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The question of who is a Jew in Israel has been superseded by the dilemma of how a Jew can pray at Judaism’s holiest site.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.
If you do organize a Rosh Hodesh rally I have 2 recommendations: put it simultaneous with Israeli Rosh Hodesh celebrations, which means accounting for the time difference (7 hours currently, to change on March 8?)
And: please make sure that the speakers deal with the subtleties of the issue. Women with full ritual garb is a delicate issue because Jewish men (like women B”H) have for centuries prayed for the ability to pray at the Wall (and eventually serve at the Mount), and for centuries believed we cannot pray in presence of the opposite sex. They may even believe that men praying to G-d keeps them and their testosterone off the streets and out of trouble. Look at it from the male point of view: Now since 1967 Jews finally control the Plaza and the Wall, and wha’ happens? There’s women praying there and Hareidi men believe they can’t. Testosterone freed up to cause problems, and the olam is tikkun’d all the less so for it. (conceded point: supporters of the movement include soldiers who liberated the site. But this isn’t relevant to my argument). It bears emphasizing that NONE of this means that women shouldn’t pray at the Wall, in talliot, tefillin, reading from Tora scrolls, and surely not arrested for it. It only means that women’s prayer at the Wall is an issue that begs for a solution acceptable to both sides, and not for the bashing of either side (Your post deserves credit for making your points forcefully but respectfully). This especially true in setting where we can let Muslims and not Jews up on the Mount, and work out arrangements with Muslims at Machpela (The appointment of Natan Sharansky to lead the search for a solution is a hopeful sign, given his skill as a unifier in Israel).
The other subtlety involves Galut-Israeli relations. Many supporters of Women of the Wall are of the liberal Jewish movements (as you mention). Many members of these movements have no intention of ever even visiting Israel, let alone making aliya (for whatever reason). They have a right to their opinion, including support of Women of the Wall. But male or female, they’ll never pray there themselves. They may have a religious stake in the issue, but should not overplay their personal stake. This is a subtle but important distinction.
I wonder if I’m right on one fact: you mention only women’s desire to wear religious garb at the Wall. I believe they also wish to have Tora services there. If I’m right (likely, b/c my mom was among those in the campaign last year to post pictures of women holding Tora scrolls, you should put a clarification in the Advocate.
Thank you Judy, for your clear and passionate piece about Women and the Wall. Finally, I understand the controversy. And as you say, the Wall is a holy site for all Jews, whether liberal or orthodox, whether a resident of Israel or a diaspora Jew. For a liberal Jewish woman, wearing a prayer shawl is an affirmation of her faith. I particularly liked learning that 15 men, all orthodox are the ones who make these decisions. That makes dialogue impossible, and without dialogue how are we to come together? And isn’t that what life’s about, listening to and learning about the other?