Our Place at the Wall | Congregation Beth Am

Our Place at the Wall

By Rabbi Heath Watenmaker on
June 30, 2017

Long ago, on the top of an otherwise disparate hill, lived two brothers. They were farmers who tilled the land they had inherited from their father. One was married with four children, while the other was single and lived alone. They lived in close proximity to each other, and together they worked the land, growing wheat. When harvest time arrived, they were blessed with a bountiful crop and split it equally before each piled up his grain for long-term storage. The unmarried brother thought to himself that God had blessed him with more than he needed, whereas his brother, who was blessed with a large family, could surely use more. He got up in the middle of the night and secretly took from his grain and put it in his brother’s pile. Similarly, the married brother thought to himself that he was fortunate to have children who would care for him in his old age, while his brother would depend on what he saved. He, too, got up in the middle of the night and quietly carried grain from his pile to his brother’s. In the morning, each pondered why there was no noticeable decrease in his own pile, and so they repeated the transfer the next night. These nocturnal activities went on for several nights, until one night the brothers met at the top of the hill, each carrying a pile of sheaves to the other. In that instant, in the dark of night, the glow of brotherly love lit up the mountain sky; they each understood what the other had been doing and fell into each other’s arms in a loving embrace, weeping with gratitude and happiness.

God saw this act of love between the brothers and blessed the place where they met that night. And when in the course of time King Solomon built the Temple, from which peace and love and brotherhood were to flow to the whole world, he erected it on that very spot.[1]


D’var Acher - a different legend: In the days of King David, when a devastating plague had killed 70,000 Israelites as punishment for King David’s misdeeds, as the Angel of Destruction approached Jerusalem, God stopped him at the threshing floor of Aravnah (sometimes called Arnan) the Jebusite. King David saw the angel and immediately confessed his misdeeds to God, saying, “I alone am guilty, I alone have done wrong,” at which point God, through the Prophet Gad, commanded him to build an altar on the site. Despite Aravnah’s generous offer to give the king his land at no cost, King David insisted on purchasing the location for full price, erected an altar and offered sacrifices (II Samuel 24:16-25). And, later, when King Solomon begins the construction of the Temple, it is at the site where God appeared to his father, King David (II Chronicles 3:1).


These two story both seek to offer a backstory for how the site of the Temple in Jerusalem was determined. The first legend of the two brothers, whose origins are uncertain, captures the lofty ideals that the Temple has come to symbolize in Jewish tradition. This story locates this most-holy site in Judaism on a foundation of peace, compromise, equity, and love. It embodies the incredible value of self-sacrifice for the sake of a valued relationship. It takes into consideration the needs of the other, and responds from a place of love and compassion. The second story, found in the pages of Second Samuel and Second Chronicles, offers an additional element: the notion that this is a site on which even the most powerful are held accountable to a higher standard, that this is a place of justice.


The news this week of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to withdraw support for the January 2016 agreement that would have established an officially-recognized egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel, the Western Wall, is in stark contrast to the lofty ideals expressed in these origin stories. The breakdown of the plan, which was once praised by the Israeli government as establishing “one wall for one people,” has been a major blow to liberal Jews around the world. It’s felt like a punch to the gut, a denial of legitimacy. There has been a feeling, among progressive Jews in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, that the Government of Israel has broken a sacred tenet of Zionism: that the Jewish state is the embodiment of our collective Jewish peoplehood. This week the leaders of ARZA, the voice of Reform Zionism in America, issued a statement in which they said:

These decisions give preference to one extremist interpretation of Judaism over that of the majority, exacerbating a disturbing antidemocratic movement in Israel where religious freedom is endangered. Some commentators have called these bills the trigger for American Jewry to abandon Israel. As the voice of Reform Zionism in America, we refuse this option: In fact, the reason for our outrage is precisely because of our movement’s deep and unending commitment to Israel. We fear that the extremist ideology expressed in the government’s action against the Kotel compromise and the conversion bill will drive Jews—especially the younger generation—away from Israel. We will continue to express our Zionist love for Israel by working for an Israel that reflects the vibrant tapestry of Jewish expression, free from religious coercion. Israel must remain true to its founding Zionist vision expressed in its Declaration of Independence:  “[Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”[2]

I’ve been asked this week about how I reconcile my love for Israel with these decisions of the Israeli government, which essentially deny the authenticity of my Jewish expression. Part of loving Israel, like part of being an American right now, is living with an inherent tension between my love for the country and the decisions of its government. Though the current climate is troubling, I am heartened by the ways in which Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders throughout the world are speaking out, rallying around liberal Jews, and demonstrating the power of a unified Jewish people. The Jewish Agency, representing the voices of world Jewry in Israel, in the midst of their board of governors meeting taking place this week in Israel, disinvited Netanyahu from their gala dinner in protest, saying, “We deplore the decision of the [Government of Israel] which contradicts the vision and dream of Herzl, Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky and the spirit of the Zionist movement and Israel as a national home for the entire Jewish people and the Kotel as a unifying symbol for Jews around the world.”[3] The leadership of AIPAC, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations traveled to Israel this week to express their concern. There is a statement from over 40 American Modern Orthodox rabbis and community leaders, which warns of the dangers of a small minority imposing “one narrow version of Orthodox Judaism as the official standard for prayer and for conversion in Israel,” which threatens to harm the unity of the Jewish people and endangers support for Israel in America, and they emphasize the importance of bringing “humility - not arrogance; and wonder - not certainty — to our relationships.”[4]


There is not, nor has there ever been only one “right” way of being Jewish. Judaism is a religion built on centuries of interpretation, evolution, and sacred debate. One of the hallmark features of the Mishnah is that the rulings of the minority are preserved alongside those of the majority, lest future generations ever think that there was only one opinion on a given matter. Perhaps this is where “Two Jews, three opinions” got its start. Inherent in the rabbinic system is the concept of a Machlochet l’shem Shamayim - an argument or debate for the sake of heaven. Indeed, we are in the midst of a debate that strikes at the very soul of the Jewish people. This debate is not just about a place to pray at the Kotel, it is about the symbolic recognition of authority and validity. As Shmuel Rosner wrote in the Jewish Journal,

The halted compromise included elements that provided Reform and Conservative Judaism a kernel of official status. The currently proposed compromise...will include everything but this kernel of official status.”[5]

At the core of this debate is a question of authenticity. Is there space in the varied viewpoints of the Israeli government, and, in particular, the mindset of the Ultra Orthodox factions therein, to consider that for many - in fact, most - Jews in the world, liberal Judaism is indeed an authentic expression and practice of Judaism. I and other liberal Jews would also be quick to add, though, that we understand that ours is not the ONLY authentic expression of Judaism. And that Israel, at its best, is a tapestry of many authentic expressions of Judaism.

As a former Hillel rabbi, who worked with Reform Jewish college students, I’m also very concerned for what this decision will mean for our Jewish students on campus. For many Jewish college students - particularly those from liberal Jewish backgrounds - the issue of Israel is already fraught. On too many campuses, our students are wary to engage with Israel - and, by extension, the organized Jewish community - because of the external threats of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism coming from the BDS movement. This week, the Israeli government has introduced an internal stumbling block, essentially sending a message to our young liberal Jews that there is no place for their chosen form of Jewish expression in the Israeli mainstream. As I would tell my students then, we should be proud of our Reform Jewish heritage. As Reform Jews, we should take pride in the many ways in which the Israeli Reform movement has moved Israel forward towards becoming a more pluralistic, democratic, and just society. The Israeli Reform movement’s policy arm, the Israel Religious Action Center, has fought hard to move Israel in a direction we can all be proud of. There have been successful court cases to provide government support of our rabbis and congregations, to end gender segregation on public buses, and they have made great strides in the Israeli Supreme Court to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions.[6] Israel is not perfect, but neither is America these days, and all of us who care about her well-being should reach out to our elected officials and the Israeli Consul General to make sure that our liberal Jewish voice is heard. This is the time when we must redouble our efforts to engage with Israel, despite these setbacks.

I’ll close with a prayer from Rabbi Yehoyada (Yoki) Amir, Chair of MARAM, the Reform Rabbinic Council in Israel:

Tzur Yisrael v’go-alo, Barech et m’dinat Yisrael, reshit tz’michat g’ulateinu. Protector, Rock and Redeemer of Israel, bless the State of Israel, which marks the dawning of hope for our redemption...Return wisdom into the hearts of the leaders of Israel, so they will strengthen the bonds of the Jewish people in all of its dwellings, and increase equality, open-heartedness and wisdom in our land. Give us the strength to rid ourselves of injustice which weaken the walls of Jerusalem and keep women and men away from praying in its midst. Release the fetters of wickedness and open a passageway for those wishing to bring into the house of Israel converts coveting goodness and calling upon God in all of their hearts. And may the words of our Prophets be fulfilled in our time: “For My house shall be called a house of prayer for

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