Rabbi Ben Goldstein
October 28, 2013
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There are people with a heart of stone.

There are stones with a human heart.

Hakotel, The Wall, Israeli Folk Song.


Of all of the services throughout the year, my favorite has always been Friday night. Growing up, Friday night services were smaller, and more intimate that Shabbat morning, and they always seemed a little more casual. Held in our shul’s small chapel, the service would only take about 45 minutes.  And the service itself, the melodies and songs of Kabbalat Shabbat are so beautiful. I would sing along with whomever was leading the services, getting carried away with the tunes as he (yes, growing up in an Orthodox community, it was always a man) would sing the refrain at the end of every blessing.

The first time I was able to lead Kabbalat Shabbat was in Jerusalem, when I was sixteen. I was on a six-week-summer trip with other teenagers from around the county. On Friday night we walked from our hotel to the Old City of Jerusalem. There, standing in front of us was “The Wall.” I had been there once before when I was much younger, but I remember staring up at it and thinking that it was glowing. As we walked closer, my advisor Sam, saw me get a little nervous, and asked me if I was ready to lead. I nodded and told him that I was ready to go.

That Shabbat was the first time I led Kabbalat Shabbat. Over the next twenty years, I would lead that service more times than I can count. I have led it in the orthodox shul of my youth, I have led it all through Israel and the United States, and I have led it for egalitarian and non-egalitarian services. Since that night, one place that I have never led Kabbalat Shabbat is the Western Wall.

That summer when we were 16, we spent six weeks learning about Israel, exploring the ancient homeland of our people. For six weeks we toured the sights. We prayed from up north in the Golan Heights (at one point we were told that we were only 2 km from Syria) all the way down to Eilat. We were welcomed with open arms, we were told that we had a place there; we were told that we had finally come home. Touring Israel as a man in an orthodox community, it never occurred to me that the very rights that I took for granted, the ability to lead services, to be able to pray as I wanted, could ever be denied to anyone. I took it on faith that everyone would be able to worship as they see fit.

Many people wonder why the Western Wall is significant. They wonder why the non-Orthodox movements keep “making trouble” and trying to pray there if it people find it offensive. It is because of what that wall represents. For thousands of years people have flocked to this place, this wall. The wall was built as a retaining wall as part of the construction of the Second Holy Temple. Because of its proximity to the Holy of Holies in the temple, the Western Wall has long been thought of as the holiest landmark in Judaism. Over time, it has also taken on a national significance as a symbol of the unity and continuity of the State of Israel. The spot is a bridge between the ancient origins and history of Judaism, and the modern state of Israel.

This historical location should be an area that unites our people and allows us to imagine a return to a time of unity and self-rule. For two thousand years our people have hoped and dreamed that they would be able to return to the land of their ancestors. For two thousand years our people have prayed and hoped that they would be free to learn Torah, to practice their Judaism and to worship in their own land. Recently, I was given a black-and-white photograph taken at the Western Wall. It is a picture of a time before 1948, before the establishment of the state of Israel, when Palestine, as it was known then, was ruled by the British. It is a picture of men and women praying at the Western Wall together. There is no men’s section or women’s section. No one interfered with anyone else’s prayers. It is a pretty damning statement that the land of our two-thousand-year-old-hope has taken away some of the religious freedoms that her citizens had before the establishment of the State of Israel.

It saddens me that when I go to Israel, I try to avoid the kotel as much as possible. When I lived there for a year, I went only once, and that was to see what it looked like at midnight with snow falling (it was quite beautiful). I know that the kotel is no longer my home, that my beliefs and my prayers are not welcome at this place that has now been labeled an outdoor Orthodox shul (and not a very welcoming one).

In the Talmud, we learn the concept of elu v’elu divrei elokim chaim, when two people are arguing both sides of the argument can be words of a living God. Prayers, whether they be uttered by a man or a woman, whether in an Orthodox yeshiva or by a solider in a foxhole are all words of the living God. I long for the day when people will be able to see past their prejudices and bigotry. I pray for a time when everyone’s prayers will be heard. Only then can we begin to sing in unison in our homeland.

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Rabbi Ben Goldstein was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in May of 2010. Since that time he has been working as the rabbi for a congregation in suburban New Jersey (yes, that’s right, I said New Jersey). He has been watching television and movies ever since he was old enough to have the core strength to sit up without falling over. Goldstein's love for the performing arts led him to pursue it as a career and he even managed to star in such cinematic triumphs as Jewz N The Hood. After a number of Signs from our Creator (and more than a few casting directors) he realized that actors don’t take themselves nearly serious enough so he needed to find something else to do. Taking a look at the job description of a rabbi (writer, counselor, teacher, performer, student) he thought it sounded like a really great way to spend his life. In addition to being trained as a rabbi, Goldstein has an encyclopedic knowledge of television and movies from the mid-80s to today. That makes him either a fantastic Jeopardy contestant or the world’s most boring cocktail party guest. You can reach Rabbi Goldstein at rabbi@tbemc.org.

1 Comment

  1. I cant think of an issue less relevant to progressive voices within judaism in Israel and (let’s be truthful) to the future of american jewry or even their connection to Israel then the issue of “women of the wall”. In fact women of the wall has not been an advocate of pluralist jewish prayer at the kotel.

    But somehow clergy of the reform and conservative movement has taken this issue, put it at the center of their discussion on Israel. Virtually none of these clergy and congreations have contact or aware of the wonderful exciting things happening among Israelis jews far from the rabbinate and the kotet. Just last shabbat Oct 25 beit hillel organized shabbat yisraelit bringing observant and non observant jews around the shabbat table.

    While the fire is burning in their frontyard perhaps american jewish clergy would be well served by building relationships with such groups and perhaps seeing what they can learn from them. Instead they seem happy to create a situation where their congegants think that judaism in israel = the extemist charedim at the kotel… In my observation few rabbinical students spending the year in Israel reach out to learn and interact with these jews (few officially associated with conservative or reform judaism or accepted as “kosher” by charedim….quite a chaval and a wasted opportunity. \
    How many of thse rabbis have taken their congregants visiting israel to the kabbalat shabbat with assistance of the tel aviv municipality with music before hundreds of Israelis at the tel aviv port..so they can learn there is much more to israeli jewry than haredim at the kotel ?

    As the pew study showed the fire is burning in the house (as a prominent conservative rabbi told his movement’s convention) with so much to do and so few opportunities to interact with their congregants…should this issue really be such a priority for american jewish rabbis and their congregants ?

    Posted by
    lawrence weinman
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