Living Within the Tension in Israel

I recently returned to New York after three weeks away in Israel. While I was there, I drank a limonana almost every day. The lemon and mint slushy beverage is quite refreshing when it is over 90 degrees and humid outside. The limonana symbolizes the Israel that I experienced this summer. I had the freedom and leisure time to ponder my surroundings as I was not leading a group or part of a delegation for most of my time there. The limonana symbolizes Israel because it is both sour and sharp and yet refreshing at the same time. These two categories don't usually go together. In fact they are opposites. But that is what I realized Israel is this time around. Israel is a country of opposites. It is the sabra plant, both prickly and delicious. And our goal is to find a way to live within the tension.

The darkest and ugliest moment of my time in Israel occurred at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av. I joined hundreds of women and men at a park outside the Old City of Jerusalem at 6:15 am. As supporters of Women of the Wall, we entered buses and minibuses and were escorted by Israeli police to the Old City gate near the Western Wall. At one point the bus halted because a woman tried to walk in front of the bus to stop our entry. The police somehow ended that demonstration. But we were on the bus and all I heard was yelling.

Once we passed through the metal detectors, I assumed we would enter the Ezrat Nashim, the small women's section of the Kotel. That is what occurred when I was there on Rosh Chodesh Adar in February, and has occurred nearly every month for almost 25 years. Instead, we were stopped by a police barrier and not permitted to move forward.

In front of us, on our side of the police barrier, the paparazzi and reporters were filming us lay tefillin (phylacteries) and envelope ourselves with our tallitot (prayer shawls). From the other side of the barrier Haredi (fervently Orthodox) men called us Nazis and Amalek and yelled out that we were not Jewish. At some point eggs were thrown over. I know that two of my friends were hit-both American rabbis studying in the country for just a few weeks.

To the side, Haredi women were yelling at us and holding signs. There were a number of women blowing whistles which was very, very irritating and distracting. It is difficult to reach a spiritual level of intentional prayer with high-pitched distracting whistles. It was ironic that we covered our eyes and chanted the words Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad (Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One), when part of the people Israel belittled us desecrated our prayer space. I felt deflated.

Once our tallitot and tefillin were put away we sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. Women of the Wall and our male allies sang the words of the Israeli national anthem, staring into the eyes of those who positioned themselves as our adversaries. We cryied and singing about hope for change, real change. Hatikvah is translated as the hope. In spite of what happened that morning, I have hope in a pluralistic Israel. This hope is deep and real and it stays with me partly because a month ago I had the opportunity to hear from many high level Members of Knesset and President Shimon Peres. Each and every one of them spoke about the potential for real religious pluralism in Israel.

This is the tension. At once I can both feel deflated and hopeful about Israel. I have hope because MK Ruth Calderon said to a delegation of the Rabbinical Assembly that "we need a positive Judaism, not a coercive one. "And I am hopeful that MK Eleazar Stern told this same delegation "I am soldier for women, who want to go to the Kotel and daven, wear tallit and tefillin in women's minyan... I am optimistic about potential for change."

When I stare into the eye of someone who hates me because I wear a tallit, the hope for pluralism does not feel like a possibility. But when I hear the words of those Knesset members, I think just maybe it can happen. It is as if there is the actual experience and then the rhetoric of the politicians. That is the tension.

This past week, Rabbi David Lau and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef were elected as the new chief rabbis of Israel. At first I felt disappointed, as the seemingly moderate candidate, Rabbi David Stav lost and instead these right-wing dynastic rabbis were voted into the influential top spot. But then I read Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's comments after he congratulated the new chief rabbis. He said "This is the time to act to strengthen the unity of the Jewish people, and to increase the love of Israel."

If we only look at Israel from one end of the spectrum, or one part of the prism, with regard to a mass multitude of religious, cultural and social issues, we are not allowing ourselves to see a true picture. We need to sit in the middle and deal with the tension; the facts on the grounds and the words and visions of political leaders. Living with the tension means to be uncomfortable. It means to live with the tension rather than try to deny the validity of either. It also means being more informed and taking time to ask questions.

Israel is not black and white. Despite the blue skies of summer days, it is the greyest country I know. But at the same time, there is no other place in the world that I would rather sit in a café, drink a limonana and contemplate the future.