Sharing the Kotel (Western Wall)

Lesley Sachs Photo

Lesley Sachs, Director of “Women of the Wall” arguing with a police officer back in October because she’s wearing a tallit while praying at the Kotel (which is currently against Israeli law).

Below, you’ll find the text of a letter that I just sent to Chairman Natan Sharansky of the Jewish Agency.  As you may have read in the news recently (click here for an example), in response to international outcry over the treatment of women praying at the wall, Prime Minister Netanyahu has asked Chairman Sharansky to suggest ways to better accommodate the diversity of Jewish religious practice at the Kotel (Western Wall).

I hope you’ll join me in reaching out to Chairman Sharansky and urging him to take significant steps towards guaranteeing Jewish religious freedom and equality at the Kotel.  You can do so via the IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center) site by clicking here.  While it’s always difficult to be certain, this turn of events may be a watershed moment for advancing the issue of religious freedom in Israel and the unity of the Jewish people.

{My letter follows}

Dear Chairman Sharansky,

I am thrilled that you will be studying the issue of Jewish religious freedom at the Kotel.  I believe it ought to be possible for every Jew who holds the Kotel a powerful symbol to pray there fully and freely.  It has long seemed at best ironic and, at worst, shameful that all Jews are not able to pray free of harassment or fear at the holiest Jewish site in the world.  Despite our rich variety, in the heart of Jerusalem and at the heart of the Jewish people, we should aspire to live as one people with one heart.

I recognize that in order for such an ideal to become reality, all sides will need to make compromises. As we teach our children, such compromise is the inevitable prerequisite for sharing something that we treasure.  We have to be willing to allow others to use it and sometimes, to do so in a way that is different from our own custom or preference.  But surely for a people who has survived so much and reinvented itself so many times, this goal is attainable.

The Kotel does not belong to Orthodox Jews or Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist Jews.  It is the legacy of all Jews–of “Am Yisrael.”  And therefore, the issue you will be considering is a test of our aspiration to live as “Am Echad.”  It is a measure of Israel’s continuing capacity to unite the Jews of the world in common identity and vision.  Can we find the creativity, the generosity of spirit and the flexibility to share a site that ultimately must belong to all of us?  I hope so.

 I pray for your every success in responding to this urgent and complex challenge and thank you for your service to our people. 

Rabbi Jonathan Kraus



The Necessity of Hope

For the week of December 22, 2012

Parashat “Va’yigash”
Genesis 44:18-47:27

In this week’s parashah (Torah portion), we reach the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers,  With roles reversed, Joseph (the former victim) has his brothers (the former victimizers) completely within his power.  Having framed Benjamin for the theft of an expensive goblet, Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, explains that he’ll allow the rest of them to return to Canaan but Benjamin must remain behind as a slave.  Va’yigash begins as Judah steps forward and, following an eloquent plea, offers to remain as a slave himself in place of Benjamin.  Poignantly, Judah asks:  “For how can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer (Gen. 44:34)?”  After Judah has spoken these words, Joseph is overcome with emotion and, at last, reveals himself to his brothers–“I am Joseph–is my father still alive (Gen. 45:3)?”

This is a complicated moment for our understanding of Joseph.  Was the whole point of Joseph’s machinations to test his brothers and find out if they’d changed?  Before he could trust them, was Joseph trying to see whether his brothers would respond differently when faced, once again, with the prospect of abandoning a brother and causing terrible anguish to their father?  Or was Joseph simply struggling with the temptation to exact revenge and make his brothers suffer?  Did he only change course at the last minute because Judah’s plea softened his vengeful heart?  Perhaps, Joseph himself wasn’t sure of his motivations even as he was manipulating his brothers.  We can’t be sure.

For my part, I would like to believe that no matter how hurt and angry Joseph still felt, some part of his heart held onto the hope that his brothers could have changed.  After all, Joseph didn’t just throw them all in jail or deny them food and send them back empty-handed to face the intense famine in Canaan.  Instead, whether intentionally or not, Joseph left the door open for his brothers to do the right thing and Judah literally “stepped up.”  If Joseph had given up all hope that his brothers might have changed over the years, if he’d decided that things could never be healthy between them, the story would have had a very different and probably far more tragic ending.

Like Joseph, our people’s ability to  sustain this kind of stubborn and resilient hope, sometimes in spite of ourselves and certainly, despite the evidence of Jewish history, has been one of the strongest guarantors of our survival.  To give up hope is to give up on the future and the possibility that things still could change for the better.  To give up hope is to surrender to the dark cynicism and despair that threaten to corrupt our hearts and smother our will to do the slow, frustrating but essential work of creating change.

As I’ve continued to worry about events unfolding in Israel, a line from Naomi Shemer’s beautiful song, Al Kol Eileh (written after the 1973 Yom Kippur War) keeps rising up in me.  You’ll find a charming YouTube video version here and lyrics with a translation here.  In the second half of the chorus, Shemer writes:  “Do not uproot what is planted; do not forget Ha’Tikvah (the Hope).”  This is, of course, both a reference to Israel’s national anthem and also to hope itself.  The message of the song is undoubtedly nationalistic and patriotic.  But the lyrics also express a continued longing and hope for peace.  And what I fear these days is that too many Israelis, understandably exhausted by decades of disappointment and missed opportunities and terrible violence, have given up on the hope of peace.  I worry that too many Israelis have accepted as a sad, hard  but inevitable reality that there will never be peace with the Palestinians.  And they have adjusted their worldviews and political positions and choices accordingly.

If I’m right (and I pray that I’m not), this development bodes ill for Israel’s future.  Of course, Israel must continue to protect herself vigilantly and not be naive about the very real threats she faces.  At the same time, I believe Israel’s future depends on her ability to continue nurturing the hope for peace, perhaps like Joseph, in spite of herself and in spite of the evidence of much of her history.  I pray that Israel, like Joseph, can somehow leave the door open for an unexpected but not impossible transformation among those who have done her harm in the past.  While it’s possible that such a stubborn hope may never be rewarded, we know that if we abandon the hope of peace, it certainly will never happen.  Al tishkach et ha tikvah–don’t forget Hope.

Please Sign The Petition!

Anat Hoffman at the Kotel

Last night, Anat Hoffman, the courageous leader of the Women of the Wall (and a leader of our movement in Israel) was arrested by Israeli police for singing the Shema at the kotel (Western Wall in Jerusalem).  You can read a brief account of the arrest here (from “The Jewish Daily Forward”).  And you can learn more about the Women of the Wall here.

Noa Sattath, Director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center wrote the following in an email to supporters of religious freedom in Israel:

“Last night Anat Hoffman was arrested at the Western Wall. This occurred during a prayer service in the woman’s section with 250 other participants, including members of Women of the Wall and Hadassah.

Anat was detained and held overnight in police custody for disturbing the peace. She was arrested for saying the Shema, Judaism’s central declaration of faith, out loud at the Western Wall.   Anat was put through a terrible ordeal.

The experience was both frightening and humiliating, simply for wanting to pray as a Jew at the Kotel. We are all so relieved that Anat is now back home.  She also wants to express her profound gratitude to all of you for your support and good wishes.

Anat will be writing about this experience herself in the coming days. As we move forward we are more determined than ever to achieve equality for women, everywhere in Israel, including the Kotel. Please sign (and share) our petition, which calls on the Israeli government to end the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over the Western Wall.”

I have signed this petition myself and, if you are so inclined, I urge you to do the same.  You’ll find the petition here.  As I discussed during a recent High Holy Day sermon, we owe it to ourselves as liberal Jews but even more so to the future of Israel to stay informed, involved and to help Israel find her way back to her best self.  We also owe it to courageous leaders like Anat Hoffman and Uri Regev, to support and stand with them in their ongoing work of justice and tikkun.