The Crown Jewels of the Jewish People


There is a story in the Talmud about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania, who was known for being homely. Rabbi Yehoshua was once approached by the daughter of the Roman Emperor, who took one look at the sage and asked, “How can such beautiful wisdom be contained in so ugly a vessel?” Rabbi Yehoshua promptly came back at her with a question of his own. “Does your father store his wine in vessels of clay?” “Of course,” responded the Emperor’s daughter. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“But he’s the Emperor!” Rabbi Yehoshua exclaimed. “Shouldn’t he store his wine in the finest of gold vessels?” Acknowledging that he had a point, the Emperor’s daughter transferred all her father’s wine to gold vessels, where it promptly spoiled.
This story seems to challenge the oft-quoted dictum from the Ethics of the Fathers, “Don’t look at the vessel, but at what is inside it.” No, Rabbi Yehoshua seems to be saying. The vessel matters. The Torah we study is shaped by who we are, just like wine – and all liquids – take the shape of their container. Moreover, there is a chemical reaction that takes place between the vessel and the contents, such that we are transformed by the Torah we study, and the Torah we study is transformed by our encounter with it. No single person – and no single sector of the Jewish people – has a monopoly on Torah. All of us have the potential to transform Torah through our engagement with the texts of our tradition.
Perhaps this is why the recent Kotel controversy has been so infuriating. The Kotel, like the Torah, is the heritage of the Jewish people. It is the holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray – the object of millenia of Jewish longing, and the place toward which Jews the world over direct their prayers. Fifty years ago, when the Israeli army conquered the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel launched a political battle for control of the site. They won that battle, and the Kotel essentially became an Orthodox synagogue, with men and women divided by a partition, and only Orthodox prayer services allowed at the Wall. The Kotel – which had once been the site to which Jews from all the world were enjoined to make pilgrimages three times a year – became the province of one sector of the Jewish people.
I remember visiting the Kotel with members of my American Conservative synagogue a couple of years before my bat mitzvah in the mid 1990s. We knew we weren’t allowed to pray as a mixed-gender group at the Kotel itself, but we wanted to daven together as close as possible to the holy site. Huddled in a small group of men and women, we brought our own Torah scroll and stood about a hundred feet away at the other end of the Kotel plaza, quietly conducting our own service. We were hissed at. An old woman spat at me. Children in black kippot and sidelocks pointed fingers at us and their parents quickly pulled them away, casting mean looks back in our direction. I felt dirty and ashamed, and when my mother encouraged me to approach the wall and insert the prayer I had handwritten on a small piece of torn looseleaf paper, I refused. The Kotel was no longer a place where I wanted to express my prayers.
Then in 2003, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Women of the Wall – a group of English-speaking Jewish women who had been praying together at the wall since 1988 – the Supreme Court of Israel issued a ruling permitting women’s and mixed-gender prayer at Robinson’s Arch, an archeological park at the southern end of the Wall that was removed from the main part of the Kotel and had its own separate entrance. For years on Shavuot morning, when it is traditional for Jerusalemites to flock to the Kotel after staying up all night studying Torah, I would make my pilgrimage not to the Kotel but to Robinson’s Arch, where I chanted from the Book of Ruth as part of an egalitarian prayer service. Jews of all backgrounds had spent the night studying Torah, but when dawn came, only the Orthodox were allowed to pray at the Kotel.
The Talmud in Kidushin 52b relates an incident that occurred after the death of Rabbi Meir, when his rival Rabbi Yehuda informed the students in the study house that Rabbi Meir’s disciples were no longer permitted to enter and learn. “They are disputatious,” Rabbi Yehuda said, “and they don’t really want to learn Torah. Don’t let them in!” But one of Rabbi Meir’s students, Sumachus, forced his way in and began quoting a teaching from Rabbi Meir about a priest who betroths a woman in the Temple courtyard. Rabbi Yehuda grew incensed upon hearing this teaching, and he exclaimed, “Didn’t I tell you that Rabbi Meir’s students are not welcome in the study house? Besides, how could a priest betroth a woman in the Temple courtyard? Are women allowed into the Temple courtyard?” Rabbi Yose, another sage, rose to Sumachus’ defense and stood up to Rabbi Yehuda: “If you say this, what will become of Torah? Besides, couldn’t a man accept the betrothal on the part of a woman? And couldn’t a woman force her way in to the Temple courtyard?”
For years the ultra-Orthodox have tried to control who is allowed to pray in the Temple courtyard, and how they may do so. Women who wish to hold and read from a Torah scroll and worship alongside men are relegated to Robinson’s Arch, and now even this option may no longer be available to them. In January 2016 the Israeli government approved of a plan that would expand the egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch with more convenient points of access that would integrate the area with the rest of the Kotel complex. But recently, on June 25th, that accommodation collapsed in the face of ultra-Orthodox pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rescinded the plan for shared prayer space, thereby alienating North American Jewish leaders and widening the rift between Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
And yet I must confess that with all of this controversy taking place virtually in my backyard – I live just a twenty-minute walk from the Kotel, and I pass the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, on my way to the library where I work – the question that continues to resonate for me is not, “Couldn’t a woman force her way into the Temple courtyard?” As Women of the Wall can attest, women have indeed been forcing their way into the Temple courtyard to pray together, and no doubt they will continue to do so. What troubles me most is Rabbi Yose’s question: “If you say this, what will become of Torah?” Because the controversy about the Kotel is an element of the larger controversy over who owns the Jewish heritage. The question of who can hold a Torah scroll at the Kotel is related to the question of who can open that Torah scroll and learn from it, and who can shape and be shaped by Torah. The answer, as I have come to discover, is that everyone can, and everyone should.
Many Jews today feel alienated from Torah study, just as my eleven-year-old self felt alienated from the Kotel when a woman spat at me at the Kotel plaza. “The Talmud is misogynist,” I hear people say. “There are hardly any women’s voices. Why would a woman want to study Talmud?” I hear these arguments, but I dismiss them just as I dismiss those who say that they have no interest in visiting the Kotel. Yes, for fifty years the Kotel has essentially been an Orthodox synagogue where liberal Jews are not welcome to pray as they wish. But to cede the Kotel to the ultra-Orthodox, and to cede the Talmud to the Orthodox men who have traditionally studied it, is to deny the rest of the Jewish people the cultural heritage that is also rightfully ours.
What is needed, then, is an act of Tikkun. Ten years ago, when I began studying Talmud, I too felt alienated by this text whose heroes are almost all men – men who considered themselves experts in women’s psychology and anatomy. But it soon became clear to me that by the Talmud’s standards, I am a man rather than a woman – if “man” is defined as an independent, self-sufficient adult, whereas “woman” is a dependent generally living in either her father’s or her husband’s home. I began to regard the Tamud’s gender stereotypes as historical curiosities, rather than disturbing provocations. The Talmud no longer offended me because I was defying its classifications through my very engagement with the text. So many of the classical interpretations of the Talmud reflect gendered assumptions, and these texts have the potential to take on radically new meaning when regarded through feminine and feminist eyes. Though ploughed through by generations of scholars, the Talmud remains fertile ground for gleaning new insights and fresh perspectives.
As I studied Talmud, I find myself questioning many of the rabbis’ long-held assumptions about women’s attitudes toward marriage and children. I thought about whether it is still true, as the rabbis assert, that tav l’meitav tan du m’l’meitav armelu – that a woman would prefer to be married than to be alone, even if, as the rabbis go on to assert, her husband is “the size of an ant.” Does this principle still hold in an age where women can own property, live independently, and have children out of wedlock without undue social sanction?
Many of the Talmud’s laws and stories took on new meaning when I read them against the backdrop of my own experiences. I learned tractate Yoma – which deals with the service in the Temple on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar – at a time when I was living alone in a small Jerusalem apartment, thousands of miles from family and friends, mourning the recent breakup of my marriage and struggling to get out of bed in the morning. I identified with the high priest who was sequestered for seven days prior to Yom Kippur in a special chamber of the Temple to prevent him from contracting impurity. I realized that the rabbis of the Talmud, in mourning the destruction of the Temple, were not just grieving over the loss of an edifice but an entire system of connecting with God – one that involved fragrant incense, golden trumpets, and elaborate vestments with breastplates and tinkling bells. I, too, felt like I was mourning not just my marriage, but all my romantic and imaginative dreams.
About four years later, after I’d remarried and become a mother, I was still paging my way through the Talmud. On maternity leave after the birth of my twins, I came to the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai who, fleeing Roman persecution, retreated into a cave to study Torah with his son for twelve years. At the time I was holed up at home with my newborn twin girls doing little more than breastfeeding, changing diapers and keeping up with my regular Talmud study. This story – though it begins with the statement that “women are light-headed and frivolous” – became, for me, the most powerful articulation of maternal bonding. I identified with this story of father and son studying alone in a cave, where God provided them with a carob tree to eat from and a spring to drink from. I felt that I was the carob tree and the spring and the study partner rolled up into one, and on those rare occasions when I took my daughters out of the house in their double stroller, I experienced the outside world as bewildering and blinding – the same reaction that Rabbi Shimon and his son had when they finally left the cave. What use had I for the rest of the world, I wondered? I remember looking at my daughters in weary elation and quoting Rabbi Shimon’s words to his son: “The world is enough with me and you.”
Over time, the stories of the Talmud have become my stories – because I have allowed them to transform me, and because I have transformed the way I read them. Tens of thousands of individuals worldwide learn daf yomi, and in joining them I have become a member of the world’s largest book club. Granted, most of the other members of this club are men. But I have pushed my way in and I have found my place in the text, and hopefully I’ve made room for others, too, to claim their place by my side.
I do not know if all Jews will ever find their rightful place at the Kotel. Right now the situation is looking pretty bleak. But a midrash teaches that there were three crowns given to Israel: The crown of kingship, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah. “The crown of Torah lies before you,” the rabbis teach. “Anyone who wishes may go and take it.” The crown of Torah learning is available for all Jews to wear. But if we cede the texts of our tradition to the ultra-Orthodox, if we allow them to be the province of only one sector of the Jewish population, then we are surrendering our rightful claim to our Jewish heritage, and we are denying ourselves the opportunity for Torah to fill us and to assume our shape. Like Rabbi Meir’s students, we must work to claim our spots at the Kotel plaza and in the study house. These are the crown jewels of the Jewish people, and they belong to us all.
Ilana Kurshan is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink, forthcoming in September from St. Martin’s Press.

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