I don't worship it.
I understand that it is just stone.
But I also experience it as sacred space.
Not because it is God;
Not because God is there more then elsewhere;
Not because a rabbi told me it was holy.
Rather, for its historical value - its role in a history that is sacred to me;
for what it symbolizes for me - thousands of years of devotion to the God I feel devoted to - devotion that is demonstrated differently now than then, but not because we are any less devoted.
Here is what it means to love a wall (and know it is "just" a wall):
12 years old: First trip to Israel: Family
I am at the Kotel for the first time. It is special because it is legendary. I am seeing what I had only before heard-tell of. What stands out from this visit is that it is a rare Jewish experience from childhood where my mother and I are doing something together without my father (and brother). I have never since been to the wall without feeling like she is standing next to me there (even when she isn't). There is something special about being with just women that I can't name or explain at that age but do notice. I like going all the way up to the wall and whispering to God. I don't feel closer to God but, similar to being at temple, I feel a different connection to God than I do when I'm praying somewhere "less official". I am fascinated by the myriad paper notes in the cracks between stones. I try to imagine the women who placed them there. I wonder what they prayed for. I am listening to my mothers whispers and wondering what she is praying for as well. It is a happy/sad wondering - thinking about what moves women to pray and petition.
On this first visit, the women's section is notably smaller than the men's but it is not yet so narrow as to feel cramped. I don't remember being concerned about it or being treated in any noticeable way (negative or positive) by the chareidi women. I didn't yet know what chareidi was. I wasn't thinking about what kinds of women where there or how I was similar or different from the other women there. I just liked being among women. For this Reform kid, it was a novelty and it felt like a luxury.
17 years old: 2nd trip: NFTY in Israel
Before we enter the Kotel plaza, our amazing educator takes us up onto the roof of a local yeshiva, overlooking the plaza and the wall. He plays for us the recording of Yossi Ronen, working for the army radio, who accompanied the Israeli armed forces through the gates of the Old City on June 7th, 1967. As they (re)captured the Temple Mount, Ronen was among the first to reach the Kotel. The recording quality doesn't compare to the CDs I've brought along with me to Israel (no ipods yet!) but the moving words are forever etched into my heart nonetheless:
"I am walking right now down the steps toward the Western Wall. . . I am not a religious man, I never have been, but this is the Western Wall and I am touching the stones of the Western Wall."
You can hear that his voice is choked with emotion. I cannot read the words aloud without getting choked-up myself. It's contagious. You can hear soldiers in the background weeping and reciting Shechecheyanu. They sing HaTikva. A shofar is blown.
At 17 I am not listening to this through a lens of politics. I do not yet know an Israel plagued by regular terror. The Gulf war is a vague memory; The 2nd Intifada a future nightmare. All I know is that I love Israel. I love being Jewish. I love God. I am so moved by the emotion of this recording; By the idea of being united with lost relics; By the awesomeness of being able to stand and touch where Jews hadn't been able to stand or touch for so very very many years. At 17 it seemed like a happy ending. I wasn't thinking about the losers on the flip-side of our victory. I wasn't thinking about the Dome that looked down upon the Wall. I wasn't thinking about ownership of a place or space. I didn't know someone could control someone else's Holy. I was simply thinking about what it must have felt like to be among the first Jews in centuries to touch those cold and gorgeous stones.
When we walk down to the plaza, it is the first time I have a sense of myself in history. I am consciously aware of walking in the place where Jews have been walking for thousands of years; of the idea of sacred pilgrimage; of retracing steps that have spiritual and historical significance. I see myself - a clear flash of vision - in a line of Jews stretching back hundreds of generations - each of us walking up to that wall. It is a profound revelation. I wonder for the first time about past lives. Am I retracing my own steps? Has my Jewish soul been here more times than I? Far more than my Bat Mitzvah or Confirmation ceremony or anything that has ever happened to me in a synagogue, this is a moment of spiritual advance. I leave more spiritually aware and adult then I came.
My boyfriend at the time doesn't believe in God, but when he goes up to the wall, he comes back crying. He is moved. He cannot explain why.
I go up to the wall with one of my best girlfriends. We have brought talitot that are made of lace and look like shawls. The tzitzit are easy to miss if you're not looking closely. This was before bags were searched at the entrance to the plaza. No soldier asked me what the shawl was or why I might need it. No woman stopped me when I wrapped it around my shoulders and pulled it up over my head. My friend and I stood side by side at the wall (still not too narrow to feel crowded) with our tallitot over our head. No one threw chairs at us. No one spat. I remember the way the light shone through the lace onto the stone. The tallit made it so that it was just me and the wall. I couldn't see anything other than the stone my head was resting against. We knew we were "sneaking" the tallitot in but we had no idea what that moment would represent when we looked back on it a decade or two later. This was 1998.
23 years old: 5th visit to Israel: HUC Year in Israel, Cantorial Student
I can't count how many times I've been to the wall now. I've traveled to Israel 5 times. I've been living here for a year. I have brought my own NFTY in Israel group and watched them, wondering if it is as profound for them as it was for me 6 years before. Israel is a different place now. I am a different girl. Israel is less safe. I am less naive; less ignorant. The wall is less "shiny". I don't always feel sacred goosebumps when I'm there. I don't always pray. Sometimes I don't go beyond the plaza. I just sort of wave as I pass by. A spiritual nod if you will.
The women's section is crowded now. It feels like we (women) have been squeezed in between the men and the security ramp. An afterthought. An inconvenience. My bags are searched now and Chareidi women "guard" the entrance to the section. Eventually one of them realizes what my lace "shawl" really is and yells at me. I stop bringing it. I pray with Women of the Wall while my male classmates stand closely by (as close as they can) in solidarity; in case we need escorting home. It doesn't feel safe to be a woman at the wall now. I've lost the sense of peace I once felt. I begin to see Robinson's Arch as the place that reflects my chosen expression of Judaism ("my people"). It holds the same historic value. It is no less a sacred pilgrimage. I don't love that I cannot go all the way up to the wall to touch it; That I cannot go whenever I want; That I have to "pay to pray" - to feel the cool stone against my cheek. For this reason alone - to feel stone on skin - do I muscle my way to the front of the women's section every once in a while. Jockeying for position just to show that I can.
33 years old: 8th visit: Rabbi leading Congregational Trip
Bringing my congregation to the Kotel involves a lot of study and explanation. No one from my group gets there without the context of politics and history and archaeology and spirituality. Everyone has a choice of where to go.
I do not want to go to the women's section, though I do because I am the leader and the rabbi and I do not want to send my women in alone. I feel strongly that it is not my section anymore, though I am certainly a woman. It is not accurate to call it the "women's section" now. It is the Orthodox Women's Section. It is policed by charedi women who no longer move over to make space for us. They cling to the stones like jealous lovers. As if I am committing adultry by loving the same God as them but loving Him (Her, It) differently. We have to wait a long time to get all the way to the stones and I do not stay long. A lingering brush with an old friend I no longer understand. I save my prayers for the Egalitarian section with it's brand new pavilion. It feels like a million stairs down but you can go all the way to the wall now. My mother and I stand there together again and this time we are joined by men from our group and we cry at the joy of being able to stand there with men whom we love, with visible tallitot on our shoulders (though we had to argue with the security guards to get them in. We had to promise not to take them into the "women's section".) I am no longer the girl who thought it novel to pray with only women. Reality has beat it out of me. Now I just want to be recognized in the country I call Home. To be allowed to pray in the way that I am comfortable. I whisper my prayers at Robinson's Arch. At the place where once, in another life, I might have entered closer to the sacred Temple. I do not feel I have been demoted to a lesser space. The stones are the same degree of cool. They look the same close up. God is no less present. I am still facing West. I understand that it is a privilege to pray the way I want to. I pray that no one will try to take that privileged away from me. I know how simply progress can be reversed. One election gone wrong and I could find myself squeezed and policed in that restrictive space once more.The space they call "women's". The one controlled by men.
God willing, I suspect that I may never return to the "women's section". It is a happy/sad suspicion.
35 years old: Preparing for 9th visit
Next month I go back to Israel. I have only a day to spend on my own. The Kotel is on the top of my to-do list. But I will not go to the women's section. I will take my Modern Orthodox male cousin to the now officially recognized Egalitarian Section (if he will go with me). I hope to stand there next to him. For us to affirm each other's chosen Jewish identities and celebrate them both in a space that we can share. We do not share political views. We do not have the same understanding of Torah, mitzvot and obligation. But we can share the Kotel. We can stand there side by side.
It will be bitter-sweet. I know that there are women who still feel they cannot pray at the Kotel the way they want to. I know there are still Jews who hate what I love. I know there is still much to be done. And yet - to stand there with my cousin (if he will join me). That will be a victory. That will be so sweet.
I still love the Kotel. It is a mature love. A love that recognizes imperfection. A love that is also a little bit wary.
I love the Kotel but I do not worship it. For me, it is a sacred pilgrimage. A chance to retrace the steps of my ancestors (and possibly my own). A space to meet with God (one of many). A place to declare that I am a Reform Jewish Woman who prays in a particular way and has the right to do so.
It is not an icon to me. It is living history. It is history in the making.