Thursday, September 17, 2015

Blowing the Shofar at the Kotel (Western Wall)?


(adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's introduction to the Shofar blowing, 1st day of Rosh haShanah 2015 / 5776) 

 The year was 1929. It was the holiday of Yom Kippur.  The Jewish community of Jerusalem, though constituting the majority of the city population, was as usual given only begrudging permission to pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Jerusalem.  

The Western Wall was under control of the Waqf, the Muslim religious authority of Jerusalem.  And there were strict guidelines about how Jews could pray there.  It was basically -- at the risk of using a trivializing example -- similar to how our congregation gathers for Shabbat in the Park.   They could gather there informally, but could not leave anything at the prayer site.  Prayerbooks, chairs, benches, all needed to be brought on that day and removed upon the conclusion of prayer.

And there was to be absolutely no blowing of the Shofar.  Ostensibly, this was because the Western Wall was in a residential neighborhood and it would bother the neighbors. But interestingly, there was no such restriction on the call of the Muezzin, the Muslim call to prayer.  And there was no such restriction on church bells.  Only the sound of the shofar.  But the British authorities who governed Palestine at that time acquiesced and criminalized the blowing of the shofar because it could antagonize the relationships that were in such a tight balance.

And yet -- Jews gathered at the wall each year for Yom Kippur.  It was deemed too hazardous to try to blow the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah, because of the repeated Shofar blowing that is necessary on Rosh HaShanah, so Rosh HaShanah prayers would happen elsewhere. But considering how much of the Yom Kippur ritual centered on the Temple in Jerusalem, it seemed that it was worth the risk.  For all the years between 1929 and 1947 - immediately before Israel became a state -
the sound of the Shofar could be heard at the Kotel in Jerusalem at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, even though it was illegal to blow the Shofar there.

The shofar blowers tended to be teenage boys - then as now a group of people who may be more likely to take risks than the general population.  They knew that this task could be hazardous, and would sometimes lead to spending the night in jail, or longer. They would arrive with the shofar hidden in their clothes.  Often a few shofar blowers were appointed so that if one was detained, another would be able to blow, or so that if the British police arrested one young man mid-blast, another young man could continue the sound.

The blowing of the shofar is unique in that it is one mitzvah that absolutely cannot be performed in secret.  So Jewish law addresses the questions of whether one can blow the shofar into a pit or into a barrel.  And the stories of the Jewish people are full of accounts of people blowing the shofar even when it was illegal or dangerous to do so -- in Inquisition-era Spain, or during the era of the Shoah --  or at the Kotel during the period of the British Mandate.

Several years ago, many of the surviving shofar blowers gathered together at the Kotel to remember what they had done - recalling the risks, but also recalling how their deeds gave inspiration to a community that a despised and oppressed people could rebuild.  (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIfLbkx4ZIM for a video of that gathering and interviews with the shofar blowers.)

We will read about the various meanings of the sound of the shofar.  But among them is the simple fact that the volume of the blowing of the shofar is a proud announcement:  I am allowed to be where I am.  I belong.   It reminds us to express gratitude to live in a time and place when there are no such restrictions, where our freedoms are protected.

Today, Jerusalem is a place where the sounds of the muslim muezzin, the sounds of church bells, and the sound of the shofar coexist regularly.  As it should always be -- in a place that is holy to three major faith traditions, where all three major faith traditions belong.    

And yet this year also saw actions of religiously inspired violence - murders in synagogues in Jerusalem and Copenhagen, and in a kosher supermarket in Paris; murders of secularists and public figures in Paris and Copenhagen; firebombing of a church and of mosques in Israel; murder of a marcher in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade; religious violence of horrific magnitude in Syria, in Nigeria, and in so many places around the world.  Crimes where the victims were of all religions and no religion; crimes where the perpetrators were of all religions and no religion.

Another message of the blasts of the shofar is that, according to Biblical texts, it would accompany great acts of liberation.  The Book of Leviticus tells us, with regard to the Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25):  תעבירו שופר בכל ארצכם --- “You shall sound the shofar throughout your land,” וקראתם דרור בארץ לכל יושביה -- “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all its inhabitants.”  May the shofar sound herald freedom for our world, bringing us closer to the vision of peace we have dreamed of, a vision in which the muezzin, church bells, and shofar sounds forge a beautiful and complex harmony throughout the world.  

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