“There are no villains in this story.” Those were the calming words of Natan Sharansky, renowned human rights champion and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The story was of in-fighting that has erupted among Jews at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. Sharansky, tasked with resolving the issue by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke to a group of Los Angeles Rabbis last week, knowing that the monthly Jewish holiday of Rosh Hodesh will arrive this Sunday – and many Jews will gather again for prayer at the Western Wall. The prospect of clashes has unsettled the Jewish world.
Some of those gathering will be part of “Women of the Wall,” a group of women and men meeting every Rosh Hodesh for almost 25 years. The women will be praying as a group in the women’s section. Others will be women and men who believe that the way “Women of the Wall” pray violates Jewish law. Last month on Rosh Hodesh these differences led to an ugly confrontation. As the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a generation ago, “From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring.” From the place where we are right, violence erupts.
We are American rabbis from different denominations; we know there are different ways to be a Jew. We know that the ability to disagree civilly does not grow spontaneously. It takes many years of cultivating relationships and building trust through meeting, listening, sharing, and working together. This is a process that diaspora rabbis and Jews have been engaged in for decades, one which has begun to bear real fruit in recent years.
Here in Los Angeles many of us are reaching across our divisions to model a relationship of respect and dignity. Despite our deep differences, we all equally love the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We dare not demonize or dehumanize one another.
The Western Wall is a central symbol to all Jews. But this Wall that has united people can also divide us. Winston Churchill used to say that Americans and the British are two peoples separated by a common language. The two groups vying for control of the Western Wall are two communities separated by a common scripture, the Torah. Matters of conscience are not themselves amenable to compromise or negotiation. Still, we all believe that a principal element of conscience is to listen and learn from one another and to show the respect and dignity that befits an ancient people and a great tradition.
Few know that better than Natan Sharansky, who languished in the gulag for eight years. He was chosen by Israel’s Prime Minister to come up with a solution, one that would defuse a dispute that spilled over to Jewish denominations in the United States, and strained relations between diaspora Jews and the State of Israel at a time that she is threatened existentially by Iran and the possibility looms of a front opening up with Syria. Sharansky reminded us that while each was – and still is – convinced of the justice of his or her position, there was another side to be heard.
Freed in exchange for a Soviet spy in 1986, Sharansky explained that he was whisked off to Jerusalem, now in the company of his wife Avital from whom he had been separated so many years before, right after their marriage. One of his first stops, of course, was the Western Wall. He clung to Avital’s hand to remind himself that this was no fantasy, no dream from which he would wake up in solitary confinement once again. Nearing the Wall, however, he and Avital had to briefly part company, as men and women are separated in prayer in Orthodox tradition.
He did not convey this with any resentment. (His wife, in fact, is Orthodox.) He told us of what he understood at that moment. The Western Wall serves as a place to pray for countless Jews. But it also serves as a powerful focus of national Jewish yearning and aspiration, quite apart from religious belief. Somehow, both have to be satisfied, and that is what his plan would try to do, embodying the key Jewish and democratic values of mutual respect, inclusion and tolerance. Sharansky and the Government of Israel should be commended for engaging in this ambitious effort to resolve such a difficult problem.
We believe that this is a message that resonates not only among the Jews of our great city, but among all our neighbors as well. At a time when the Middle East faces increasing upheaval and bitter partisanship has become a norm even within many democratic countries, this is a theme worth amplifying and repeating. And with the help of G-d, perhaps some of our determination will reflect back to Jerusalem, the “City of Peace,” and make it more peaceful yet. With some gentleness we can ensure that flowers will always be able to grow.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Rabbi Denise Eger
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Rabbi Morley Feinstein
Rabbi Laura Geller
Rabbi Judith HaLevy
Rabbi Eli Herscher
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
Rabbi Elazar Muskin
Rabbi Kalman Topp
Rabbi David Wolpe
Members of a Task Force on Jewish Unity comprised of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Progressive and Reconstructionist leaders