And It Shall Be A Sign For You

Rabbi Amitai Adler
October 21, 2013
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Judaism has a penchant for recursive symbology: symbols of symbols of symbols, nested within one another, sometimes dizzyingly.

A great example of this is the aron kodesh (the holy ark in the synagogue). During tefillah (prayer), we face it, we bow toward it, we rise when it is open, and it is a minor honor to be asked to open it. But the ark itself is only symbolic, its holiness borrowed: we are really facing, bowing toward, honoring, the sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) in the ark. But the sifrei Torah are largely symbolic: their holiness comes from the words written in them. And the words themselves are somewhat symbolic: their holiness comes from their revelatory origins (however we may wish to define that). And that revelation is itself a bit symbolic: even if one believes quite literally in Torah mi-Sinai, we heard some of the commandments at Sinai, the rest we got from Moshe Rabbeinu in God’s name. The mountain smoked, quaked, lightning and thunder struck, shofarot blew, but, as Moshe reminds us in Devarim (Deuteronomy), we never saw God: only the fire. And, as Eliyahu ha-Navi notes, in 1 Kings 19, God is not in the fire. At its most literal, the revelation at Sinai was largely symbolic of God. And even if we don’t take the story literally, we have the same issue, in that we speak of God in metaphor, image, simile, analogy: symbols for the ultimate truth of God, Ein Sof (the Infinite), which is ineffable and unknowable.

The Kotel is also like this. It was never part of the Temple. It’s a retaining wall for the Temple Mount hilltop, built toward the end of the Second Temple period, by a quasi-Jewish Roman puppet king who was a shmuck of legendary proportions. Yet we call it the holiest site in the world for the Jewish People. Really, though, it’s a symbol: it is as close as we currently can come to the hilltop of the Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in the world for the Jewish People. The hilltop as it is, though, is more symbolic of the hilltop as it was and may yet be again: the place of our Beit Hamikdash, our holy Temple. Which itself was in no small part a symbolic reminder to us of what lay in its deepest heart: the kodesh kodashim (holy of holies), where the original aron kodesh rested. Which was symbolic in part for what lay within the original original aron kodesh: the stones on which the commandments were first inscribed. Which, in turn, were symbolic in part for that revelation. Which brings us back to the theological symbols (actual or linguistic) for Ein Sof.

Our tradition calls Har ha-Bayit (the Temple Mount) “the place where heaven and earth touch.” What that seems to mean, in part, is that this is the place where our symbological language of objects and places draws nearest to our symbological language of theology. It’s the place where, if we are paying attention, we are most immersed in our covanantedness, most deeply engaged in our symbological transgenerational attempt to remain in touch with the numinous, with the Source of all things.

The Kotel is important. Not because of its actual historical origins. Not because of modern politicking. But because it is one of the most powerful symbols we have about our national (not nationalistic) kavanah (focus), our yearning for Hashem, our dream of tikkun olam.

To go to the Kotel is not merely to be reminded of the lost Second Temple. It is to be given a chance to imagine a Third Temple yet to come– a Temple which in no way need be exactly like the previous one, as the Second was not exactly like the First, only more so. As Isaiah says, ki beiti beit tefillah yikarei l’chol ha-‘amim (“My House will be called a house of prayer for all nations”): and if all the nations were to be mutually respectful and tolerant enough to support a Temple which would be an acceptable place of prayer for all religions and backgrounds, it stands to reason that it would already have to be a Temple acceptable to all Jews. Which means a Beit Hamikdash of pluralism, where Jews of different halachic shitot (schools of thought) and different styles of observance will all be welcome, and have safe and respected space to pray. (And, I confess–since we’re talking about something that can only happen in the time of the moshiach— I hope it will be a Temple without animal sacrifices). Such a Temple is not an attempt to revive what was destroyed and consigned to history long ago, but an ideal, symbolic of a dream of what we must strive toward (and if it ever is really constructed, it would be a symbol of what miracles of reconciliation, mutual tolerance, and tikkun we would have achieved in order to permit its existence).

The Kotel is supposed to be a symbol not of what we have lost, nor of what we now have, but of what we could have, what we could be, what we could make, if we drove ourselves to be better, to act better, to do better.

And the people who use it as an excuse for misogyny, or for monolithic rejection of pluralism, or as a symbol of nationalism untempered by either realism or (all too often) empathy, are abusing what the Kotel really is. They have utterly lost sight of what all these symbols are, and what they direct our hearts, our kavanah toward. And in losing sight of Ein Sof, both in the ideals and the high goals the Kotel should inspire in us, and in the neshamot (souls) of our fellow Jews and other human beings, such individuals transform their avodah (worship) at the Kotel into avodah zarah (idolatry), manifest in acts of sinat chinam (baseless hatred). As Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook taught us, the only redemption of sinat chinam must come through ahavat chinam (unconditional love). And the sooner we see some ahavat chinam come into Israeli society, into Jewish society, especially in regard to how we treat one another when we come to pray at the Kotel…the sooner the Kotel– and all its myriad nested symbols– become rededicated to connecting Earth and Heaven.

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Rabbi Amitai Adler is a Conservative rabbi. He is a teacher and writer, and serves as the Rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Aurora, Illinois. Rabbi Adler lives in Deerfield, Illinois, with his wife, Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler and their son and daughter.

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