What passes for contraband at the Kotel—the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site—both saddens and flummoxes me. If you are a woman praying on the postage-stamp sized real estate relegated to us at the Wall, you are forbidden to wear a tallit—a traditional prayer shawl or tefillin—the leather phylacteries worn during morning prayer. If you are a woman attempting to pray at the Western Wall, you must do so quietly, unobtrusively, so that even God must cock an ear to hear your petitions.
Once a month a group of women gather together at the beginning of the new Hebrew month—Rosh Chodesh—to reclaim their rights to practice Judaism as they see fit. They are known as Women of the Wall and the most risqué thing they do is to wear religious garments that have escaped a guard’s notice or been handed off to them by men. True, these women are from the more liberal branches of Judaism. Many of them, though not all, are Americans. There’s also inevitability to these gatherings. The women pray wearing a prayer shawl or phylacteries while Israeli police officers cool their heels waiting to arrest them after the service. Arrest at the Wall, interrogation at the police station, and then dismissal of all charges. That’s the drill.
So why was this past Rosh Chodesh ushering in the month of Adar different from previous months? Two reasons. Included among the group of 200 who came for the monthly assembly were some of the paratroopers who recaptured the Wall from Jordanian control in 1967. And this time Rabbi Susan Silverman, a close friend and mentor of mine, and her daughter Hallel, were arrested at the Wall. Along with eight other women they cycled through the usual arrest, interrogation, release rotation with the caveat that they not return to the Wall for two weeks. That means that they will be back just in time for Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the month during which Jews will celebrate Passover, the quintessential holiday of freedom. This irony of timing is obvious, but too tempting not to point out.
The question of who is a Jew in Israel has been superseded by the dilemma of how a Jew can pray at Judaism’s holiest site. When Rabbi Silverman was arrested she told the media that her detention was tantamount to “spitting at Sinai.” Specifically, the people spitting at Sinai are the ultra-Orthodox who, with Israeli taxpayer’s money, run the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The Wall, which belongs to Jews all over the world, is managed by 15 men who presumably have or had mothers
What makes this fight for the right to congregate and pray all the more poignant is that Women of the Wall is not advocating for egalitarian prayer per se. As Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairwoman recently told the Forward, “Women of the Wall is fighting for a change in the ‘women’s section’ at the Kotel. The organization’s petition to Israel’s Supreme Court, filed six weeks ago, would dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the space.”
This is an important distinction. Women of the Wall understands that the prayer areas in front of the Wall will remain bisected for the foreseeable future. The men’s side will be boisterous and celebratory while the women silently pray. All the women are asking for is the right to wear traditional Jewish garb if they choose, as an expression of their faith.
I don’t think we can stand idly by anymore in a world where a woman’s tallit is confiscated at the Kotel. We cannot stand for women being arrested because they choose to outwardly demonstrate their covenant with God. A prayer rally is being planned in New York City on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, which falls on Tuesday, March 12. It’s time for Jewish women all over the world to stand in solidarity with our sisters in Israel who will risk arrest and humiliation at the Wall that morning.
It’s time for the Jews of Boston to plan a rally too. Perhaps we can commemorate Rosh Chodesh on the steps of our synagogues or temples. Or maybe it’s as simple as attending a morning minyan that day with kavanah or the intention that things must change for our daughters and the daughters of those 15 men who have hijacked the Western Wall in the name of a God who surely must disapprove of their misogyny.