"All the Places are Holy"?!
Thoughts of the Meaning of the Kotel in an Israeli Congregation
Rabbi Myra Hovav
All the places are holy
Not much chance to find a place
Even the days are tough
Tougher day by day...
“A Small Country with a Moustache”
The story of the connection between the Western Wall and my community (and myself) began because of practical limitations.
The atmosphere around the Western Wall is like a cosmopolitan carnival, verging on kitsch. Musicians in Oriental costumers, Arab headscarves, and beards, like strange mercenaries, accompany boys celebrating their Bar Mitzvah to the Orthodox section of the Wall to the deafening accompaniment of drums and clarinets. An Arab man drags a heavy cart behind him, selling pretzels and corn on the cob. All that’s missing to complete this Orientalist and frankly slightly ridiculous scene is a camel.
It’s worth stopping at the this point. What comes next, in the Western Wall Plaza itself, is less pleasant, particularly for the women among up. But if we instead head to the non-segregated Ezrat Israel, the celebration continues.
Kehillat Yuval in Gedera, which was founded four years ago, is “my home without walls,” to quote an old Israeli song. We don’t have a permanent home. We hold our Kabbalat Shabbat services in the lobby of a school in the town, and I’m glad to say that it’s long since become too small for us all. We don’t have our own Torah scroll, holy ark, or curtain, and we don’t even have a closet for our prayerbooks and other equipment. Before every Kabbalat Shabbat, “when the ark set out” (Numbers 10:35), volunteers from the community unload suitcases full of equipment in the school lobby. After we finish our service, we pack them up and put them away until next time.
We usually hold Bar and Bat Mitzva ceremonies for members of our community at other synagogues of the Israeli Reform Movement that help us and open their doors to the community’s families. When we tried to find a place for a group Tefillin-laying ceremony, we realized that whatever happened the families would have to travel a long way from Gedera to join in the service. This led us to the idea of holding the Tefillin-laying ceremony at the Western Wall. The first few times we met at Robinson’s Arch, and later, after the new arrangements were introduced at the Western Wall, we met on the new “Ezrat Israel” platform.
As I was coming back from one of these services, I happened to meet an acquaintance and told him where I had been. He looked at me in amazement and asked the inevitable question: “Western Wall? What have you got to do with the Western Wall? 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 in one place rather than another. The Western Wall is just a pile of old stones. 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 value. Some of the things that happen at the Western Wall today verge on idol worship, or even cross that line. If we add to this the political dimension, and the regrettable identification of this site with the Orthodox establishment, then I cannot see the Western Wall as a holy place. Probably because I don’t really even accept the idea of a “holy place.”
That’s on the rational side. But if I move over to my emotions, it’s a completely different story. I’ve visited the Western Wall countless times now with families from across Israel and around the world, and I have to admit that nothing can compete with that still silence and splendid scenery. This is a place that evokes strong excitement for me, and for many 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 the Mizrachi grandmother who grew up in a traditional home meets the enthusiasm of the grandfather from a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz who is about to be called up to the Torah for the first time in his life to honor his grandson’s Bar Mitzva. And this excitement is both similar and different to that of the American Jewish father who returns with his own children to the place where he was called up to the Torah on his own Bar Mitzvah thirty years ago.
Small groups gather on the platform and voices of prayer in many different accents blend together. Here they are beginning the service and explaining which things have no measure (Mishna Pe’ah 1:1)… There they are already singing “siman tov u-mazal tov” or “aleinu leshabe’ach.”
It sometimes seems to me that in all our Zionist and Jewish actions – as a movement and as individuals – we are simply repeating the story of Isaac Kumer in Agnon’s novel Only Yesterday:
All the time Isaac lived outside the Land, he kept the Sabbath and laid Tefillin and prayed every day, as taught by the precept of men. When he ascended to the Land of Israel, he hung his Tefillin on a peg and lifted the other commandments off his neck, he didn’t keep the Sabbath and didn’t pray. When the fear of his father was lifted from him, the fear of his Father in Heaven was also lifted from him. (…) After he went up to Jerusalem, he began to change – sometimes by himself and sometimes by others. And when his fellow painters stop working to recited the afternoon prayer, he also stops working and prays. And if he ate with them a piece of bread as tiny as an olive, he would join the prayer and say grace after meals.
In modern Israeli terms, Kumer is moving along Route 1 – the highway from Tel Aviv (or Jaffa, in his day) to Jerusalem. Like Kumer, many of us started out in secular, new Jaffa, which strives to free itself from the weighty dust of Jerusalem, justifying itself with Zionist or Socialist intellectual arguments. But something pushes us east toward Jerusalem, with its discomfort – Jerusalem that is more Jewish and less Zionist, weighed down by a history that complicates the lives of its residents as if it were a physical weight.
Unlike Kumer, however, we often find it difficult to go all the way and to reconcile ourselves to the eastward move to Jerusalem. Kumer submitted to Jewish sentiment, lovingly accepting it with all the discomfort of the generations, allowing it to overrule his Zionist intellect. Sometimes I feel very jealous of his ability to leave his intellect and his ideology behind.
The Reform movement is playing a key role in the effort 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. 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 the Tallit, the Torah scroll, and the Tefillin. As we did so, we recognized 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 evenings. We no longer feel like guests on alien ground – we are at home. In exactly the same way, there is no reason why we should not have the right to shed a tear at the Western Wall, to love the site, and to feel a need for it… and yes – to expect that it will love us back in return.
Isaac was most excited on Sabbath eves, when the city stops its give and take and gleams with the light of the Sabbath (…) The sun has not yet finished its course in the firmament, but beneath the heavens, on the earth below, a great change is already visible (…) The streets of Jerusalem are emptied of carts and the Holy Earth dwells in silence. No wheel turns, no whip lashes, The expanses of the world are silent, and a holy calm is ignited by the silence of the city.
All the places are holy, so nowhere is truly holy. But Jerusalem and the Western Wall are there – reach out your hand and touch them. Isaac Kumer chose to see there the Revelation on Sinai, repeated every Friday evening. I have chosen to let the Western Wall overrule me and my logic. Even if we one day have a proper sanctuary of our own in Kehillat Yuvel, it’s hard for me to imagine that we will abandon the tradition of holding the collective Tefillin-laying ceremony at the Western Wall. I will gladly be moved each time with each new group as we sing “Jerusalem the golden” right by the Wall. Together we will read the comments in the Gemara (tractate Berachot) explaining which way we should face in prayer. The Gemara ends with the moving words: “All Israel will be turning their hearts toward one Place.”
 S.Y. Agnon, Only Yesterday, trans. Barbara Harshav, Tel Aviv: Schocken, 2000 1966: 230.
 Only Yesterday, p. 270.
 Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 30a.