From Hannah to Women of the Wall (Talk 1)
A talk delivered at the Aquarian Minyan of Berkeley, California, September 2013
The sages of old turned to a woman named Hannah as a model for how to pray. Hannah could not get pregnant and she was desperate to have a child. She prayed with her lips moving but her words were so quiet that only she could hear them. God answered Hannah’s prayer and she became the mother of the Prophet Samuel. Hannah’s story is the story of the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We begin Rosh Hashanah with the story of Hannah in order to remind us that we can pray quietly and have privacy while confessing our sins and asking for what we need.
The highest level of Jewish prayer is praying quietly in our own words with our lips moving and our voices so muted that only we can hear the sound of our voice. Only we and God.
And the deepest level of prayer is our tears. It says in the Psalms, קָרוֹב יְהֹוָה לְנִשְׁבְּרֵי־לֵב וְאֶת־דַּכְּאֵי־רוּחַ יוֹשִׁיעַ. “God is close to the broken hearted. God delivers those whose spirits have been crushed.” If you cannot say the words, let your tears do the praying. Let your heart break. The great Chassidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendyl of Kotsk said that there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.
In the midst of asking for forgiveness and forgiving others, it is important to also remember to take care of our selves. Spiritual surrender does not mean being a doormat. It means letting the bristles of our personalities clean our relationships and protect us from abuse whenever we can.
Sometimes we have been hurt to such an extent that it is not safe to stay where we are. Sometimes we need to walk away or even run away and start over in order to be safe. I am here to say that if you have been abused, if you have been treated in a that it is not safe to stay where you are, then you may want to turn to your therapist and ask your therapist for forgiveness and not your abuser. May we all be safe and may we all find safety during Yom Kippur and from now on.
The best way that I know to let go of what is bothering me is to think about what others are going through and to try to help them. Giving money, time and ideas helps me to free myself from being preoccupied about whether I am receiving all the honor and all the perks that I think I deserve.
I want to spend a few moments talking about a group of women who need our help. The group is called Women of the Wall and they meet once month at HaKotel Hamaaravi, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the only remnant of the structure that surrounded the Holy Temple. Over the years, the Western Wall has become the holiest of sites for Jews who come from all over the world to visit and pray.
For the past twenty-five years, Women of the Wall has included Orthodox women and Renewal women, Reform and Conservative, Reconstructionist and unaffiliated. Women of the Wall have been praying for twenty five years to be granted permission to wear a tallit, a prayer shawl, and to read from a Torah scroll.
This past April, a Jerusalem District Court issued a ruling that women may wear a prayer shawl and read from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall. Since the April court ruling, the Israeli police have provided Women of the Wall with an escort to and from the Western Wall and they protect Women of the Wall from physical harm at the hands of ultra Orthodox protesters. The police allow Women of the Wall to wear prayer shawls now and they also allow the women to wear tefillin, the leather straps in which some of us wrap ourselves during weekday prayers. The police have also allowed women to blow shofar at the Western Wall. For Women of the Wall, that is a lot of progress.
But even in the midst of this progress, there are still a lot of setbacks. Each month since the court ruling, the police have to protect Women of the Wall from ultra Orthodox women and men who blow shrill whistles and carry disparaging protest signs and scream obscenities at the top of their lungs. The police allow the protest signs and the screaming of obscenities as part of freedom of speech and Jerusalem police spokesman Shmulik Ben Rubi was quoted in the Israeli paper called Haaretz as saying that blowing whistles is not against the law. In addition to the harassment by the ultra-Orthodox, the Israeli government still does not allow Women of the Wall to bring a Torah scroll to their monthly service even though the Jerusalem District Court ruled that it should be allowed.
How can we support the State of Israel and the rights of women to read from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall? How can we support the State of Israel and the rights of women to be free from harassment at the Western Wall? The answers are not simple, but neither has been the fight for women’s rights here in North America, nor the fight for religious freedom nor the fight for any other important social justice cause.
There is a handout on the side table near the prayer books. If you don’t already have one, you may want to take one before you leave. The handout has information about religious pluralism and women’s rights at the Western Wall. It also has information about supporting immigration reform here in the United States. And about the American Jewish World Service that sends volunteers to help people all over the world. And there is also information about the new marketplace for health care insurance that will open next month in California.
For thousands of years the Jewish people have offered a hand up and a hand out to those in need and we do it with the historic memory that our ancestors were slaves and now we are free. We need to help others to step up and step out into their rights as women, as men, as Jews, as people of color, as people differently abled, as people working their way out of poverty, as people helping to heal our mother the earth, and as people finding their way out of a dim past and into a bright future. May our experience of Yom Kippur be filled with promise for a better tomorrow for ourselves and our loved ones, and for this community, all Jewish communities and all of humanity. Keyn yehi ratzon. So may it be.