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An Illegal Mourners Kaddish: Mid-Summer Note From Jerusalem

This morning I recited the Mourners Kaddish at the Western Wall as an illegal act of protest and prayer. Just another day in this surreal reality infected by a combination of fear-based religion, good intentions gone wild, and brutal summer heat. Inevitably it got me thinking about the major challenges facing the global Jewish community, the endlessly growing clouds of animosity and violence in the name of religious creeds, and perhaps some healthy helpful ways to go about addressing it all. You know, just some light summer beach reading for my Lab/Shul family & friends…written in haste from the heart, and posted with hope. 

13619871_10153479450567126_2902960632721168583_nI left my mother’s home this morning for the Western Wall with my passport in my pocket just in case I got arrested. Surrounded by well over a hundred other liberal Jews from Israel and the US who, like me, came to mark the first day of the new month with an egalitarian prayer-protest in defiance of the Ultra Orthodox Israeli rabbinate/government ban on such prayers, I felt a strange combination of relief, pride and frustration. There were no arrests today. No need for a passport. 

But a prayer book was torn into shreds by a fanatic and angry words were hurled at people. Had it not been for the heavy police presence it could have been and likely would have been worse. In the context of Black Lives Matter, the endless Syrian refugee crisis, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that keeps claiming lives (as it did even today), to name just a few of the humanitarian crises on our minds and in our hearts – why would a fight for the right to pray even matter? 

And yet it does. They all do. Though different in so many ways, they are also radically interrelated, sharing a similar source and possibly, hopefully, a similar solution. 

This morning marked a small yet successful battle in a much larger war between the old religious mindset of “either/or” boundaries and the new ways of celebrating the sacred in a complex, messy, post-modern reality of “and/both.” Sadly, the metaphor of “war” is far too fitting, as this tension is getting scarier and more violent every day. 

The story in a nutshell? A few months ago the Israeli government finally agreed to allocate a part of the Western Wall for egalitarian, co-ed, pluralistic, Jewish use that would be free from the compulsion of Orthodox forms of practice. On June 2nd Prime Minister Netanyhau, under American Jewish pressure, reiterated the promise to provide an egalitarian plaza – “one wall for one people.” But the plan keeps being pushed off due to Ultra Orthodox pressure and the realities of Israeli politics. 

Following the monthly morning prayer of the Women of the Wall, today’s prayer-protest invited the public to step up and model liberal prayer in the Western Wall’s main plaza as a cry against the stalled plan. I was invited to lead part of the ritual along with American and Israeli rabbis from across the denominations. But late last night we were all cc’d on an urgent official letter from the Israeli government banning any prayer that defied the site’s so called official Orthodox customs. We could sing songs but not wear ritual gear, pray or recite the Kaddish. Judaism’s holiest site now operating ostensibly as an exclusively Orthodox synagogue – ridiculous. 

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When we got there this morning we witnessed the familiar harassment by a few dozen or so Ultra Orthodox men and women who screamed, cursed, spat and even tore a woman’s prayer book. Police, barricades, media, cameras, the usual. The Women of the Wall managed yet again to smuggle (!!!) a tiny Torah scroll into the women’s section and chant from it aloud in celebration of a Bat Mitzvah, all while shouts of “whores” flew over their heads.

By 8:30am a large circle had formed on the main plaza. Men and women of all ages held hands, singing and clapping and dancing together as cameras clicked and the curses, briefly, couldn’t be heard. After psalms of praise for the new moon and a prayer for the state of Israel, I stepped up to lead the Mourners Kaddish, dedicating it to Elie Wiesel and to the hundreds of souls around the world who perished in the terrible violence of these recent weeks. We chanted the Kaddish together, loud, slow, and strong. Then we sang Hatikva and quietly dispersed, profoundly grateful that no one had been arrested or hurt.

Worth it? Absolutely. 

The black and white reality of the Ultra Orthodox, motivated more by autopilot tribalism and fear of change than by love of humanity and shared values of Jewish depth, will not necessarily weaken. It’s the same rage we see rising in other religious extremists and with certain politicians and their supporters, who all apparently have the sole irrefutable truth. All the more reason for those of us who recognize nuance and creative tension between old and new forms to step up and own our space. It starts simple: refuse to hate, insist on love. Not walls – bridges.

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The seeds sown this morning, as the ones sown by the Women of the Wall for the last quarter of a century, will one day grow to become the liberal arena of justice that represents a fuller spectrum of Jewish life in Israel and beyond. The fact that the Ultra Orthodox grow in numbers will not determine the yearning of ordinary folks to be Jews on their own modern, egalitarian, compassionate, LGBTQ friendly, flexible terms. I hope. Change takes time. This will require a very deep collective breath and faith in the outcomes. 

I’ve been to the Wall on many new moon days. I’ve been called names and pushed and shoved and almost arrested. Enraged by the violation of basic rights I allowed myself to get angry, fight loud, and lose my cool.

But today, somehow, I didn’t get triggered by the fuming zealous men and women who called me a Nazi and went wild in the name of their version of God. I stood there, my father’s prayer shawl over my head, ignoring the shouts and quietly singing over and over to myself the words of a prayer I have come to love:

“May this be an hour of grace and compassion.”

The Hasid near me who had been shouting obscenities at the women strained to listen to what I was singing, then turned quiet. Our eyes met. I smiled and nodded. He didn’t – but he walked away. 

A tiny victory? 

Perhaps. Just a simple moment of less hatred and a bit more humanity. Especially in these times, I’ll call that a victory.

Not that it’s ever that simple in the face of police brutality and systemic racism across the United States. Not that it’s ever that easy when facing the vile venom of terrorists who massacre innocents in night clubs and shopping malls from Orlando to Baghdad. And not that simple when in the name of security and justice the conflict between Israel and Palestine continues to claim the lives of so many on both sides, with no solution in sight. Yes, each of these are vastly different in their complexities and political solutions, but yes, each stems from the same root of callous intolerance.

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“Bring the love of your fellow beings into your heart, even loving the ones you deem wicked, as if they were your brothers and sisters and even more so until the love of all people becomes firmly fixed in the heart.”

These are the words of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a 16th century mystic, whose ethical-mystical treatise The Palm Tree of Deborah I’ve been studying this week at the Shalom Hartman Institute. This book is a wild challenge, an early harbinger of non-violent protest and a radical manifesto for bringing about a world of better balance within each pumping heart and in the wider arenas of our contested and enraged realities. (Coming soon to Lab/Shul…)

It’s thanks to this book I think, that I sang instead of shouting this morning.

Not always, not everyone – but what would it look like if this kind of attitude prevailed? Call me a naive dreamer. But on this first day of the month of Tamuz, with the hot summer fast days of mourning approaching that remind us of useless hatred, destruction and exile, I’ll take the dream of dignity over the nightmare of the dismissal of human worth.

In the months and years ahead I hope to find the words and ways with which to rise to the occasion of more kindness, respect, and love at the expense of fear based hatred. I think it can help. I hope we can do this together.

Let this be an hour of compassion and healing and patience and grace. Let the hour turn to decades. Let this new moon scatter seeds of loving on the earth, planting the forests of our future. And let these forests have large clearings in the center where we will all gather, together, regardless of differences, to dance and sing and praise and love each other deeply. 

May nobody be banned from praying anywhere and anyway they want to, and may mourners everywhere find comfort in old ways and new ways to overcome their grief and rage, and to heal us all. 

Is that too much to ask? 

Sabbath Shalom. Blessed new moon.
– Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie
Jerusalem
7/7/2016