how God works in the world.

Why then should the recent decision by the Israeli government to create a third egalitarian section at the Kotel matter to me at all?

It shouldn’t, but somehow it does. Whether I like it or not, the Western Wall’s very existence begs the question: What are we going for here, in this project that we call the Modern State of Israel? What is our end game?

The Temple Institute in Jerusalem has an answer. A non-profit organization funded but American and Israeli money, they are dedicated to preparing for the rebuilding of the Third Temple. They have already reconstructed all of the necessary décor—the altar, priestly garments, menorah, etc., (many made of pure gold)—and are training priests to resume animal sacrifice. All that stands in their way is the birth of a red heifer, a cow whose fur is entirely red, and the destruction of Islam’s third-holiest site. The Institute recently announced that a red heifer is indeed being raised now in the United States according to the dictates of the Torah and will soon be sent to Jerusalem. Were they to have their way, Judaism would revert to a patriarchal, sacrificial religion, sanctioning the End of Days and perhaps welcoming a male messiah and a Zombie-like resurrection of some subset of deserving people.

When my bafflement subsides, I have one reaction to the Temple Institute: We are not ready! We, the Jewish world, is not ready for our end game. We have so much more growing yet to do.

Thankfully, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate agrees with me. A sign hangs above the entrance to the Temple Mount announces and warns: “According to Torah Law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to its sacredness.” According to Jewish law, one must be ritually pure, even of the imprint left by contact with death, in order to walk the ground where the Temple stood. The ritual detergent for such purification is found in the blood and burnt ashes of the red heifer (hence the Temple Institute’s anticipation). We are not ready.

The Western Wall, the Kotel, is the most powerful Jewish symbol in existence today. It links the three most operative dimensions of Jewish identity: history, religion and purpose. It is of our past, from the single moment in Jewish history when our people were one. It has endured until today, through two destructions, 2,000 years of exile, the Holocaust and the founding of the modern State of Israel. It is the screen on which the Jewish story is projected—which is precisely why the Kotel decision matters so much.

Every other nook and cranny of this contested land has the blessing of anonymity, when compared to theWestern Wall, but the Kotel cannot hide. Its power as a symbol demands that it offer us a reflection of the redeemed world if it is going to make any statement at all, and the recent government decision falls short. And so, until the Jewish people succeeds in reconciling the tension between Isaiah’s universalism and Abraham’s particularism, until we are ready to undo the curses levied upon us when we were banished from the Garden of Eden, and until the children of Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob are ready to gather again to peacefully bury their fathers, better that the Kotel remain an outer retaining wall of a Temple that once was, and that, for now, the lofty birds perched in its heights suffice as our best symbol of hope.

Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, a spiritual memoir inspired by her life in the north of Israel. She blogs about the complexity of life there at www.herisrael.com.

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Kol Isha—A Voice for Every Woman

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 | Permalink

Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems. Invited to weigh in on recent developments at the Kotel, the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, Sara is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I am a cowardly feminist. I lived in Jerusalem for three years between 2000 and 2006, and I never prayed with Women of the Wall (WOW). I am embarrassed to admit it.

During my years in Jerusalem, I had a good excuse. It was the time of the Second Intifada, and buses were blowing up all around us. I did go to the Wall then, though, even walking through Palestinian East Jerusalem on Shabbat, smiling at the sweet Arab children and enjoying the smell of fresh baked bread. It was a matter of soul, not safety that kept me away from WOW’s monthly gatherings, and mine was bunkered in the fortress I had built in my heart. I reserved my energy for deep breaths and resisting the urge jump off the Israel-shaped ship I was on, thereby caving to terror. To seek out additional tension, on purpose and among my own, by standing with WOW seemed unthinkable then.

For nearly thirty years, WOW has shone light squarely on a face of Judaism that I preferred not to see. I was in my twenties, a newly religious student in a co-ed pluralist Yeshiva, and I was in love with all of it. Having tired of the limitless freedom of the American university experience, I embraced the structure and strictures of religious life; a child of a liberal Jewish household, I found myself now a part of a great, ancient story. It was a story of unity—one God, one Jewish people. I was a part of it, and it was mine.

Women of the Wall bore witness to another story entirely.

There are few things in our modern world that demand the depths of my courage, strength, and resilience more than staring into the eyes of silenced women. Such women elicit more cognitive dissonance than abject poverty in some far off land or victims of natural disaster, where blame animates my courage. They are the homeless man on my corner, whom I pretend to ignore every day, but they look just like me. They are me, whenever I am not advocating for change.

American culture denies us a name for the silenced woman, but Judaism does not. Judaism names her voice, calling it kol isha, compartmentalizing and legislating it. “The voice of a woman is alluring.” and “It may not be heard during the time of prayer [as not to draw away a man’s attention]” (Talmud Bavli Berachot 24b). In Orthodox Jewish spaces where these rules are at play, women are forbidden from singing and leading prayer, from generally occupying the spotlight based on other complimentary prohibitions against women’s leadership in general and in favor of modesty.

The mission of Women of the Wall was to call upon all of us to hear women’s voices, the kolot nashim that had been silenced for so long. They pursued their mission by gathering as women in a women’s space at the Koteland doing what the boys were doing; they prayed together, complete with the ritual garb worn by devoted Jewish worshippers. No more, no less. Their behavior perplexed almost everyone, because they took up an issue that the liberal Jewish world had leapt beyond: secular modernity granting women some aspect of voice.

Women of the Wall called our attention to the work of justice still emergent, to the feminist work that is not yet complete. For 2,000 years, unquestioned patriarchy ruled the world. Women only won the right to their own voices yesterday, relatively speaking; we have just begun to uncover the many crevasses where her silence was felt, where the absence of her voice and wisdom left the world too quiet.

As a thinking, feeling being, one naturally locates themselves within the “haves” rather than “have nots.” As a young woman in Jerusalem, a devoted student of Torah, I certainly did. It was so much more pleasant to stand quietly among the “haves,” assuming that I was welcome. But, had I opened my eyes, I would have seen that I was welcome to pass only if I was willing restrain my voice. Now that I call Israel my home and count myself a member of the progressive, pluralistic Kibbutz Hannaton, I regret that I have lost my opportunity to stand with these women, to take up this cause. Their work is not yet complete, and gathering as women in the newly created egalitarian section, lacks the symbolic power of their former struggle. We will all have to find new venues to continue to spread their simple message. The Jewish world, and the world at large, will not be complete until women’s voices—indeed all voices—can be heard.

Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, a spiritual memoir inspired by her life in the north of Israel. She blogs about the complexity of life there at www.herisrael.com.

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Adding Walls to the Wall

Monday, March 14, 2016 | Permalink

Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems. Invited to weigh in on recent developments at the Kotel, the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, Sara is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I was born in 1978, so as a Jewish American child, I was expected to know about three walls: The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

With portions built as early as the seventh century BCE, the Great Wall of China is a good, old fashioned wall. Marking the historic northern border of China, it was built in stages, over the course of hundreds of years, in order to protect the Chinese from northern raiders. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a pride of the Chinese people.

The Berlin wall, on the other hand, was a bad wall—a slice of the Cold War captured in stone, a symbol of the outer limits of the reaches of democracy, or so said the American narrative. One must admit, though, that this wall served its purpose, staving off war, allowing enemies to rest on either side of it. We rejoiced in 1989 when the Berlin wall came down, allowing the Germans to express in concrete their renewed will for unity.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem seems to be another kind of wall entirely. Old like the Great Wall, the Western Wall is a monument to destruction and to the cherished past of the Jewish people. The Western Wall, or the Kotel, is a masterpiece of ancient construction, its oldest stone standing nearly as tall as I do. First destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt and destroyed again by the Romans, one external wall of the great structure remains: weighty and strong, a symbol of Jewish resilience and unwillingness to forget.

In its time, the Western Wall was nothing special at all, just a retaining wall demarcating the outer edge of the elevated Temple platform. But, as a survivor, it became something else entirely, a site of Jewish pilgrimage throughout the ages; a beleaguered wall for a beleaguered people.

No one better captures the power and symbolism of the Kotel than Yitzhak Rabin, the fifth prime minister of Israel. Reflecting on his experience there when his unit of Israeli Paratroopers retook the Wall from the Jordanians, who had controlled it since 1948, Rabin recalled in an address to Knesset in May 1995, “It was as if Providence had directed the whole thing: the paratroopers weeping—loudly and in pain—over their comrades who had fallen along the way, the words of the Kaddish prayer heard by the Western Wall's stones after nineteen years of silence, tears of mourning, shouts of joy, and the singing of “Hatikvah.”

Walls were added to the Wall from the moment the Kotel returned to Jewish hands in 1967. The war was fought just weeks before the sacred holiday of Shavuot, and the leaders at the time were aware that Jews would flock to the site to celebrate the ancient pilgrimage festival. In order to make it a fitting place for Orthodox prayer, a mechitza, a partition separating men and women, was erected. This new wall transected the old one, as a symbol for the recognized Judaism in the Holy Land—men empowered on one side, and women, whispering like their matriarch Hannah on the other. Secular and liberal Jews were welcome to visit, as long as they were willing to don the costume of the Orthodox and divide themselves accordingly.

In late January of this year, the Israeli Government undertook the historic decision to add a second wall to this ancient Jewish space, creating a third domain for those who do not wish to separate by gender, who do not find themselves in the categories constructed by Orthodox Judaism.

If our ancient wall is like the Great Wall of China, what is the status of these new, younger walls?

In recent weeks, the creation of the newest wall has been heralded by the leaders of the liberal Jewish movements as a great success: “One Wall for One People,” they proclaim. If so, then we are a people divided. I prefer to regard our new walls like the Berlin Wall, serving a purpose for a time, but not a reflection of the ideal. An ancient wall in the heart of a besieged city surrounded and transected by walls of separation is not the metaphor I choose for my homeland.

Instead, as a new immigrant to Israel, one here to pursue justice and build peace, I’d rather look just a few blocks away, to an interlocking grid of tiny partitions at the open-air market, Shuk Machne Yehuda, for inspiration. There, humans born in countless countries, speak Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, Spanish, and more, offer tastes of goods grown from this sacred earth, to shoppers heading home to feed families nearby, a celebration of diversity of every kind. And, as for our ancient wall, I hold out hope that its partitions will come down some day, so that a Hatikva resonant with the one sung by the paratroopers in 1967, a song of hope and unity, can be heard at the Kotel once more.

Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, a spiritual memoir inspired by her life in the north of Israel. She blogs about the complexity of life there at www.herisrael.com.

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