Where We Pray
In the Los Angeles, one prays to the east. In North Carolina, one prays to the east. A while ago, one of my teachers gave me a tip for cloudy days or hotel rooms in strange cities when you might not know which way is east : to carry a compass in my tefillin bag. But in Jerusalem, one doesn’t need a compass; one needs a map. From my apartment in Baka, I need to pray north and a bit east, towards the Old City. In the Old City, one needs to find pray towards the Kotel (the Western Wall) and, a little known fact is, when one is at the Kotel, one should pray facing slightly to the left, towards the Dome of the Rock (the mosque with the gold roof) which contains the “Foundation Stone” and which sits, according to most scholars, directly on what was the spot of the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temples.
Of course, one prays not to a wall, nor to the Foundation Stone, nor to the Holy of Holies. Rather than ignoring our bodies, or trying to get beyond them, in Jewish life we enlist our bodies in the service of God. We sanctify Shabbat by uttering a blessing and drinking wine. We celebrate Sukkot by shaking a lulav and etrog. We bow and sit and stand and turn our bodies towards Jerusalem and the Holy of Holies in prayer to increase our kavanah, our focus and intentionality. But we do these things not because God is physically located somewhere, but because we are located. We are spatial beings.
Rabbi Issac Meir of Gur explains the verse, “Do not climb up to My altar by steps,” (Exodus 20:23) through a parable: Two blind persons wished to reach a rooftop, and tried to figure out how to do it. One of them got himself a ladder, and the other got himself a long plank to serve as an inclined ramp. Both of them ascended. But the difference between the two of them was this: The one who climbed on the ladder knew at each step exactly how much higher he was, and exactly how many steps he still had to ascend. But the one who ascended by the ramp – as long as he was not at the rooftop, he had no idea where he was situated and just how high he was. Similarly here: “Do not climb up to My altar by steps,” that is, do not look about you, just continue to do good works and to engage in the service of God. The altar was a physical place for the service of God. Like the rooftop, it was a spiritual destination, a place of encountering God. For Rabbi Meir, we are all blind in our search for God and, for this reason, the Torah warns against using steps to “arrive” because they cause up to imagine we are closer, or farther away, from “arriving.” The altar is physical and, because it is, it is a metaphor, a tool we need because we inhabit our bodies, but one we must always remember is just a tool towards encountering God, but not God.
We use our bodies in prayer because we are embodied creatures; our bodies are part of who we are. We use them to pray. In the words of the Psalmist, “all my bones will say, “Adonai, who is like You?” Yet to believe God is in Jerusalem risks idolatry, one of only three sins one should, according to Jewish law, rather die than commit. And yet. Benjamin asked me at the Kotel this afternoon, “why do people kiss the Kotel?
There is something risky in the air of Israel. It is called, “kedushat ha’aretz” – the holiness of the land. It is the reason that the seventh Zionist Congress rejected an offer by the British to found a Jewish state in Uganda. It is why there is a special mitzvah to make aliyah, to come live in Israel. It is why when people come to live in Israel, it is called “aliyah,” which means “ascending,” and why, although it is less “pc” to use this phrase these days, leaving Israel to live elsewhere is called, “yerida,” meaning “descent.” A few nights ago, Jen and the boys and I walked up Yehudah Street, crossed four lanes of traffic on Derekh Hevron, picked up a pizza to go, and walked to the tayelet to watch the sunset. Kedushat Ha’Aretz is why, as we sat there looking at the valley between us and the Old City, I told Benjamin that what he was seeing could be the very path that Abraham took with Isaac between Hevron and the Temple Mount on his way to the Akedah that we will read about on Rosh Hashanah next week. As we ate pizza, I explained we might be seeing the sunset from the very spot Abraham and Issac watched the sunset thousands of years ago. I told this to my children knowing that kedushat ha’aretz, the reason we are here and not in Uganda, the source of the beauty and mystery of this place, also risks making an idol of the land. Yet I must teach my children and children don’t learn cerebrally; they don’t fall in love with God and Torah and the Jewish people and Israel only by learning ideas. They fall in love with smells and sounds and tastes and stories. Maimonides taught, “Torah nitna b’lashon Adam” – “The Torah was given in the language of human beings.” God was a great teacher; God spoke to us in a language we could understand. We need a land, for we are people who need to express our relationship to God not merely in the dank smell of an Eastern European yeshiva, or the shell of memories of agricultural holidays. We have a State. It is imperfect and messy. It is theologically wrong to kiss a wall, dangerous for where it might lead and what one becomes willing to do for the wall and the land, forgetting that all these are tools towards something greater. Yet there is something beautiful in kissing the wall.
Torah and Wisdom
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef is a great halakhic authority, by which I mean someone who possesses an extraordinary breadth of knowledge of Jewish legal texts. He is indisputably knowledgeable and, in an era when haredi authorities heap stringency upon stringency, R. Yosef is often refreshingly lenient and flexible. He also has a history of being politically moderate. Since the late 1980s he has stood in stark contrast to many Orthodox authorities and used the principle of pikuach nefesh, in which all commandments except three are superseded if one can save a life in danger, to advocate first for ceding the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt in the context of a peace agreement in 1979, and later by supporting Yitzhak Rabin’s government during the Oslo process. But theologically, he is an idiot.
In 2000, he said, “The six million Holocaust victims were reincarnations of the souls of sinners, people who transgressed and did all sorts of things that should not be done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone.” Following hurricane Katrina in 2005, Yosef said, “There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn’t enough Torah study... Black people [in Hebrew, Yosef used the word “kushim” – a racial epithet in modern Hebrew] reside there [New Orleans]. Blacks will study the Torah? [God said], Let’s bring a tsunami and drown them... Hundreds of thousands remained homeless. Tens of thousands have been killed. All of this because they have no God... Bush was behind the [expulsion of] Gush Katif, he encouraged Sharon to expel Gush Katif... We had 15,000 people expelled here [in Israel], and there [in America] 150,000 [were expelled]. It was God’s retribution... God does not short-change anyone.”
Such comments are so stupid they are unworthy of response. As was his latest comment about Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, said on the eve of the first direct negotiations with the Palestinians in years: “Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world...God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.” Yosef’s comments were so stupid, they even merited official condemnation by a U.S. State Department spokesman.
Just because both Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and I both have the title, “rabbi,” I am not worried that someone will associate his views with mine. So why do I care? I care for the same reason that I have not stopped thinking about the yeshiva students who responded rudely and arrogantly to the flight attendant when she asked them to show their tickets for the seats they were sitting in on our USAir flight from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv. I too carried tefillin with me in my carry-on bag and rose to put them on as the sun rose during our flight to Israel. Like Rabbi Yosef, I too see the world through the lens of Jewish texts such as Maimonides and the Shulchan Arukh and Rashi and Nachmanides. Much of their Torah is my Torah; we share much more than we differ, and that Torah should make us better people, not better than others, but better than who we would be without it. The Talmud teaches that the mitzvoth were given to refine our character. What if the cause and effect proves not to be true? The yeshiva students I will soon forget. But when someone of such undeniable learning such as R. Yosef says such hateful, stupid things, our tradition calls it a hillul hashem – a desecration of God’s name – because it undermines the validity of the equation: study of Torah = wisdom. Yosef does not make me doubt the equation; he makes me believe how desperately Israel needs different, wiser rabbis.