Is the Western Wall a focus for idolatry? – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Sermon – 18th March 2017

I absolutely thought I meant it on Monday morning when I explained to one of the participants on our FRS Israel trip that the Kotel doesn’t really “do it” for me. It’s a pile of stones; that’s not my Judaism, I give much more weight to people and ritual rather than place, especially a place which has become so highly politicised. Whether it is the tipping point of the Arab Israeli conflict or a vision of the Orthodox domination of Judaism in Israel, I felt pretty secure in my explanation that I’ve never found a spiritual connection with that place. My God doesn’t need a post box.

It was three hours later that we stood in the Western Wall Plaza. We had walked around the Old City, questioning what significance the idea of “on these very stones our ancestors walked”. Exploring what connection I have to the Israelites who made pilgrimage there or those for whom it was the centre of their everyday. What values, what concepts of community do I share with those who made the mourners walk the opposite direction through the temple, against the flow of the people’s traffic so that they could be supported by the throngs of community? What role did the high priests play in creating the Judaism of today cut off from the sacrificial barbecues of old?

We arrived at the Kotel after our walk through millennia, continents and multiple theologies. I asked the group, but seemed to take my plea to heart as well, to suspend for a moment the politics of the place and find within them the very basis of religion, that need to suspend the rational and find that which brings us support at hard times, comfort in our sorrow, safety in our fear and the chance to count our blessings. I reminded the group with the words of Jonathan Magonet (from page 15 of the Siddur) the difference between liturgy and prayer and as we sung a prayer for healing, the group was invited to drift away in their own time and approach the wall.  At that moment I began to sob. I realised that so often our rational thought, our endless liturgy, our ritual and community could be as much of a block as they are a gateway to God. At that moment when it was just about me standing before a pile of stones at which generations had poured out their inner most frustrations, injustices and worries I too could feel I had found my mouth piece, that I was a little closer to the ear of a God of comfort and compassion.

One of Avishai Margalit’s definitions of idolatry is the representation of God in a forbidden vessel but I often think we are in danger of only allowing ourselves one set of packaging and not realising we were given a whole array of vessels we just never bothered to reach up onto the shelf to see what’s available to us.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs quotes the great scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz saying that he is emphatic that idol worship is at the heart of many aspects of Judaism today and cites as an example the challenge of the Kotel, that remaining wall of the temple and that people’s relationship to it is idolatrous. What he calls the religious disco he says is people attributing super natural powers to a physical object and sees it as people confusing the representation with the thing itself.  In that moment as I stood there in tears I knew I had once shared his view but we were both wrong. This wasn’t about me elevating a pile of stones to being my God; I know a wall can’t change anything but I also realised how comforting a different focus, a different means of communication can be. Just as hearing a piece of music in a different context can change it forever for you, so too can prayer be transformed by finding a new mode now and again.

We often default to chastising the children of Israel for being so fickle to lose faith so quickly when they stood at the foot of Sinai. They were the ones who had witnessed the greatest miracles first hand and then at the first moment they are left alone, the first moment there is any doubt and they appear to swap sides and default to the pagan ways of old. But perhaps we are projecting onto them. Perhaps we are making the same rash judgement that God makes and appears to back track from. Perhaps they too realised that sometimes one needs to look for new ways to connect when the usual methods become routine and stale and begin to lack meaning or when they stop being immediately available to us. God appears to realise this was not a betrayal but rather the Israelites looking for ways of helping them feel that God was among them when God replies with instructions to build the tabernacle; clearly the new mode had to be on God’s own terms.

I was left with this reminder that sometimes we appear to others to be betraying the thing that is most important to us, but rather we are finding different way to look at it in order to get closer to it.

Two intense days followed on this trip where we explored the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians by hearing the views of those at the centre of the conflict. We had the extraordinary privilege of meeting in his office in Ramallah the most senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat as well as travelling to the Israeli town closest to the border with Gaza and meeting their extraordinary Mayor Gadi Yarkoni.

Both spoke passionately of their desire to see peace. Neither showed any sense of hatred of the other though what was clear was that they were totally entrenched in their own sense of the situation. They had held their views for a lifetime and it seemed they had not been changed by any situation or conversation in decades, not even the tragic loss of both Gadi’s legs in a rocket attack on his kibbutz home two years ago. This was their stance and they were sticking to it. I realise sometimes it takes listening to the opposition and really hearing them to understand a situation but it is as if so much of society thinks that really listening, giving credence to the view of the other is akin to idolatry. It feels like you’re swapping sides, leaving behind all that makes your identity your own and part of your people. Yet what if this perceived idolatry is simply the eye opening moment when you find a different mode to be in which can refresh, restore and reinvigorate the passion. Perhaps hearing from the other and feeling their pain doesn’t diminish you but rather enables you to be an even better version of yourself. Our opinions can become so entrenched they become creed and changing our stance feels like stepping into idolatry.

God and Moses made the mistake of seeing idolatry where it was not, let us not do the same. Being open to other ways, seeing things from other perspectives, changing our modus operandi is not a crime, not a betrayal, it’s the way of making ourselves a richer and more well rounded version of ourselves.

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