(Above — standing in the midst of a sculpture — Jerusalem at the center of the world.)
A well known story imagines a conversation between a Hasidic master and a doubting rationalist. The rationalist notices the Hasid going outside to pray and says, “What are you doing running around outside to pray? Don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” To which the Hasid replies, “God may be the same everywhere, but I am not.”
I have been reminded of this story many times in recent weeks as I have observed digital conversations between colleagues of mine, coming to consensus that the kotel (the “wailing wall” in Jerusalem) is no more holy than any other place in the world, and that in fact the pious crowds who care so deeply about it are engaged in a mild form of idolatry.
The conversation is happening now because of a historic decision by the Israeli government to recognize non-Orthodox authority over a small piece of very contested real estate on the Temple Mount. Most people are calling this an important victory for Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. Some are not happy because there have been compromises along the way, because they doubt that it will ever happen, etc. etc. One thread of the conversation has to do with whether or not we should care so much about this place at all anyway…
I am in Jerusalem right now, very near to that wall which many have been calling the “heart” of the Jewish world. Perhaps I too am an idolater for deciding I wanted to come back to this place to spend my precious sabbatical, rather than blissing out on some peaceful island that has no significance in the history of my people (and far fewer stabbings and home demolitions). Perhaps I am an idolater for letting myself sob out loud when I looked down on the plaza after 9 years, for feeling I was coming home, for pushing slips of paper with names and words into the cracks, for walking backwards when I leave, as is the custom, reluctant to turn away from that place.
The Kotel. Jerusalem. Perhaps these places are no more ‘objectively’ holy than any other. In the desert, after all, the Holy of Holies moved from place to place. Ezekiel tells us that when the first Temple was destroyed, the Shekhinah rode off in her chariot to Babylon to be with the exiles. I can tell you for sure that one can find God on the coast of Northern California and in the Colorado mountains.
But I beg you, please, my dear rabbinic friends, don’t take away the significance of the holiest Jewish place on earth. Don’t ridicule those who imbue it with power and meaning.
So maybe it’s not the proper wall, or maybe it’s a different wall than the one Jews went to 700 ago. Maybe Isaac was never bound on that mountain top. Maybe the Universe wasn’t born there. Maybe all of those prayers for all of those generations directed to this place from every corner of the globe have left no physical trace in our world. Maybe God can hear us just as well from our remote exilic streets. BUT…
Where is your spiritual imagination?!? Since when does the holiness of a place derive its power from the rational facts of its material history?
When I have wailed at that wall over the years, it has not been because I have been imagining that the stones were God’s ears.
Arrival. Homecoming. Return. Pilgrimage.
These gestures have spiritual significance and also physical forms. The two are entangled. We live in a hopelessly physical universe. We also live constantly within networks of illusion and symbolism. We get confused.
Sometimes the symbolism in our hearts propels us to ignore the real flesh and blood human beings before our very eyes. The power of our stories, our holy places, our wounds, drive some of us to violence in the very name of that which is holy.
This is wrong. It is a tragic mistake. But the solution is not to diminish the spiritual significance of those places and ideas that spark such passion. To do so is to cut ourselves and our people off from our own spiritual roots.
I confess I am getting sick of how the “enlightened” progressive world concedes whole dimensions of human life and Jewish tradition to right wing interpretation and claim. Religion. God. The Kotel. These are not just dispensable peripheral aspects of who we are as humans and Jews.* We may understand them in vastly different ways. We may notice that in the hands of the zealous, wielded without humility, they become powerful weapons for injustice, even evil. So — let us take them back. Let us direct that power for the good. These are our inheritance too, for better or for worse.
The work is harder when it engages the power of symbols and myths without casting them aside. It’s harder to let that holy place be holy and then to live with the heartbreak of seeing how it is still not perfect. But I’d rather have a broken heart than to pretend I can live without any heart at all.
Left photo is Robinson’s Arch on the Temple Mount complex site where there is a proposal to grant non-Orthodox control and build a new plaza for egalitarian prayer. Right is from a recent gathering of Women of the Wall in the existing women’s section of the kotel reading Torah amid disruptive protest.
*While I do not consider faith, religiosity or spirituality to be prerequisites of a serious Jewish life or morality, I do believe that authentic engagement with Judaism must include grappling with the meaning of God and spiritual practice in Jewish tradition and one’s personal life.