If you go to Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, Ynet, The Times of Israel, The New York Times and many more news sites, you will read about violent clashes and mass protests and riots at the Kotel yesterday morning on Rosh Chodesh Sivan. For the first time after a Jerusalem court ruled that it was not illegal for women to wear a tallit at the Kotel, the group “Women of the Wall” held their monthly Rosh Chodesh services without fear of being arrested. In response, thousands of Ultra-Orthodox men and women showed up at the wall to protest and show their displeasure at the ruling and the practices of the Women of the Wall.
If you weren’t there and you read the news, you would think a battle happened at the Western Wall Plaza. And, according to many people I overheard as I walked out of the plaza, that’s precisely what happened. One woman in a tallit called over me to her friend, “Come over here! We’ve conquered the plaza!” while to my other side a Haredi woman shouted in Hebrew to the girls around her, “Yalla, let’s all clap to disturb their attack!”
I celebrated Rosh Chodesh Sivan at the Kotel—though not with the Ultra Orthodox nor with the Women of the Wall—until it became impossible for me to continue to be part of neither group. I got to the Kotel at sunrise and joined a minyan of young, mostly Modern Orthodox men and women standing at the back of the mechiza section. With the men on one side and the women on the other, we recited the Amidah, we sang Hallel, we danced, we embraced; with great joy and ruach, we marked the passage of time and celebrated the arrival of a new month. When the noise of the whistles and screaming and banging and the crushing crowds became unbearable, which happened just before the Torah reading, my friend and I decided we had had enough and left.
Both of the groups you will read about in the newspaper, the Haredim and the Women of the Wall, bring an important message to the forefront of Israeli consciousness. Basically, something about each religious practice offends the other side, and there isn’t necessarily anything that can be done to avoid that. The Women of the Wall want the freedom to worship at the holiest site in Judaism in a way that is meaningful to them; the Ultra Orthodox want the same thing. Short of creating separate times to use the space, which evokes an uncomfortable feeling of “separate but equal”, how can both groups get what they want?
While I think this message is crucial, I think it is a shame that this is all you will see in the news. Almost all of the pictures from yesterday morning show police holding back crowds of Haredi men and women, arresting young boys in white shirts and black kippot, surrounding women in colorful kippot and talitot, and creating a human barricade while outfitted in full riot gear. In these pictures, there is a clear, visual line between one group and the other. Black hats on one side, colors on the other. But there were more than two ideological groups praying at the Kotel yesterday. I know because I was with one of them, at least until it was no longer possible to not be part of “us” or “them”. For the last two days, I have been reading the news and thinking about the events with one overwhelming question: Can we look between the binary to find true pluralism?
Even in the face of conflict, we do not need to see in black and white. I am disappointed by what happened yesterday not only because Jews became violent towards other Jews, but also because it feels like that’s all anyone wants to talk about. When I told a friend I prayed at the Kotel in the morning, his response was “Wow, I heard it was insane!” For a short percentage of the time I was there, it was. But mostly, it was beautiful. Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5773 in Jerusalem has become synonymous with clashes and protests. What if, for a moment, we stop looking for conflict, and start looking for beauty? What if we turn our filter off of black and white, and attempt to see in full color?
As I mentioned, I davened with a beautiful minyan full of lively singing, dancing and joy. I prayed out of my well-worn copy of Siddur Sim Shalom that I got when I was on Ramah Seminar in Israel in 2006, and stood among a crown of women where I didn’t see two of the same siddurim. I got goose bumps multiple times from the awesomeness of saying Hallel while standing only a few meters from the Kotel, surrounded by women and men I had never met but who all knew the same words as me. 6000 miles from where I grew up, I put my arms around women of all ages who I didn’t know and rejoiced that I was starting my 9th month in Israel.
While we danced in circles around the women’s section, several photographers who had been waiting for the Women of the Wall to arrive darted in to the middle of our circle and started taking pictures. Where are these pictures of embraces? Dancing? Singing? Joy?
Several women approached us and asked if we were the Women of the Wall; when we said no, instead of joining us to dance, they turned and left.
It’s only a small shift in perspective to go from seeing the conflict that happened yesterday morning to seeing beauty in the events. There was the beauty of women being able to put on tallit at the Kotel for first time, right next to the beauty of Haredi women being able to organize and celebrate Rosh Chodesh Sivan at Kotel together. I’m not minimizing the significance of the clashes, and I don’t for a moment want to imply that I think the violence or even the organized protest of one group of Jews against another was acceptable. Prayer is prayer, and it is up to G-d to decide what to receive and how. I just want to suggest that there is another filter with which to look at what happened. If we choose not to focus on the riot police or the water bottles or the rocks that were thrown and instead focus on the prayers, on being together and making history, we can maybe move from a binary to a spectrum.
I want to end with a line from the Tanach: In happiness you will go out and in peace you shall return (Isaiah 55:12). May we rejoice for the prayer that happened yesterday, and may we convene to new prayer peacefully next month. Chodesh tov.