The first thing I noticed about the Western Wall is that everybody was crying.
I had been lost in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, and when I rounded the gate above the Wall (the Kotel) the first thing I saw was the sun bouncing off the Dome of the Rock, blinding me in the Shabbat noon light. The glow did not relent and I drew through the security gate, mesmerized, magnetized toward the surviving wall of the Second Temple of Rabbinic Judaism, left standing after the structure was razed by the Romans in 70CE.
Of course, I was steered into the women’s section. But for the first time it didn’t irritate me that I should be cordoned off; I didn’t even care that the women’s section is one third the size of the men’s. I didn’t want to deal with aggressive Orthodox men jostling me at the Wall. I knew if I prayed near the men I would feel vain about my piety, self-conscious about my emotion, worried about my composure. I just wanted to be near women and talk to God openly. As a woman, as a human, as a Jew, as the entire constellation of myself.
I was not prepared for all of the tears. As I drew near the wall I saw heads bowed, shoulders shaking, hands stretched taut on the cold stone. The rabble of praying women seemed to emanate one plaintive word: PLEASE. I imagined they were praying prayers that only women can pray, prayers for their babies, for their women’s bodies, for the daughters and sons they delivered and fear for, for the violence they face daily in a man’s world. I felt the giant PLEASE heaved by all of these silent hearts, by women praying for strength and praying for solace and praying for tranquility and praying for relief; women praying out of exhaustion and fear and disappointment and hope. I drew toward the Wall, struck dumb by the fervency there.
Then my hand was on the Kotel. The stone was smooth where so many tears had washed it. The cracks between the cold stones were stuffed with prayers written in hundreds of languages, containing hundreds of pleas for more peaceful lives. I leaned in close and then my forehead kissed the cold stone. I heard whispered prayers around me and the snuffling of quieted sobs. Jewish women and Christian women, Catholic women, Greek Orthodox, Russian, Japanese, Indian, South American, Swedish women and me: we all prayed together.
Hands and arms curled around my body as more women leaned in to reach the wall. Hands cupped my own sobbing shoulders as I lifted up my own despair and promises to history. I never saw the faces of my comforters but I knew them all: we were humans hurting and hoping together. We bared ourselves alongside each other toward the same direction, turning together toward our ground of being and asking that Sustenance assert itself and comfort us. We were all in exile together, lost and found in prayer. The wall warmed under my forehead and cheek and I leaned into it, resting, pinioned by the other prayers, sandwiched between humans and history and God in me as I prayed please, please, PLEASE.
An old Israeli woman pushed a paper into my hands. She commanded, “Pray this!” to me and faded back into the crowd. Obediently I prayed it:
Thank You for all the times that You helped me and I didn’t know how to say thank You. Thank You for the kindness that You bestow upon me in every moment. Thank You for every breath that I breathe. Thank you also for the things I don’t have. Only after entering darkness can one appreciate the light. Thank you for the wondrous life you gave me. Creator of the Universe, I ask for forgiveness from the depth of my heart if there were times that I didn’t appreciate all that You gave me. Please remain close to me. Blessed are You: You are the entire world.
I didn’t have any of those words ready. Thank God a liturgy was provided to me because all I could muster at the Kotel were watery sighs. I was overwhelmed by all the pain and hope in the world, feeling the passions of the beautiful and weary women next to me, feeling my own passions and losses. That text reminded me to feel not only my sorrow and to muster acceptance for all that is taken away, but also to remember all of the things that are still going profoundly right in my life. My health, my friends, my learning, my teachers, my music, my aching hopes, my chance to come back to Israel and consider identity, commitment, womanhood, and resilience.
In the white hot pivot of this pilgrimage site, at ground zero of why Israel claims this land and not another, my heart was seared by human struggle and the chaotic randomness that I am alive and fortunate enough to place my hand and cheek on the cool, smooth stone next to a hundred other women. The printed paper gave me words I didn’t have. I wanted to give God words, as well as feelings, as well as feelingless, wordless awe that I am here at the Kotel despite myself, surrounded by the prayers of women of every faith and country, past present and future.
I backed away from the Wall to give someone else my space and another woman slid right in, eager to share her whole self with the Wall. I wondered what the Wall meant to everybody touching it, weeping for it, traveling here to be near it. What does it mean to me? It brought me a profound message of the reality of human pain and hope. However I can criticize the theology of this scene, the truth is that this site has a human sacredness to it. Two millennia of people have arrived here and placed their dreams in contact with the dreams of other pilgrims. Two millennia of people have uttered their innermost struggles and graces to this Wall. It is a Wishing Wall. Its coolness burns with the intensity of its history and all of the power it has been given by its visitors. It is bright with the tectonics of yearning, estrangement, and arrival.
I prayed there with breath, with listening, and with words that were provided for me. When I was done I backed away and sat in a chair to watch others have their chance. I pulled out my copy of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and opened to a stanza I had not yet read:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
There I was at the Western Wall of Jerusalem, “suspended in time, between pole and tropic,” cooled by the stone of the Wall and ravaged by the hot hot heat of my dreams and sorrow, exactly the same as every other pilgrim leaning her heavy forehead against the rock and murmuring without words, breathing ragged breaths.
I forgot my own woes of violence and longing and desertion and fear. I wished far more fervently for the fulfillment and alleviation of the prayers of my neighbors. Who knows what kind of wretched suffering other people in the world endure? I know mine, and it is not easy. I wanted the women around me to be okay, to be free from what they prayed to be free from. We give it all away to the Wall, and the Wall holds it all for us. The Wall was heavier with my burdens when I finished. I know this because I felt much lighter, and I floated contemplatively home through the Old City. I was hungry and it was lunchtime. Time for life, for a lighter life, starting with a lunch of lentils.
As I was exiting the women’s prayer section I noticed some male American travelers standing at the back, seemingly thrilled to have broken into the women’s section and seemingly thrilled at their power to do so; no law prevents a man from enetering the woman’s space, though the opposite is certainly true. My indignation lit up and I strode over to my countrymales and said, “This is the women’s section. Let us have our space. Please leave.”
If I abide by a gender separation by virtue of it being a safe space absent of males over age thirteen, then I empower myself to protect that space. Luckily they respected my request and I did not have to taste aggression alongside the abundant sorrows and hopes of the Wall.
I’m coming to see that Judaism, being an inheritance and not a belief, not being a particular cognitive orientation, can contain a whole life and all of its evolutions, regressions, repressions, destructions, renewals and revolutions. I can lose my faith in Israel–I can be an atheist–I can reject Israel–I can stop practicing–I can disagree with everything–I can go to a Christian seminary–I can miss Judaism–I can shyly light the menorah again one year–I can return to Israel to pray at the Wall–and my blood travels with me.
The safety net of Judaism accepts me despite the fact that I am unacceptable, even in the eyes of other Jews (who judge me perhaps because they fear their own unacceptableness). My ground of being is Judaism, is Jewish, regardless of its cognitive manifestation. Before I was born and after I die Judaism extends, and that piece of me endures.
Judaism holds every version of me and I needn’t cry out in anguish help thou my unbelief!–because wrestling is part of the deal, and unbelieving is a natural and necessary stage of the Jewish life cycle. Judaism holds my strength and my tenderness in the holy of holies. Judaism holds my silence in the Amidah, gives me wordless sound in niggunim, gives me a torrent of incomprehensible Hebrew tropes, and gives me wisdom in English during the dvar Torah. Judaism gives me architecture of time in Shabbat, and an architecture of sentiment–time for sorrow and time for celebration: Tisha B’Av and Simchat Torah. Judaism gives space for mourning and space for joy, both natural parts of human experience: Judaism is very lifelike.
Of course, there is no context in the Middle East without several grievously opposing perspectives about it. After arriving at deep and profound healing over the gender partitions at the Kotel and feeling somewhat elated and peaceful about Israel for a day, the next day I learned that the Wall has been co-opted as an Orthodox synagogue and is considered fundamentalist, sexist, imperialist and marginalizing to many progressive Jews.
A few years ago, at the Wall in the Jewish state, the Jewish police arrested Jewish women for wearing Jewish prayer shawls. Why is the Western Wall holy, and not the Southern Wall?–they both remain standing after the destruction of the Temple. Oh dear. Nothing’s simple in this world, and especially not in this part of the world.
The Western Wall is holy. Its holiness is a repetitive human decision, a human investment of imagination and aspiration. Holiness is deeply arbitrary, and often, in this case and in many others, a historical contingency that has become meaningful over time to many different people for many different reasons. These deep differences fuse at the Wall in a holy human communion of suffering and hope.
May we be eased by our holy human hurting, as we embrace each other while reaching out for the Wall where we all, we all, we all come to stand and say PLEASE.