I think often about prayer. What is the purpose of prayer? What is the purpose of set prayers? What is the difference between praying in a group or on one’s own? How often should one pray? Does it matter really? Why do so many people (or at least Jews) have a strong aversion to prayer? Why is prayer the definition of religiosity? Most people I know (at least in Israel) say that prayer is a religious act. For example, in my children’s secular elementary school, they learn texts from the Bible and from rabbinic literature. However, the principle said that there will never be prayer in the school. I find that many secular Jews in Israel run away as fast as they can from any event that sounds like it will have prayer.
However, I also find that what the majority of Jews, including secular, do feel very strongly about is lifecycle events. For four times in a person’s life, he can tolerate a prayer experience – birth ceremony, bar mitzvah, wedding, and funeral.
I live in Jerusalem – which means that here, we have any kind of Jew that you could imagine existed. Here, all Jewish roads meet, intersect, and inevitably clash. While Jerusalem is the hot spot and the conflicts of the Jewish world are felt most poignantly here, what happens in Jerusalem has a ripple effect to the entire world. And let us not be mistaken, what happens in the world also affects what happens in Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem, we have – as in other places in Israel and some parts of the Diaspora – a large concentration of Ultra-Orthodox. Prayer, among other things, is a central act for them in their lives. And prayer, as for other things, in their opinion must be done in a certain way. Only led by men, separated between men and women, and a very lengthy text that is not amenable to change. I know Ultra-Orthodox people personally who are kind, gentle people. However, I have seen in my opinion too many situations of violence instigated and carried out by Ultra-Orthodox men and women. And there are too many incidents of incitement to violence by Ultra-Orthodox, as well as “religious Zionist” rabbis in Israel. In contrast, I can’t think of one incident of a call to violence or act of violence in the name of Reform Judaism (readers are welcome to correct me).
This brings me to my experience last week. I officiated at a bat mitzvah ceremony of two sisters from abroad. We were at the Western Wall, on the Herodian Street below Robinson’s Arch. I, a Reform rabbi, led the gathering which was a mix of prayer, Torah reading, and beautiful readings, songs, and personal tributes to the women in their lives by the young women. In the group was their rabbi from home who is Orthodox. The rabbi’s wife’s was explaining to her eight-year-old son that I was the rabbi of the ceremony. She said to me, “It’s hard for him to understand. He’s never met a woman rabbi before.” I said, “I appreciate your openness and wanting to tell him.”
As I was waiting for the family, I brought out the Torah scroll we would use – a beautiful Sephardic style Torah – it is upright in a wooden case. A small group of men and women which I would describe as Orthodox (but not ultra-Orthodox) passed and some stopped to touch their hand to the Torah and kiss their hand, as is a custom. One of the women began berating me (in Hebrew) – “How can you give such disrespect to the Torah? How can you be here alone with the Torah? It is disgraceful!” I have to admit, she pushed my buttons, and I quickly answered her (in Hebrew), “How can you judge? You have no idea who I am, why this Torah is here. Why would you begin a conversation with me in such a way? Where is your human decency? It would be better if you would say, ‘How lovely! A Torah! How are you? What is your name? What are you doing here? I’m curious because it is different from what I am used to. Perhaps there is a celebration, a happy reason for taking out a Torah scroll – Mazal tov!'” I concluded, “You ought to speak to me with respect.” Obviously, the woman did not agree with my words. However, one of her companions, a dark man with a long salt-and-pepper beard and a knit kippah on his head was smiling kindly the whole time I spoke – I want to believe that he agreed with me.
During the service, there were other small groups wandering around most of them different degrees of Orthodox, both touring the Davidson Center archaeological site, and visiting Ezrat Israel, a platform set back from the Wall designated for egalitarian prayer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I saw many gazing at our ceremony – I imagine what kind of sight it was for them of a woman in a talit standing next to a Torah scroll and then reading from it. At one point, a small group of Ultra-Orthodox men appeared above us on the platform What were they doing? They stood around. They looked down. They looked at us, of course. On the one hand, I felt frightened – would they make problems? On the other hand, I felt happy that they could see facts on the ground. I looked up a few times at them and gave them a big smile which I’m not sure if they noticed. I almost waved at them.
The ceremony was, of course, lovely. I especially remember the young ladies’ words about the love of sisters – as demonstrated by Leah and Rachel, also Miriam as a sister. That evening we began the month of Av, marking the approach of Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, very close to where we were standing at that moment. It brought to my lips the story of the two brothers who had a great love for each other and thus were extremely generous with each other. Because of their ahavat chinam (baseless/unconditional love), that is the spot on which the Temple was chosen to be built. And the tradition teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam (baseless hatred) among Jews.
When the ceremony was over, I got into a taxi (after a first taxi driver refused to put on the meter). As we drove, I saw a text from my mom which brought a smile to my lips. The driver asked what happened. I began to explain that I had sent my father a bottle of wine for his birthday, how much he likes wine, how we visit wineries when he visits in Israel. He tells me that he is also a tour guide and that in Har Hevron (in the West Bank/Judea-Samaria) there are wonderful wineries, how the grape grows differently there than in the Golan, how they use the grape leftovers afterwards to make all kinds of dishes which sound delicious. I ask if the dishes are from the Jewish or Arab tradition. He says, “Both. You know, Jews have always lived in Har Hevron.” We begin speaking about Jerusalem, I try to explain what I am and what I do. He says, “The Ultra-Orthodox are dangerous, they are the biggest threat to our society. They commit sin’at chinam (baseless hatred)” Here he was echoing the words sin’at chinam that I had spoken earlier and felt their threat around me, while feeling the love of the people in our group so strongly. I begin speaking about the complexity of religion and state, the dynamics of being a Jewish and democratic state.
He then got a phone call and began speaking in…Arabic. I had been debating issues of religion and state with an Arab? When he hung up, he apologized, “Somebody has passed away and there will be a funeral.” I hesitated and then asked, “Are you Christian? Muslim?….” not quite sure if even either of those options was the answer. He is Muslim. So I asked about the Muslim Sabbath and how it works. And indeed, I learned a lot of very interesting things from his answers, and other things he had to say.
Things are not always what they seem. We will never agree on everything or even most things. But we can always have ahavat chinam – unconditional love. And unconditional love doesn’t cost a thing*.
*In Hebrew, chinam means “free” like saying something doesn’t cost anything.