There has been a bit of an uproar (maybe more than a bit) in the worldwide Jewish community over the Netanyahu administration’s recent decision to freeze plans to establish a mixed prayer space near the Western Wall (the Kotel) in Jerusalem. Liberal Jewish groups have long argued that the sacred site belongs to all Jews, not just those from the Orthodox world, and so should be open to various styles of worship, to include men and women praying together, and women leading prayer and reading from the Torah. A year and a half ago it seemed as if this long held goal was about be realized when an agreement was hammered out between Netanyahu’s government and various Jewish groups. Suspiciously (although perhaps not surprisingly) the agreement was never put into action, with various and sundry excuses offered as to why things were taking so long. Then last week the announcement was made – the idea was being ‘shelved.’
Netanyahu could care less about the Wall as religious artifact and sacred site. If anything, it signifies to him the sovereignty of the state. But he is beholden to the Orthodox members of his governing coalition, and so, pressed to mollify them, he is allowing the Kotel to essentially be held hostage. This political dynamic has been extensively analyzed over the last few days, and a quick Google search will turn up any number of articles describing it.
So I would like to focus for a moment on another issue, namely that by suggesting there is only one way to ‘do the Kotel’ the Orthodox community is in fact limiting God. Essentially what they are saying is this: God is all-knowing, all-powerful, the cosmic Creator of the entire universe, and yet God is also (you’ll please excuse the anthropomorphism) small minded. That in all of God’s vast power and knowledge God can only accept one narrow path of human behavior in terms of being worshipped.
This is irrational. It simply doesn’t make sense. God, in all of God’s vast power, can only accept one way of worship? Instead, doesn’t it make God greater to understand that God can accept many ways of worship? That there are a variety of pathways that will ultimately lead to God? Some are Jewish, some are not. Even within Judaism, there are multiple pathways. And if we stop to think about it, wouldn’t we imagine that God is ‘big’ enough to accept them all?
It is true, to a certain extent, and maybe even entirely, that God is inscrutable. I don’t pretend to know God’s will, and I struggle to understand what God demands of me, of my actions, of my day to day life. But I do know that the God I am in relationship with is מי שאמר והיה העולם – the One Who spoke and the world came into being. A vast force of power and mystery, open to all seekers. From the 145th Psalm: “God is near to all who call God, to all who call God in truth.”
We Jews tend to be a garrulous people. If you’ve ever been to a worship service in a church, you know that there is almost a hush in the room, a feeling of reverence and awe as people wait quietly for the service to begin. In shul, it sometimes takes us a couple of minutes – full minutes! – to get the crowd quiet enough to even begin the service. People talk, laugh, comment, walk in and out, and do it all again – and that is after they’ve ‘quieted down’ and the service has begun. I admit that people are fairly quiet during the sermon, but that might be because they are sleeping. Lets face it – by and large Jews are by nature noisy – we are kibitzers, from a long line of kibitzers. And we wonder why the young people at the service make so much noise in the back of the sanctuary!
A talkative service environment is nothing new. Find a traditional siddur and look at the brief description before the amidah. Often it will say תפילה בלחש – prayer recited in a whisper. In other words, even during our moments of silent prayer we are expected to be making noise, mouthing the words quietly, but just loud enough so that they can be heard. We do come from a long line of ‘God-talkers.’ Abraham argued with God. Moses did as well. Job followed in their footsteps. Hannah, the sages’ paradigm for prayer behavior, prayed quietly to herself, but her lips moved the entire time. If you’ve ever davened in a traditionally oriented minyan you know that people are constantly mumbling various and sundry phrases from the liturgy, voices rising and falling as this or that word strikes someone and speaks to their spirit. It can sound a bit confusing, even intimidating, but listen for a while – the voices weave together to form a pattern. This is an old conversation with God, carried out by individuals in the context of community, over thousands of years. There is a sense of familiarity – we’ve done it before, many, many times.
I worry sometimes that that sense of familiarity is being lost in the liberal Jewish community. We are still pretty darn good at kibitzing with each other, but we’ve become less and less comfortable kibitzing with God. If you’ve ever lived in New York City you’ve spent a fair amount of time on elevators with people you don’t know well, or at all. The silence in an enclosed elevator car can get pretty uncomfortable, even oppressive. What to do? Make conversation! Comment about the weather, ask about last night’s game, whatever it might be – just say something. A simple breaking of the quiet not only makes people feel comfortable, it makes them feel connected.
So it might seem like a strange thing for a rabbi to say, but I’d actually like a bit more noise during services, especially during the moments of quiet prayer. After all, if there is one thing Jews have learned over time it is that a little mumbling can go a long way.