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This week I broke the law by smuggling prayer shawls into the site of the former Jewish Temple, right under the nose of the Israeli police. I don’t feel badly about breaking a law which is not even an actual law to begin with – but I feel terrible about the situation in which a place for prayer has become a circus of terror and an abuse of all that’s sacred.
This past Monday morning, the New Moon of Adar, the sun rose slowly, bright orange over Jerusalem as I walked from my home to the Western Wall. As on every New Moon for the past 24 years, my friends and teachers,Women of the Wall, gather there to pray and protest their right to pray as a group of women. This has become a case about much more than egaltarian access to a national sacred shrine. In my backpack were five prayer shawls. These will be smuggled into the Wall, through security, and then handed out to the women who, as of two months ago, are not allowed to bring their own prayer shawls into the wall. Some of the women who wrap themselves with a prayer shawls get detained on the spot.
The security guard next to the metal detectors opens my bag and takes out the cloth bag that contains my prayer shawl. Is this yours? yes. What color is it? Excuse me? Only regular color talit, he says and opens the bag to look at the prayer shawl – it’s off white, white tassles, so he approves(???), closes the bag and hands it to me. He doesn’t notice the other prayer shawls hidden under a sweater. I pass. But barely. Right behind me, Bonna’s waiting for her husband to come and bring hers in. It’s outrageous.
Once inside the plaza area, I hand over the prayer shawls to several friends – rabbis, teachers, artists, moms, activists – like Naama who dons the talit as a queen in battle, fully draped on her body, and walks into the women’s section under the watchful eye of the police who are filming and photographing every move. There was a big crowd this time, many women, wearing their shawls, singing the songs of Hallel with such joy that a circle of dance just erupted and grew and grew. Wide smiles of relief that no arrests were made. But then the media left, and the VIP paratroopers who came to support, and ten women were marched off to the police station and detained for wrapping themselves in a prayer shawl. Among them a young woman named Hallel, several rabbis. Lior, the first to be detained, eight months pregnant. Naama wasn’t arrested. We walked away in tears, in fury, knowing that this outrage can not and will not go on for long.
From there I went to attend the funeral of my teacher, David Hartman. I was privileged to be among the first graduating class of the Hartman Boys High School in 1988, and in the first and only IDF program back in 1990. We studied with him regularly – Talmud, Maimonides. During the year following his mother’s death, we prayed together most mornings in a small minyan at the Institute, in its old home on Rachel Imenu 22. For a few months I was his librarian, helping him to reorganize his vast collection. We talked a lot. On one such late night talk, as I was grappling with Jewish Law and my discomfort with it, he encouraged me to go my own way and listen to my truth, even if that meant walking away from Orthodoxy, and taking off my kipa. “It’s going to be a lonely road, and it’s off the path”, he warned me, “but you won’t be alone there, and you will find your way.” He wasn’t happy about my choice, but respected my intention. 23 years later, standing among the hundreds of people, all of us paying respects to a great teacher , I thought that he’d be pleased about my path, and how the way that I’ve found, at least for now, for being a Jew in the world, is so much what he had taught me: the courage to question, the need to heed the truth.
And I wanted to stand on a chair and call out: People of Jerusalem, Ladies and Gentlemen, esteemed leaders, rabbis, members of knesset: I smuggled prayer shawls into the Western Wall today! What would David Hartman say about the fact that on the day of his funeral prayer shawls were confiscated in Jerusalem ?
What would Moses say? What is God saying? Where are the rabbis of this country when this outrage goes on and the prayer of people, political or not, is confiscated and ridiculed?
This wasn’t the intention.
Back in chapter 25 of Exodus, this week’s Torah text, Teruma, the construction of the first Jewish Temple begins: “Build me a Sanctuary”, instructs God “and I will dwell within the people.”
That mobile desert tent of time became a marble palace on a hilltop in Jerusalem and is now a battleground for the fight for progress and equality – for the divine to dwell equally within all of us, always.
I don’t know what Hartman would have said, or Moses, or God. But I know that sacred doesn’t mean places – it means people. And that as long as people’s right to pray is banned the fight will have to go on, even at the cost of breaking a law. Some things are more sacred, at times, than others.
One more note about the wall: the compromise that may arise here is that the Western Wall area be re-configured to include not two but three equal sections: His, Hers, and Ours. If the solution is dignified, well marked and spacious, there may room to realize that extending the sacredness of the wall beyond its current perimeters to the adjacent and currently separate Robinson’s Arch area, is possible and noble. It is the people who will make this place sacred at the end of the day, through compassion, respect, and dignity. Stones are just stones. The real sanctuary, as Exodus taught us, as Hartman taught me, is that which dwells within our hearts.
But for now, we keep on fighting.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org