Can Our Hands Bring Purity to the Polluted? (A reflection on my first time praying with the Women of the Wall)

Prologue

I feel that I’m beginning to understand that abstract Jewish idea of transmitting tohorah (purity) or tume’ah (impurity) to a vessel.

Tume’ah is transmitted when a deceased body is in the presence of of a living person, or when a menstruating woman comes in physical contact with another body, or when a nasty reptile crawls into some jug you own.

I might struggle to find spiritual meaning in cases like these, but I’m beginning to understand why someone might actually want a religion where tohorah and tume’ah can be transmitted.

This morning, I strongly considered that the Western Wall might have no inherent kedushah (holiness). Perhaps in the glory days of the Temple, that Wall was witness to millions of sacred rituals, all of which sought out deeper connections between the tangible universe we see and the Divine we seek. The Wall once housed myriads of acts so pure that kedushah permeated the Temple beyond the human imagination.

Today, I stood at the Kotel (the Western Wall), but I hardly sensed kedushah. The Wall felt more like the backdrop to a battlefield for religious warriors. And I hate to say that I felt like one of them.

The Stage

When I arrived towards the far-right edge of the Men’s section, right near the mehitzah that separates the women from the men, I was at first relieved to see a few armed men in uniform, attentively overseeing the actions of the Y-chromosome folks.

I walked up to one of these soldiers and asked him if he was there because of Women of the Wall (who meet monthly for prayer). I hoped he’d say, “Yes” (but in Hebrew–this conversation was in Hebrew). Instead he said something vague about him just being there, and he then asked unconvincingly if there’s something he can help me with. I said, “No,” and I thanked him for doing this work that I see as so important and holy; Women of the Wall needs their support (these women get a lot of flack from outspoken radicals). I don’t remember the soldier’s exact answer to my gratitude, but it ranged somewhere between “Alright” and no response at all.

Time marched along, and women began to trickle into the women’s section. The Women of the Wall began to pray together. Very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very quietly. I had no idea where they were because it was so quiet. All I could tell was–if I would look through the mehitzah (which I did a few times, just to check that everything’s alright)–women were gathering together in prayer.

Act One

In response to the inaudible meditations of the Women of the Wall came one white-bearded, long-bearded, well-aged man with a thick Mizrahi (“Eastern”/Judeo-Arab) accent. This particular fellow began to shout very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very loudly. He was in the back–close to those men in uniform, and right next to a full minyan of men praying on their own in the back-right corner of the men’s section.

“Infidels!” “Pigs!” “This is forbidden by the Torah and the Talmud and the Shulhan Arukh!” Those are just some of the things that emerged from his mouth. He probably took 5-10 minutes to shut up. He persisted in shouting inaccurate yet insinuating comments about Women of the Wall.

At a certain point, this man was so loud that I came up to him and informed him that his shouting made it hard for me to pray with any amount of intention (“I’m sorry. I’m trying to pray.”). Hardly digesting my words, he informed me that I was an infidel pig violating Torah, Talmud, Shulhan Arukh, yada yada yada yada yada. I calmly said again to him, “I’m sorry. I’m trying to pray.” He continued shouting.

I turned to one soldier and asked if it was actually legal for someone to disturb people’s sacred prayer service in a place of such sacred history. The soldier barely looked at me and said that this was, of course, perfectly legal.

So I resumed praying through this shouting (occasionally reminding the shouting man very quietly, “I’m sorry. I’m trying to pray.”).

After some of this (quiet) back and (loud) forth, a soldier shouted to me, “Is this guy disturbing you?”

So, I said, “Yes.”

“Well, he’s not disturbing me.”

Of course he wasn’t disturbing the soldiers standing at the side, bareheaded, chatting with each other through their cigarette smoke. I gave up on believing that these soldiers were going to be especially helpful to the cause of Women of the Wall this morning.

After the shouting man gradually subsided, a man dressed in all black–shoes, pants, suit, and hat–suddenly had an idea! Sing the final paragraph of the Amidah really, really loudly (this guy was not actually reciting the Amidah prior to this; he clearly likes to be loud; and I’d say it was strategic). He began to sing with his full heart (good and bad qualities present), “Sim shalom” (“Grant peace”), and a chorus of scattered men from the Y chromosome section joined in, happily drowning out the barely audible voices of the Women of the Wall.

It was at this point that a friend and I turned to each other (there were only three men actively supporting Women of the Wall in the men’s sections). “If they’re allowed to shout,” he said. “So are we.” I agreed. I suggested that we should loudly sing the prayers the Women of the Wall were singing. Let those honest, earnest voices be heard.

To do so, I figured I’d check and see what the Women of the Wall were up to in the service. I got up on a chair to look over the mehitzah and check in. A soldier yelled at me to get down from the chair. It was not okay for me to stand on a chair to help support a minority group; however, it was alright for other men and women to look over the mehitzah by standing on chairs, and it was alright for men and women to talk to each other through the holes of the mehitzah. Of course though, I am an infidel pig violating Torah, Talmud, Shulhan Arukh, yada yada yada yada yada.

So, I put my ear up against the mehitzah to listen to what the Women of the Wall were up to. In response, a soldier asked me to step away from the “fence” (the word-choice of which sounded awfully similar to some Fence dividing Palestinian and Israeli territories).

Thank God for being sneaky. After moving away, I decided instead to tilt my head awkwardly so I could hear better (without putting my ear against the mehitzah), and I finally could hear what the women were singing.

So, with only two other men on my side (kinda literally), I sang as loudly and clearly as I could (well… as loudly and clearly as I can when running on fewer than 5 hours of sleep).

Singing with them was fun. It was spiritually uplifting, and I felt like I was doing the right thing. In a court of men largely apathetic or aggressively opposed to these women’s modes of religious expression, I could sing in the Presence of God, before the remains of the ancient Temple.

Earlier in history, the grounds around this very Wall housed priestly servants conscientious of maintaining tohorah in the Temple; it was all part of the grand plan to ensure the Temple’s kedushah. No impure vessels in this sacred structure. Only the best.

So, I have to wonder about Jewish men who throw rocks at women in prayer, sons of Israel who toss chairs at daughters of Israel, hypocrites who declare that the pious are “pigs.” Are they actually maintaining kedushah by violently guaranteeing some sense of tohorah here? How can they keep things sacred when sin’at chinnam (baseless hatred) in such a hillul hashem (a desecration of God’s name)? Strict Jewish law is one thing, but the finest of Jewish living cannot be expressed through misogyny, hasty judgment, inflexibility, and so much more that only brings pain to God’s universe. Such actions transmit no tohorah. Sin’at chinnam stains every Jewish body with nasty, gross tume’ah. When the feet of those engaging in sin’at chinnam stand on the grounds of the Temple, I lament the foolishness of false pietists who think their tume’ah is tohorah.

This morning, I had no interest in touching the Wall. What was there for me to touch? A brick? Desecrated by the hands of those who did not want me there? I believe that God is everywhere, and I know that God is in the Wall, I had no interest in seeking God through that Wall at that time.

There are a lot of pure places in the world. There are so many other ways to access kedushah. It was time to move on.

Act Two

After the psalms of Hallel were sung in honor of the new Jewish month, Women of the Wall’s women and men marched to Robinson’s Arch: the partially remaining Southern Wall. At this reserved space, women loudly read Torah, led prayers, guided each other through the service, and opened up their souls.

Robinson’s Arch has no mehitzah. Men and women may stand together in prayer, but I chose to leave these women their space at the Southern Wall. I stood in the back. This was not about me. This was about them. This was about a population muted by their kin, suddenly given the private space to stand at one with their present community, with their sacred history, and with the sweet, eternal quietude of God.

The Southern Wall has nobody shouting about infidels or pigs or violations. This is a structure under which sincere prayer happens: where shalom (peace) is granted in peace to a small, but select few Jews who choose the Western Wall’s modest cousin.

Although the women today chose to pray off to the side and away from the Wall itself at Robinson’s Arch, accessing that Wall is easy for whoever so desires.

Standing even further from the Wall than the central crowd, I witnessed a friend of mine walk over to the Wall. Her head bowed a bit low and her hand held up against the Southern Wall, she stood there humbly: with utter kedushah, with utter tohorah. I had never seen a more beautiful expression of humanity’s capacity to become One with its history.

The faint positioning of herself against the wall–one sole woman leaning against a vast emptiness of a Wall–reminded me that the prophet Elijah did not find the Divine voice in the chaos, but Elijah heard God in a still, small voice. Today, God’s voice was mum at the Kotel. But God’s voice resonated through the whisper of one woman against a wall. She stood there at one with God, with Torah, with Israel, with Jewry, with history, with the Wall, and with herself.

This was the quiet voice of God, and I heard it loud and clear.

Epilogue

Jewish law often worries that women will transmit impurity. The Southern Wall, touched by the hand of a woman who had earlier in the day bravely led dozens in Hallel in the chaos of the Western Wall, was the purest thing I had ever seen. Through the gentle touch of her hand against a rugged wall, one young woman transmitted purity–tohorah far greater than anything I saw at the Kotel.

This morning, my eyes witnessed hundreds of men with hateful tume’ah that polluted the most intact of Jewish history’s most supposedly sacred vessels. Yet, those same frustrated eyes of mine found shalom in discovering that one woman can transmit the greatest of tohorah to one of Jewish history’s most forgotten yet most sacred vessels.

I hope that one day I will live in a Jerusalem where 1,000 men can bestow a kedushah upon the famous Western Wall at least equal to the tohorah a single hopeful hand transmitted today at the forgotten Southern Wall.

May we all use such pure hands to transmit tohorah and kedushah throughout our universe–whether in known places or unknown places. But, if you tell me that those actions will turn me into a pig or an infidel or a violator of Jewish law, then let me tell you something: yes, you will be disturbing me, but I will have no interest in moving away from that fence.

You can’t stop me. I’m trying to pray.

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About jonahrank


9 responses to “Can Our Hands Bring Purity to the Polluted? (A reflection on my first time praying with the Women of the Wall)

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