JERUSALEM—It’s different each time, the sensation driven by my religious body temperature at the moment, each occasion leavened by the vicissitudes of life, by doubt, skepticism, spiritual immobility or vague rhapsody—and certainly by my own vanities. One first has to get past the sense of being an intruder, even if one is incontrovertibly Jewish, because the landlords of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, a conglomerate of stern, bearded men from a variety of ecclesiastic tribes, are (as far as one can tell), rather possessive of their default contract with the place.
God is there, to paraphrase rabbinic tradition, because we have let God in.
They scold you with their fierce eyes if you don’t have a skullcap (though never examining your heart), they imperiously ask you for money as if to pay for your unworthiness, and they seemed resigned to the presence of sincere folks who are neither dressed for the seventeenth century nor given to the very judgmental tendencies that controvert the entire thesis of prayer.
But I arrive with my own liturgy—I don’t care what they care or what they think. My cousins literally fought in the alleyways of Old City of Jerusalem in June 1967 to liberate the Jewish Quarter that the Jordanians had occupied and desecrated since 1948. My father battled and was wounded in Israel’s War of Independence after several Arab armies flouted the UN’s two-state solution and opted to finish Hitler’s work.
It is ironic that my mother and her granddaughters are not permitted to pray in the same spaces as the oligarchic men who have co-opted the blood and yearning of Jewish history in favor of their sectarian plutocracy in Jerusalem.
But I don’t care. My deal with the Wall is my own affair and it has swirled and evolved with the crises and upheavals and reversals and triumphs and breakthroughs of my life and that is more honest than a chart of robotic prayers.
When I touch it, I no longer feel that simple-minded awe that was driven by guilty deference to the swaying rabbinic landlords who swarm about the place as thick as blackberries. I just don’t believe anymore that God sees any difference between them in their garbs and me in my jeans and blazer. Neither they nor people like me, men or women, are right or wrong, just or unjust under the sky above this city.
I place little notes in the Wall but I don’t think God has a minstrel on the other side of it that collects and annotates the pleas, names, and confessionals. I follow the ritual because so many people have been doing this for so many centuries that the very cycle—and its uniformity and peacefulness and solemnity—instill the absolute holiness that attends this place. God is there, to paraphrase rabbinic tradition, because we have let God in.
The millions of people, trembling, whispering, diverse, literate, uneducated; of so many languages, journeys, dispositions, and wounds that have been doing it right there for so many centuries—and usually without a scripted declaration—add up to the unique possibility of a divine spark in the open air of a city that both defines and defies peace.
I spoke to an old woman as I walked up the plaza from the Wall. Her eyes had seen more than mine will ever gaze upon. She told me she survived Treblinka. Then she wished me “Shabbat Shalom” in Polish-inflected Hebrew.
Who could hear such a thing and then require some passing rabbis to describe God for me?