Posted by Aryeh Cohen
The Torah emphasizes repeatedly that one only approaches the Holy with great fear and trepidation. On the day that the Tabernacle was dedicated, Aaron’s children were killed by the same sacrificial machinery that consumed Israel’s offerings. The ritual choreography which eventually became the Yom Kippur service is preceded by the warning: “Speak to Aaron your brother, that he not come at all times into the sacred zone … lest he die.” God warns Israel as they gather round Mount Sinai that they not approach the mountain “lest they break through to the Lord to see and many of them perish.” The Sages applied to Torah the same paradigm. Comparing Torah to fire, the midrash warns that if one gets too close, one will be burnt, if one strays too far, one will freeze.
These are the thoughts with which I find myself as I try to bring some order to the reasons that I am uncomfortable with the movement for equal ritual access at the kotel, known as Women of the Wall. It is not that I fear the disruption of the customs of the place—customs which have only been in place for several decades, not longer, and have been stage managed by the Hareidi rabbis of the kotel, pretending that the force of the police is the same as the patina of authenticity. It is not egalitarian worship at the kotel that I fear. I strongly believe in egalitarian worship everywhere, rarely if ever praying in a quorum divided by sex. It is rather worship of the kotel that makes me anxious.
The Sefat Emet (the first Rebbe of Gur) writes that the reason that Moses broke the tablets when he saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf was that he feared that they would make the tablets into an idol. Rather than studying, and observing the Torah, Moses was afraid that the idolatrous actions of the Israelites showed that they would also turn the tablets that God had given them into an idol, and worship it.
For centuries the Wall, the large remnant of the western supporting wall of the Temple Plaza, upon which Herod’s Temple was built, was draped in myth and yearning. Yehudah Halevi, the great medieval Spanish poet wrote “my hear is in the East / while I am in the far West” in his longing for the Land of Israel. The desire of his poetic yearning was transformed into the legend that he was killed by an Arab horseman as he was embracing the dirt near the Temple Mount. Legend has it that the Western Wall survived because it was built by donations from the poor. Popular song refers to it as “stones with the heart of a person.”
In the far right precincts of the messianic settler Zionist movement, the focus has moved from the kotel to the Temple Mount itself. Annually, the Temple Mount faithful make a pilgrimage to the Temple Mount to underscore their desire to build the Third Temple on the spot where the Herod’s Temple had been, and where the Dome of the Rock now stands.
The combination of Nationalist and Hareidi claims of ownership over the kotel and the Temple Mount seem to have alienated most of the Israeli public who have not been paying attention to the controversy over equal ritual access to the Wall. Instead, the monthly Rosh Hodesh gatherings have become a rallying point for North American tour groups, and North Americans temporarily living in Israel. The resistance and the violence that meets these groups is a major publicity problem for the Israeli government. A publicity problem and neither a political nor a moral issue. For this reason Prime Minister Netanyahu dispatched Natan Scharansky, the head of the World Zionist Organization to discuss the issue with the heads of two American Rabbinical Schools, Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary—both of which have supported the Women of the Wall. The goal of such a compromise will be to insure that the support of the State as a whole should not be diminished.
The reason this issue has escaped the enthusiasm of the Israeli public (both right and left, but most interesting, those Israelis actively concerned with human and civil rights) is that it is not framed as an issue within the context of other violations of civil rights. (Though after the recent Supreme Court decision almost half the country seems to support WoW. However, digging into those statistics reveals that the support is greatest by far amongst Olim from Europe and North America and their children.) The police brutality is not framed as one example of the brutality of the Israeli police. The issues are framed from the perspective of the North American Jewish community, as a lone civil rights issue—egalitarian ritual access at the kotel.
This is where the danger of the Holy hits. The picture that is painted and the rhetoric that is employed advocate for the Western Wall “as the the principal symbol of Jewish people-hood and sovereignty” (from the WoW website). However, the site of the kotel, the Old City of Jerusalem, the kotel plaza and the Temple Mount are not uncomplicated. The massive plaza in front of the Western Wall was a Palestinian neighborhood until the ‘67 war. Muslims and Jews share the Old City in a tense and tendentious fashion, and demanding equal ritual access without mention of this larger political context also strengthens the place of the Wall as the symbol of Jerusalem, the “eternal undivided capital of Israel.”
Reinforcing the kotel’s iconic political status makes moving forward on issues of peace and coexistence harder. Women of the Wall is a public relations problem specifically because it might harm the unconditioned support for this nationalist message. This is where it behooves us to break the tablets. If the issue is equal access then we should be taking on the Rabbinate. If the issue is civil rights and police brutality we should be shouting about that. If the issue is the Wall, we walk too close to the fire.
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6.2.13 at 5:59 pm | For some reason I don’t think that any of the. . .
5.29.13 at 6:09 am | These are the thoughts with which I find myself. . .
5.13.13 at 8:40 am | And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean. . .
5.7.13 at 7:16 pm | The Rabbinic tradition transvalued the warriors. . .
4.23.13 at 5:22 pm |
5.13.13 at 8:40 am | And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean. . . (4)
10.30.12 at 9:23 pm | For argument's sake let us agree that we all. . . (3)
4.18.13 at 5:34 pm | (3)
May 13, 2013 | 8:40 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Last year good friends visiting from Israel brought as a gift a CD by Gal Ziv, which put to music some wonderful contemporary Israeli poems. One line sticks with me. It is from the poem “Ibn Gvirol, Tammuz, Future Tense” by Tal Nitzan. The poem is sung with a hauntingly beautiful melody. I am assuming that the poem was written around the time of the Israeli tent protests which captured the passions and imaginations and participation of tens of thousands of Israelis in the summer before the Occupy movement started. I hear the words through the filter of Occupy LA.
Coins dive down to the musician’s bag
with the audacity of small change, feet
will wallow in the detritus of the demonstration
what was spoken and shouted will be swept up
life is much stronger*
And I hear the words echoing with the youthful wistfulness of Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.”
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
And I hear the words resonating with the fleeting nature of revelation as we move toward Shavuot, when we celebrate the necessary distance between people and God by wallowing in the gift of interpretation, of midrash, of study.
And then, in the very next moment, as we look upon it from the perspective of time past, those same people dance around the Golden Calf. The idolatry that is born of a need for concretized meaning and the intimacy of being able to point to a thing—the incarnation perhaps of a divine desire—and say: “This is your god”, overcomes the experience of revelation. Life is much stronger.
The move from rethinking the way the world might work, in which the space that is created between a people and the divine endlessness of Torah writ large, to the small narrow space of concretized and static deity is almost incomprehensible. How does one, let alone everyone, move from the frenetic liberating energy of infinite possibility to the “audacity of small change” which rings hollowly but can be sighted and pointed at. And yet, it is this move, more than revelation, more than liberation, which seems to define history. The day after, when the street sweepers come through and collect the detritus of passion and revolution, and tourists look at the gated off gardens and parks and plazas where righteous anger brought forth a dream of difference, a vital vision of a more just future—that day after regularly saps our spirits and dampens our drive, giving way to the demons of the day to day: “life is much stronger.”
And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean regularity performing the possibility of redemptive reading, hoping that this year the creative discourse of friends and allies hunched over texts ancient and modern, sacred and secular, profound and profane, will propel us into a future more full with the promise of perfectibility.
The future is still covered in the thick fog. With so much in the balance, perhaps this time when the fog clears it will be the dancing of holy revolutionaries singing the psalms of justice that we will hear.
I’ll see you at the foot of the mountain.
* The translation is mine.
May 7, 2013 | 7:16 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Violence rests heavy in the mythological and religious womb of our civilization. The first murder happens just verses after Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden. According to legend, Cain was stunned after he struck and killed Abel, as death had not yet inhabited the world. He was literally at a loss as to what to do. The birds taught him about how to bury the body.
Violence has never left us from that wayward moment. However, our biblical religions do not glorify the violence. When God commanded Israel to build a Tabernacle so that God might rest amongst the people Israel, part of the package was that the altar would not be hewn with metal. Metal brought death in the form of swords and the altar was a symbol of life. Death would not bring life. If a priest fought in a war, even a commanded war, a righteous conflict, he was forbidden to do the Temple service if he had taken life. King David was not allowed to build the Temple because his hands were bloodied.
The Torah might sanction war and violence in limited cases (self defense, perhaps), however even sanctioned violence is not glorified. Extinguishing the life of a person, even an enemy, even a bad person, is still an act of evil.
The Rabbinic tradition transvalued the warriors into Sages who fought on the battlefield of Torah study. “Who is the hero? The one who triumphs over his will.” The 3rd century mishnah debated the symbolic meaning of the machinery of death. While there is a lone opinion that weapons are a man’s decoration, Sages say that weapons are a disgrace to a person. They call on Isaiah, beating swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.
Yet we are also heir to civilizations which glorify the warrior, which laud the hero with the sword, the battle axe, and later the gun. The macho and often racist mythology of the lone gunslinger whether in a mythical west or a combat zone in Europe, Japan, Vietnam, and more recently America, created the American version of the medieval warrior. This legend of weaponized individuality, cowboyed autonomy (“yippee kay yo”) raised the rifle to iconic status.
We live at a bad moment in the arc of history for us to be embracing these myths and continuing to survive. When the smiths in the middle ages figured out how to forge steel swords, the weaponry of death became much more lethal, since the metal was no longer brittle. However, all this was nothing compared to the death that could be sown with the invention of gunpowder, then guns, repeating rifles and revolvers, and then machine guns in their various types. To our great bad fortune, the aura of the warrior carried over to the poor shlub who wielded an automatic weapon which could spray random death at a distance of a football field.
And so it is up to us to once again choose life. What is called for at this moment is a new Right to Life movement. A movement that does not fetishize the machinery of death in the name of a misguided masculinity or a corrupted culture. The machinery of death is now produced by a vast industry which profits from a product whose only use is the destruction of life. It is up to us to take the streets, the culture and this country back from the death-industrial complex.
In a week when children became killers with their guns, while Wayne LaPierre, the lobbyist for the death-industrial complex vowed to never give an inch in his worship of those guns, and the governer of Arizona declared it illegal to destroy guns, even those that were bought back by the state; in this week when again more people were killed than were killed in Newtown; we must state loudly that our right to life trumps the unfettered right to deal in the machinery of death.
Call your Representatives, take to the streets to protest outside the NRA’s branches, read the names of thousands of victims of the NRA’s war on America outside gun shows, and gun plants. This is the moment and we are called on to seize it.