The Kotel Decision: The Parties at the Table


psc_e1980i010I remember going to visit Judy Chicago’s art installation “The Dinner Party” long ago at the Brooklyn Museum. This iconic feminist art piece sits in a mood-lit room, in the middle a triangular table upon which are 39 place settings, using mixed media, to highlight thirty-nine women: goddesses, historical figures, and women of importance in Western Civilization. The tables stand on a large porcelain-tile floor containing the name of 999 other important women. Judy Chicago’s intention in her well-known work was placing women back at the table of history, celebrating their contribution. Her-story is highlighted so that it might become one again with his-story.

Our Torah portion also speaks about including all parties at a table. In Mishpatim, just after Moses has finished relating all the various laws to the Children of Israel,and the people have agreed “to do all the things that God has spoken” (Ex. 24:3); Moses arises early the next morning and builds an altar, a type of table, resting on 12 pillars, representing every tribe of Israel. (Ex. 24:4) The message in the construction of the altar is clear. The Torah rules and relationship with God that has been elaborated in this week and last week’s Torah portions is for each and every one.

I remember going to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem two years ago, to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Women of the Wall. I was with a group of women rabbis and one male rabbi from the Americas. We arose early that Rosh Chodesh morning to go to the small section reserved for women in the northern plaza of the Western Wall, to mark space for the crowds that were expected at that significant anniversary. We knew that their might be some violent and vocal resistance to our bigger-than-usual gathering at the beginning of the new month. The message by the ultra-orthodox for 25 years, since that first Rosh Chodesh gathering by women, attending a conference in 1988 was clear. They objected to women praying together as a group. For them, they denied its halachic validity and it was an anathema brought in by female Jews from the Diaspora. This orthodox gathering of prayer was not kosher – they declared that there was no room at the table for women’s public worship.

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In my hallway at home, sits another piece of art, a photo that for me is a foundation text. Nested in a wooden frame and burgundy matting, the picture depicts an earlier time, before the first Western Wall plaza was built. A time my Egyptian grandfather remembered clearly in the stories of my childhood.

Side by side, at the wall, men and women are praying together. Each gender having an equal place at a site which for generations has been deemed as sacred by our people. Side by side are men and women at the outer western retaining wall, that bolstered the hill upon which the Temple once stood. The Kotel, the Wailing Wall was a place where all were welcome to pray according to their own custom regardless of gender, practice or belief.

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Over the years, as the plaza has been twice renovated, the women’s section has become smaller. Those who control the wall have become more extreme in their views. They view this symbol of Jewish unity as an Orthodox synagogue, but not just any orthodox synagogue, but “their” type of Orthodox synagogue, understanding their practice to be the true expression of Judaism. A national symbol, if not the national symbol, of the Jewish people hijacked by one strand of Judaism.

Meanwhile, especially in the Diaspora, Judaism has changed. The largest numbers of Jews are worshipping in more liberal movements – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and more. The Western Wall that belonged to all Jewish people, felt like a place of alien practice for many.

As a compromise overseen by Natan Sharansky, on the southern section of the Western Wall over an archaeological dig, a temporary wooden platform was raised for mixed prayer. Some of you may know someone who was Bar or Bat Mitzvah there.  It was makeshift. Not big enough. It looked like the wooden porch you added on as an afterthought to the back of your house. You had to pay to get in because it was in an archeological park. And the underlying message to Jews who value gender equality and diversity is that we were second rate in the land of Israel and among the Jewish people.

This week, marks a historic moment for all Jews. After two-and-a-half years of quiet and difficult negotiation with the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, the Women of the Wall, the Israeli Government, the Archaeological Trust – it has been agreed to enlarge the Western Wall Plaza by the Israeli Government, on a vote of 15 in favor and 5 against.

The Israeli Government will finance an enlarged plaza, with one main entrance, which will contain three space-options for worship. The Orthodox men and women sections will remain on the northern end of the Western Wall; and in the southern end of the Western Wall there will be a beautiful and egalitarian sacred space overseen by movements and organizations that value pluralism and equality.

You will enter and have a choice on which part of the Western Wall you will go to pray. The new part of the plaza will be a national site. A place where men and women can worship together. Where female Israeli soldiers may speak and be honored. Where a woman can sing HaTikvah at National Events or stand on the same stage as a man. Where people of many faiths will be welcome on their own terms. No Pope will be asked to remove the cross they wear. Where male and female Olim can be naturalized together. Where no dress police will demand that women cover every inch of their skin to touch the holy stones that will be reachable from the Herodian roadway.

This decision is indeed a Shehechiyanu moment, a first time moment to celebrate!

In many ways this is a miraculous decision. Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center and a founder of Women of the Wall, who will surely go down in her-story and history as one of the great leaders and game changers of our people, speaks of this miracle. She did not think that Avicahai Mandelblit, the black kippah wearing, lawyer, red headed Orthodox cabinet minister, who would not shake her hand, who had been assigned to negotiate this deal, would have the integrity to see through the compromise. She did not believe in a coalition government, that Prime Minister Netanyahu would risk political capital to let this happen.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, was also skeptical that the government would make a deal. He knew that any changes for the egalitarian and liberal movements of Judaism in Israel have always come through the Supreme Court after much back and forth.

But the miracle happened. Partly because of the wide coalition of women across the movements of Judaism, from Orthodox to Reform who for 27 years have consistently added their voices and persons to this cause.

Partly because of the good will of the Israeli Government who came to see this as an issue of Jewish peoplehood and unity.

Partly because of the support of Natan Sharansky, a consistent voice for Jewish peoplehood and inclusion, who was part of  and supportive of the negotiations.

Partly because of the consistent lobbying and agitation of the Reform Movement, especially Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Conservative Movement, and the Federations of North America.

And mostly because the right people of good will were around the right table at the right time.

What now? Well celebration of course! We will recite Shehechiyanu.

But also an awareness that this decision comes with some resistance – from the Elad NGO, Islamic Groups, a small number of Israeli Archaeologists and of course, Rabbi Rabinovich who controls the northern end of the Western Wall Plaza. We must continue to answer objections with reason and love  and by making sure that people understand that the new area will be one of tolerance and respect in its building as well as its administration. That those behind the new southern section of the Western Wall implementation are committed to “getting to yes” in making this happen.

As for the Orthodox Women who feel that we have abandoned their cause to change Orthodox in agreeing to an Egalitarian Plaza, we are saddened that this historical decision was not their ultimate dream. The new section of the wall will offer them a segregated part to prayer in Orthodox custom whenever they desire. They will have the liberal movements support for equal access within orthodox Judaism, but their fight must be fought within and we pray, won for them and Judaism at another time.

In the Diaspora, we have a role to play in continuing the pressure to see that the plans are not thwarted and that the new part of the Western Wall plaza comes to fruition. We must make sure that every visit to the Western Wall by like-minded liberal individuals and by Federation and Synagogue tours includes celebration, visits and ceremonies to the site of the new egalitarian section. so people can envision what can be.

We must continue to support people on the ground – the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements financially and spiritually and make sure the money we send to Israel is used in causes that speak to our Jewish values of inclusion.

We must support Women of the Wall, who will continue to nudge the issue with their monthly Rosh Chodesh meetings in the Women’s Section, in order to encourage the new part of the plaza to be built quickly. We must send them money, watch their streamed services, and pray with them in the Holy Land.

In Mishpatim, Moses build an altar that includes all the Israelites with its 12 symbolic pillars. In our time, we seek to create an Israel and a Western Wall that is also inclusive of all. I am reminded of the words of Judy Chicago’s beautiful poem which originally accompanies her installation of “The Dinner Table”:

And then all that has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.
And then both men and women will be gentle.
And then both women and men will be strong.
And then no person will be subject to another’s will.
And then all will be rich and free and varied.
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many.
And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance.
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.
And then all will nourish the young.
And then all will cherish life’s creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

This week a step in that direction to that Messianic vision within Jewish peoplehood, when all will live in harmony with each other and the earth, and then everywhere will be called Eden again. A Western Wall for all of us.

Shehechiyanu, V’ki’y’manu, V’hig’y’anu La’zman HaZeh.



An Old Story Re-newed/Re-Jewed for Halloween: The Rabbi Who Was Turned into a Werewolf

(This story has been adapted, shortened, and changed for re-telling. The original is from the Mayse-Bukh a collection of Yiddish folk tales published in 1602. A translation of the original story can be found in Joachim Neugroschel’s “Great Tales of Jewish Occult and Fantasy: The Dybbuk and 30 Other Classic Stories”.)

A true story:

Once a rabbi, as wise as he was rich, ran a Yeshiva attended by a hundred students. The rabbi performed many mitzvehs –  not only keeping Shabbes, holy days and kashrus. He paid for his Yeshiva student’s education and he gave tzedakah often to the poor. He was a righteous man.

His wife on the other hand, was not so good. She did not like all the poor students eating their food or giving money to those in need.

Oy! The day came when this rabbi lost all his wealth.

Unable to help his students or give tzedakah he became depressed. Perhaps he had committed some sin for God to deal with him this way?

Unable to help his students or give tzedakah he became embarrassed. So the rabbi came up with a plan to leave town, so no one would know of his shame.

Gathering his students together, the rabbi decided to tell them of his secret, that he was now poor and he felt the need to run away. “Who knows,” he told them, perhaps one day God will make me rich again and I can keep you all in a fine manner?”

The students listened to the rabbi but did not want to leave him. “Rabbi, wherever you go we will go,” they said. “And wherever you lodge we will lodge, what is ours is yours. We will get by.”

So the rabbi left town with his Yeshivah students. Now when the poor people of the town realized that the rabbi and his students had gone, they wondered: where would their next meal come from? But because he was a famous man of learning and great piety, no one was surprised that the rabbi had left home. They assumed he was travelling to some other Yeshiva to teach and study for a while.

The rabbi and his students roamed for years, and over time their clothes became tattered and their money ran out. They became beggars, people closed doors in their faces when they asked for help. Folk refused  to give vagabonds food and shelter.

The students, as much as they loved their rabbi and did not want to leave him, finally came to him and said: “Perhaps it is time for us to go home to our parents. Being this poor is really hard.”

The rabbi listened to them and suggested that they remain with him at least till Shabbes… for who knows, maybe God would create some miracle that would keep them together?

The students agreed.

That night as they camped in the forest, the rabbi went to a spring to wash his hands. He sighted a weasel dashing past with a golden ring in its mouth which it dropped into the spring when it drank. The rabbi bent down and picked up the golden ring, looked at it closely, and being wise and learned realized that it was engraved with a magic spell. He wondered about its magic and decided to make a wish. He wished for a purse filled with money… and avarah k’davar, it appeared before him!

The rabbi returned to his students with a smile and a cheer. “My friends, it occurs to me that a wealthy friend of mine lives not so far away from here. Let us visit him in the next town and perhaps he will loan us money.” The rabbi did not say a word to his students of the ring or his new fortune because he feared that one of them might take it.

At the next town, the rabbi bought all his students new clothes and fed them a fine meal. They thought nothing of their change in luck, thinking that the rabbi’s friend had loaned him some money. As they travelled through the countryside their comforts only increased, including a coach fit for a prince on which to ride. The rabbi announced he would pay each student back for all their loyalty and support as now it was time to go home.

The students, offered thanks for the loan from the rabbi’s friend and returned home to their Yeshiva with the rabbi.

They came back to find the townsfolk miserable and poor. But when the town saw the rabbi and the students had returned, shouts of joy filled the air. Such a warm welcome! And the rabbi began to act as he always had with generosity to all, tzedakah, mitzvehs and supporting students and much learning.

The rabbi’s wife however soon became suspicious. Where had all their fortune come from? The rabbi had left the town poor and come back wealthier than before. The rabbi spoke to her of God’s blessings, but she refused to believe that such fortune could “just happen”.

Eventually with much pushing, nagging, and cajoling, her husband told her the secret of the magic ring. But as soon as she knew the real source of their wealth, the rabbi’s wife began to plot…

She asked to see the ring, and when the rabbi refused, she cried out that he did not love her anymore.  When he still did not relent, so she put a flea in his ear till he gave her the ring to look at.

As soon as the ring was in her hand the rabbi’s wife made a wish: “I wish that God would turn my husband into a werewolf and let him run around in the forest with the wild beasts.”

That is how the rabbi became a werewolf running around deep in the woods.

He began to eat people in the forest. He attacked intruders. Everybody throughout the land was terrified to go there.

The townsfolk wondered where there rabbi had gone but thought as before, that perhaps he had gone traveling to study and teach insome far off Yeshiva. The town became miserable once more in the rabbi’s absence. The poor became poorer, and there was no-one to feed and house the students of Torah. But the rabbi’s wife, she seemed to get richer and richer, as she got herself everything she wanted.

The rabbi in the shape of a werewolf continued to invoke terror in everyone’s hearts, for there is no animal stronger than a werewolf. No one was willing to kill the werewolf who was stronger than iron and as smart as a human being.

Hearing this, the king of the land decided that the fear of the werewolf must end. He offered a reward of his daughter’s hand in marriage for one that could catch this terrifying creature. But no-one could catch the werewolf, despite the traps and plots and plans they had.

It just so happened, that a young man lived in the woods. He lived so isolated that he had not heard of the panic of the werewolf or the reward for the king’s daughter’s hand. In fact, he had made friends with the werewolf, tamed him and made him his companion. He fed the werewolf food. He talked to him like a pet. He loved to watch the werewolf’s tail wag with joy.

When the news finally reached the young man about the werewolf threat and the King’s daughter’s hand, he placed a rope around the werewolf’s neck and brought him to the palace.

As you can imagine, the king was terrified when the young man and the werewolf entered the palace because he had heard how the werewolf would rip people to shreds. But the young man assured him that the werewolf would harm nobody unless they tried to harm the creature.The young man was given the king’s daughter in marriage and he continued to look after the werewolf who was loyal to his master. When the king died, the young man and the king’s daughter ruled the land.

On a snowy winter’s day the new king, his companions, and the werewolf went out hunting. The werewolf seemed happy to be back in the woods, tail wagging he ran ahead, and in a clearing made some marks in the snow, marks that clearly were writing. The new king thought a miracle had been wrought, that his werewolf could write so clearly in the snow. It then occurred to him that perhaps his werewolf companion might be a bewitched human as such a thing had been known to have happened in the past.

One of the new king’s companions recognized the script as Hebrew and read the letter the werewolf wrote in the snow:

“Sire, remember our friendship. I could have overpowered you many times but I did not. I am, in fact, a human and my wife put a spell on me with a wishing ring. If I do not get the ring back very soon I will be a werewolf till the end of my days. I beg of you, please remember how loyal I have been and go to my wife and get this ring.”

The werewolf concluded his letter with a picture of the wishing ring he sought.

The new king immediately wanted to help his werewolf friend. He and his servants dressed as merchants and rode to the town the werewolf had directed them too. They pretended as merchants that they loved to buy old rings and jewelry. That nothing would be too expensive. The townsfolk told him they were poor, and the only person with such merchandise to sell was the rabbi’s wife who had many jewels and rings.

The townsfolk bought the disguised new king to the rabbi’s wife, who took out her many ribbons of rings and jewels tied together for the merchant to inspect, greedy at the prospect of even more money. There, amidst many rings, just as the werewolf had drawn, was the wishing ring.

The new king disguised as a merchant, looked at all the rings carefully, and thought a wish – that the wishing-ring be returned to his palace, and thus he stole the ring from under the rabbi’s wife’s very eyes without her knowing. It took her a while before she realized what had happened. Of course, she became miserable and grief stricken.

When the new king returned home he threw a banquet and called for his werewolf friend. The werewolf came in overjoyed to see his master, hopeful to receive his ring, his tail wagging and wagging. The new king took the ring from his bag and placed it by the werewolf’s paw. Had the new king known the true power of the ring he may not have given it up so readily.

Avarah K’Davar. The werewolf disappeared. And a naked man stood before them.

The new king called for clothes and then the naked man, the rabbi,  asked permission to return to his home for he had been gone for three to four years. The new king knowing how loyal the werewolf had been gave consent. The new king wanted to bestow gifts upon his werewolf rabbi friend, but the rabbi replied he had much wealth, which the new king had already witnessed at his home. All he needed was his ring. Of course if the new king had known the true secret of the ring, he might not have let the rabbi return home with it so easily.

The rabbi began his journey home, and on the way made a wish on his ring: “I wish that my wife, damn her soul, would turn into a donkey in my stable.”

When the rabbi returned home he received a hearty welcome from his students and the poor town folks, but alas, his wife was nowhere to be found. The rabbi looked confused about this fact but said, “Maybe she will return in the end.” All the while knowing his wife was now a donkey in his stable.

The rabbi returned to his life of deeds of tzedakah, supporting his students, helping the poor and doing many kind acts and mitzvehs. One Shabbes he announced that he would like to share his wealth even more with the community, and that he would build a beautiful shul. He gave a donkey from his own stable to the builders to haul the bricks. Of course that donkey was his wife!

The workmen worked the donkey hard. And the townsfolk always wondered where the rabbi’s wife had disappeared too?

When the shul was finally built, the rabbi provided a huge banquet, inviting the towns folk, his students and his wife’s relatives and telling them this improbable story of his life. Of course, they thought it was just a story.

Not long after that the rabbi passed away leaving his wealth to his children. The wishing-ring had vanished. And his wife remained a donkey as long as she lived.

All Beginnings Are Hard

“All beginnings are hard.” (Mekhilta Yitro BaChadoesh 2)

With this thought I begin my personal professional blogging career. I have occasionally been blogging as a guest poster on Kol Isha, the Women’s Rabbinic Network blog for a while. But this new blog aims to be a personal conversation between you and me.

In this age of new media, the way we communicate has changed vastly. I used to preach from the pulpit. And it was enough. I once wrote for the congregation’s newsletter and publish in newspapers. And it was enough. I got the word out to those who needed to know by letter. And it was enough. I taught in the classroom and in the pulpit. And it was enough.

But the congregational world is no longer local. It has become global. The walls of our synagogue are more ephemeral than in the past.

We use emails, blasts, text messages, websites, Facebook, twitter, Instagram and blogs. We communicate differently. There are no more newsletters (at least in my congregation). The letter has given away to email programs. The sermon is no longer 3 points, but a time to communicate using various forms to engage congregants. My teaching happens on varying mediums.

In this new global world our congregations are more than our membership. So I begin and reach out to you. So I begin and will share with you. Perhaps this will not be so hard!