One Yom Kippur, in a small town in Poland, when the Jews were gathered in the synagogue and all the Rabbis were there, among them the Baal Shem Tov, one ignorant farmer brought his son, a shepherd, with him to the services. The son did not know how to pray and could not even read the prayers, had with him a whistle which he used ordinarily when watching the cattle. He was very fond of this whistle which he blew on frequently at home. He saw all the people praying earnestly from the depths of their hearts, and he also wanted to say something to God that came from deep inside. So right in the middle of the Neilah prayer, which marks the climax of the Holy Day, he drew a deep breath and let out the shrill whistle that he would sound every evening when he gathered the sheep from the fields. The shepherd boy whistled as loud as he could.
The people in the synagogue were shocked, but the Baal Shem Tov jumped up and congratulated the boy and his embarrassed father and said, “A terrible decree was hanging over us. The Rabbis with all their prayers and their learning could not prevail with God as had the young shepherd in his ignorance. His whistle pierced the heavens and erased the decree. His whistle saved us, because it was sincere and came from the very bottom of his heart, where he feels love for God even though he doesn’t know or understand why.”
This is without doubt the most famous whistle story in the Jewish tradition and as such, I couldn’t help but be reminded of it during the praying this month with Women of the Wall at the beginning of the month of Elul. I’m a relative newcomer, having joined only in the past 6 months but this month’s experience could only be described as surreal.
On one hand, 3000 young yeshiva girls fill the women’s section to an overflow. They are there to keep us out and we can’t hear them but I don’t doubt that their prayers are quiet and sincere. Next to them, on the men’s side the Rabbi of the Wall has decided that on this day, God apparently may have difficulty hearing their prayers, so he has given a microphone and speaker system to one of the worshippers and turned the volume up so loudly that it can be heard not only in the men’s section and in the heavens above it, but especially where the speakers are focused, to the public plaza behind the men’s and women’s sections where we have been allotted a space by the police.
Here we are, 300 strong, praying and singing from the prayer book put together by the women’s group which is composed of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform women. The prayers and singing are beautiful and if all the competition for God’s attention was the speaker system, it would have been a fair contest. However, now enters the fourth group that is praying today at the Wall. They are composed of maybe 300 ultra-orthodox men attempting to express their own passion by imitating the Baal Shem Tov’s shepherd boy by blowing dozens of whistles at a volume designed to make sure that heavens entrance will have room only for their appeals.
Enter the police, who decide that they will push the whistle blowers back out of our face, to create a little space between the two groups, and also to confiscate a few of the whistles.
So now, in this the holiest site of the Jewish people, the competition for God’s ear continues and at full volume. God in her role as judge remains quiet, but I believe that she would give the most points to the yeshiva girls and to the Women of the Wall and not just out of identification with her feminine side.
Finally the service comes to a close, and Anat Hoffman, in honor of the beginning of the month of Elul, lets loose a tekiah from the shofar that in the words of the rabbis would raise our prayers up to God with a blast.
Women of the Wall want to be able to have a full women’s service in the women’s section near the Kotel. Their struggle is the struggle of all of us who believe that Judaism has many voices and that the way to create a Democratic Jewish State can only be through the acceptance that these are all valid and sincere, and that none of them contain all of the truth.
We men who come to pray with Women of the Wall stand next to or in a good month, behind the women. It’s a frustrating experience to stand in the plaza behind the women’s section, standing on tip toes to see over the divider that separates us. However, I know how important it is that women and men who come to the wall see that it can be different, that women can pray aloud, and can read from the Torah. Perhaps most importantly these women can lead us to an understanding that we may be different – men, women, orthodox, secular, reform but that we are all equal in God’s eyes and maybe next month in her ears.
Matityahu Sperber is a member of the Board of the Israel Reform Movement and is the Chairperson of the Steering Committee of The Israel Religious Action Center