I Am the Egg (Wo)Man: Reflections on Rosh Chodesh Av & Tisha B'Av
“Jerusalem has greatly sinned, therefore she is become a mockery. All who admired her despise her, for they have seen her disgraced;and she can only sigh and shrink back.”
–Eicha (Lamentations) 1:8
The first 9 days of Av are seen in traditional Judaism as days of, if not mourning, then solemnity. We do not feast, we do not celebrate; we are once again living through the days leading up to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And, as many have already noted, one of the most significant statements the rabbis make about that destruction is that the blame cannot be placed on Roman shoulders. Why, they ask, was the Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam–baseless hatred. And so Monday morning, as I looked at the faces of the Haredim crowding the Kotel plaza, as I looked at the faces of these men and women who are supposed to be my kinsmen (and women), I felt not anger and not hatred, but deep, deep sadness.
It seems that the same cannot be said from the other side. It is not sadness that compels one Jew–one human being!–to call another Jew a Nazi. It is not sadness that sent a hard-boiled egg flying through the air as a projectile, landing solidly (and not comfortably) on my neck. And it is not sadness that raised male voices to drown ours out.
Talking with a mentor last night, I asked. I asked about the deep anger, and hatred. I said: I just can’t understand. Why? Why such deep anger and hatred? And she, who comes from a far more traditional world than I do, said two things. First, the part I know but hate to acknowledge. There are people–and I refuse to paint the entire Haredi world with one brush, just as I wish they would not paint all liberal Jews with one–in that world who truly believe, to the depths of their soul, that I come to Jerusalem, I come to the Wall, I come to the world, to destroy Judaism.
But, she said something else that, rather than enrage me, gave me some hope. She said that their anger came from a place of fear. That these men and women are looking around and seeing a changing world. They are seeing a world that is increasingly adapt or die, and they choose–time and again–not to adapt. And so I thought back over the faces I saw in that space. And I thought to myself–maybe there is one girl, or one boy, there who looked at us and saw not rodfim, those who seek to do harm to Judaism and the Jewish people, but who saw something new. Maybe there was one boy–or one girl–who looked up and saw in my face, or the face of someone standing next to me, something familiar. Maybe there was one girl–or one boy–who heard in my prayers something exciting. Maybe someone there looked up and saw new possibilities, a different way to live, a living and breathing Judaism.
I happened to be standing next to one of my mentors during the tefillot, and she later shared with me the conversation she had with a little girl standing near her–a rabbi’s daughter. This little girl asked the simplest–and of course most difficult–question to answer. Why, she, asked, were the men on the other side of the barricade trying to drown out our prayers? “The women sing so beautifully,” she said. “Why would they do that?”
The men on the other side of the barricades alternated between screaming and blowing whistles to disrupt us, or simply trying to pray louder. I preferred the latter. Because there was a moment, maybe just before the egg jolted me back to reality, where I was able to live in a different reality–a vision of a Jerusalem that is truly ha-banuyah (rebuilt). In that moment, the voices of women were raised in prayer and song, and the voices of the men were raised as well. And I imagined–just for those moments–that together the voices of Israel, the voices of the Jewish people, reached straight up to heaven.
There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, over the erasure of women’s voices and women’s bodies from the public sphere in Israel, over what seems to be a campaign by the Haredi community to silence women. There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, over the role of the Haredi community and the rabbanut in controlling religious life in Israel. There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, that even despite a clear court ruling, we were barred from the Kotel itself for the first time in 25 years. Others have and will say it better than I can. Because on Monday, for me, anger was not the predominant emotion coursing through my veins. Hatred was not the overriding feeling of the day. Sadness was.
But, that being said, I have to point out the feeling is NOT mutual. Only one side has interest in listening to the other, only one side speaks of shared space, and only one side uses vehement hate speech and physical violence to stake its claim. And the government, despite the progress in court, continues to cater to only the one side, the loudest side. And with all of my idealism, all of my hope–I simply don’t know what to do with that. I don’t know where that can go.
As a Reform Jew, I have long struggled with the meaning and ritual of Tisha B’Av. I have learned and studied over the years; this week at the Hartman Institute, we wrestled with the notions of and texts on communal mourning. I do not wish to see the Temple rebuilt speedily in my day, and so what do I do with this holiday?
Yesterday might have given me an answer. I mourn not for what was, but for what could be and isn’t. I mourn for the fact that I, by virtue of biology, am denied full access to the Kotel. I mourn for the fact that this land that I love, this place whose vision was to be a home for the Jewish people, cannot get itself past a single definition of Judaism–even as its people define themselves in all shades of grey. And I mourn, perhaps most of all, for those voices, male and female, that could be rising up to heaven (or wherever I believe the Divine resides) together, indistinguishable by gender or religious definition, simply united in hope and in comfort, in petition and in praise, in sadness and in joy.
The next Rosh Chodesh we will usher in will be Elul, the month of penitence and preparation for the High Holy Days. I will be back in the United States, though my prayers and heart will be with Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall. And as they–and we–pray the words of Psalm 27:
Only this do I ask of God,
Only this do I seek: to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of Adonai, to frequent God’s Temple.
I will be praying that that house, that beauty, is wide and rich and imaginative enough to hold all of us—male, female, Haredi, Reform, and everywhere in between–in one room, with one voice and one vision.
For the sake of Jerusalem I will not, I cannot, I must not be silent.
Previously published on RavBlog the blog of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.