When 330 Reform Rabbis met this morning at 7 AM to pray Shacharit and read Torah at the Southern Kotel Plaza, it was a moment none of us is likely ever to forget. This was the first major service at this new pluralistic and egalitarian site since the Israeli government passed a law calling for the development of a new prayer space.
After the service, Anat Hoffman, Chair of the Women of the Wall, noted that there are seven different species of plants growing through the cracks in the stones, and we liberal Jews are now the eighth.
We men and women stood together at the Kotel for the first time in my living memory, all wearing kippot, tallitot and some donning t’filin on a temporary platform over the ancient toppled stones of the Temple that was destroyed by Rome two thousand years ago. Below us as well was the original Roman street. As we prayed, we could hear the chirping of birds as they flew through the plants growing out of the Wall. The sun was shining brightly and my colleague Rabbi Zach Shapiro told a medieval midrash written in the form of Aesop’s fables but with Biblical and Talmudic teachings.
A mouse wished to marry the sun, but as he sought to propose, a cloud came between him and sun; so the mouse sought to propose to the cloud, but the wind drove the cloud away; so the mouse sought to propose to the wind, but a wall came between the mouse and the wind; so, the mouse proposed to the wall.
Here we stood before our people’s ancient Wall, united as a people with God as if in a marriage, praying in an egalitarian minyan, men and women singing out loud together. One of our Israeli women Reform rabbis of Congregation Har El in Jerusalem chanted melodiously from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa.
This Knesset’s Kotel legislation and our service represent an historic shift in the state of Israel. For the first time, the Israeli government recognized the legitimacy of religious pluralism. No longer will the ultra-Orthodox community control prayer services at the Southern Kotel for liberal Jews wishing to pray as we wish.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke about the meaning of this historic shift and reminded us that the rabbis of the Talmud blamed the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE on sinat chinam, baseless hatred between Jews. The ruins of Temple laying beneath us exactly as they fell 2000 years ago are a constant reminder of the importance of ahavat Yisrael, love for the people of Israel.
Rabbi Jacobs said that we Reform and Conservative Jews, Women of the Wall and Jews from North American Federations are “not against anything.” We are “for Klal Yisrael (the whole community of Israel).” We respect the Orthodox right to pray at the Northern Kotel Plaza the way they wish, and we insist on the right to pray as we liberal Jews wish at the Southern Kotel Plaza.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, told us that when the new area will be completed it will occupy 900 square meters, equivalent in size to the prayer space of the Northern Kotel Plaza. When entering the upper plaza there will be clear sight lines of this Northern Plaza. He noted, as well, that the Kotel is not just a holy site but a national site. Israeli soldiers will be inducted into the IDF here and new immigrants will be given citizenship here, and men and women will stand together before now forbidden by the Chief Rabbinate of the Wall.
We hope that modern Orthodox families will wish to hold services here according to their custom.
Sadly, already there is a strong, angry and negative reaction from the ultra-Orthodox community. More than 500 posters have been put up earlier this week in Meah Shearim and other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that include the following words:
“Zaakat G’dolei Yisrael – We are shamed. Disgrace has covered our faces. Strangers have come into My Temple, Beit Adonai. The cry of the great rabbis of our time is that the Western Wall is to be desecrated and trampled upon. The Reform movement intends to sink its claws in the Wall of Jerusalem…We must hurry and fight the Lord’s battle against this hemlock and wormwood movement that has brought the fall of many and taken a huge, deathly toll. This monster is worse than all the secular people we know. In their actions they bring chaos into the world and increase the power of Satan, God forbid…We must unite as an un-breachable wall against our arch enemies that want to enter the Reforms into all areas of religion.The Reform shall shatter us to splinters and split us into factions. An abomination, unwanted by all, it shall be burnt in fire and consumed outside our camp and not enter the Holiness.”
We will not be deterred, cowed or intimidated. Tragically, these ultra-Orthodox Jews are engaged in committing the same sin of sinat chinam (baseless hatred towards fellow Jews) that brought about the destruction of the Temple. Theirs has become a world of hate. Ours is a world of inclusivity and love. Their response is merely an indication of how significant is this government position and the success of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel today.