Out Loud

The women of the wail

04 May 2012 By Ruby Ong

by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


Just as the so-called “War on Women” has become a major issue in American politics, it appears likely that it will be prime subject in the upcoming Israeli campaign. Pundits and politicians from around the world, including Hilary Clinton, have joined Israelis in questioning continued segregation, discrimination and humiliation of women in the public sphere. The images of females being shunned on buses and spat at on their way to school have generated an outcry even among Israel’s most solid supporters, and they’ve found their way into the mainstream media, permeating the pages of The New York Times and the airwaves of CNN.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands that the treatment of women is a ticking electoral time bomb. Although most of the coverage of his March speech at AIPAC dealt with his use of Holocaust imagery and the Iranian nuclear duck, something he said at the very end of the speech got one of the loudest ovations:

And as prime minister of Israel, I will never allow anything to threaten Israel’s democratic way of life. And most especially, I will never tolerate any discrimination against women.

While the prime target of feminist scorn is typically the haredim, there is more than enough blame to go around. Secular leaders and police have tacitly accepted the increased humiliation of women because of coalition politics and simple apathy, but also ostensibly out of respect to ancient traditions. Funny, I don’t recall where the Talmud states that women need to ride in the back of anything. And nowhere do Jewish sources suggest that there should be gender segregated HMO clinics, banks, elevators, grocery stores and pizza parlors, and a corner snack shop in the Bukharian quarter of Jerusalem that has a side entrance with a sign marked “women only” (as reported in ”Excluded, for God’s Sake: Gender Segregation in the Public Sphere in Israel”).

That “respect for ancient traditions” is overrated.

Maybe this tipping point of outrage will bring about a change in attitude that, for too long, has tolerated the intolerable.

A new form of exile

Since 1989, the Women of the Wall, a prayer group consisting of women from all Jewish streams, has been denied the basic right that every Jewish group should have: the opportunity to pray peacefully at Judaism’s holiest site. The Kotel should be for everyone. Sadly it is not. As one committed to egalitarianism and inclusiveness, I’ve long since stopped bringing my congregation groups to the Kotel Plaza to pray together. Too many scary experiences have led us to the Robinson’s Arch area, which is the Kotel’s equivalent of the back of the bus – though also a beautiful and peaceful spot.

Who said the back of the bus can’t be comfortable?

It’s the same Wall, but an area that can only be used by appointment, and it is clearly not the place that people think of when referring to the Kotel. For Jews from the liberal streams, to visit the Kotel these days is to experience a new form of exile at the very moment of supposed return. The Judaism that we grew up with is not accepted in the singular place that was intended to be for all of us, our courtyard of ingathering. Historically, the Kotel was never a synagogue, nor should it be one now, much less a place that excludes the majority of Jewish congregations from praying as they normally do. But even if it were a synagogue, what synagogue have you ever seen that sanctions people throwing everything from verbal abuse to chairs to excrement at women?

I recall my first visit to that holy spot, on Tisha B’Av when I was 16, on a summer teen tour. In ancient times, the Kotel was the Temple’s outer, retaining wall, the place where all the people could gather, from the largest to the small, sheep and pigeons in hand, before arriving at the inner courtyards where degrees of separation set in. The Kotel has always been a festival of earthy democracy for the plain folk: the sweaty Herodian-era laborers who moved enormous slabs of rock; the late-Roman period artisans who scribbled joyous graffiti from Isaiah; the dying whispers of medieval pilgrims, having reached their long-sought final destination; the teary paratroopers in ’67; and the final breath of my grandmother, who never got there. At the Wall, the Jewish body beat with one heart.

When I first came to the Kotel that Tisha B’Av, I saw a white dove about halfway up, glowing in the light, perched on a nest of moss. I quivered with recognition of the Shechina, God’s most manifest and loving presence, sent to that very spot to weep with Her people among the ruins. For centuries, that legend and that weeping bound motionless stones to a yearning nation. Now the stones have lost their heart — and strangers beware.

The courageous Women of the Wall continue to stand their ground. Each month on Rosh Hodesh, they pray in the women’s section of the main plaza, at least for a while. In order to read Torah, they then descend to Robinson’s Arch. And they do this in an atmosphere of intimidation and abuse, some of which is tolerated by the police, reminiscent of the anti-Semitism faced by Jews over the centuries as they sought only to pray in their little shtiebels in peace.

‘Why do they hate us?’

A few days ago, I received an email from Allison Green, a congregant of mine, a proud and committed young woman who is on a fellowship in Jerusalem this year. She decided to attend the Women of the Wall’s service last week for the first time, on Rosh Hodesh Iyar. With her permission I’m posting her stunning, distressing email here with minimal editing, because it is a reminder to us all that the things we have come to accept – or overlook – can appear incredibly shocking when seen through fresh eyes:

Hi Rabbi Hammerman,

How are you? I’m so sorry that I have been so out of touch all year. I’ve been meaning to email you since the fall and suddenly now, it’s late April. However, I’ve also been meaning to attend Rosh Chodesh services with Women of the Wall since the fall, but that did not happen until last Monday.

I have a friend on Otzma who just moved to Jerusalem and started interning for Women of the Wall; since she now lives across the hall from me, I had no excuse not to join the group the other morning for what would be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

We arrived at the Kotel a bit early and found a few of the organization’s board and staff members at the back of the women’s prayer section; they welcomed us with open arms and were extremely excited to meet the organization’s new intern. As 7:00 am rolled around, more and more women showed up, and we were all handed the new (and almost finished) Women of the Wall siddur for Rosh Chodesh. Apparently, the women who brought these for the group had problems getting the books into the Kotel complex, as security guards argued that 7 siddurim was a large number and broke some rule instituted by the rabbi in charge of the Kotel. Still, they were somehow able to bring the books in and distribute them.

Next, the policemen hired by the organization for our protection showed up. This was our cue: those of us who had them took out our talises and kippot. The first Orthodox woman to come up to us simply asked what blessing we say when we put on the talis; the second woman asked if our talises keep us warm; and, so, the heckling and harassment continued. Mind you, the policemen were there for our protection, but also to make sure that we did not break any laws; they filmed everything from the minute they arrived at the Kotel to the minute we left for Robinson’s Arch to read Torah. Still, before we even started praying, the Orthodox onlookers were not our only problem.

The police told a young woman next to me that she was wearing her talis incorrectly, according to the rabbinical courts, because rather than wearing it like a scarf, as women are apparently supposed to do, she wore it as a prayer shawl. Some women thought they did this because she has led services before and would be doing so again that morning. Others thought it was because Orthodox women were saying things to us and the policemen felt the need to do something. Still others said that this particular young woman often gets a lot of grief because of her alternative haircut and piercings. I think that it may have been a combination of all these things. However, I also think that it was because those of us who were wearing talises were wearing very feminine ones, regardless of which style it was (simple shawl or the one you fold over the shoulders), but she was wearing a traditional white and navy talis which you fold over the shoulders.

Regardless of the reason for their singling her out, she told the policemen to stop looking at her. The rest of us gathered to surround her so she could lead the service. Meanwhile, the police talked to their superiors on their radios and cell phones. There seemed to be a very good chance that our chazanit would be arrested at any moment.

At this point, I felt my muscles tense and my jaw lock; my eyes, open wide, darted from one policeman to another. I found myself hiding in the middle of the crowd of women, right next to our chazanit. I shrank into myself and my generally decent posture ceased to exist. My shoulders were closer to my ears than I thought was humanly possible and I slouched so much that my back hurt.

The concern over our chazanit only intensified when she alone, or all of us together, sang and prayed out loud. However, my own fears and discomfort quickly dissipated. The louder we sang, the taller I stood; the further into shacharit we prayed, the bigger my smile (and everyone else’s) grew. The policemen tried telling us that we were forbidden to sing, but they soon seemed to gather that there was no stopping us.

Throughout the service, more and more women and girls joined us; some came ready with their tallises, others had no idea what was going on, but felt inclined to become part of the group. Tourists, seminary girls, and pious Kotel regulars stared at us as they entered the female section and approached the holiest Jewish site of today’s world. A few young men stood on chairs to see us from their seemingly endless side of the mechitzah. We could hear husbands, brothers and friends behind us, standing in the main part of the plaza in order to show their support and pray with us.

Upon finishing Hallel, the organizers told us we would grab our stuff quickly and then walk to Robinson’s Arch together for the Torah reading. But, before we moved, we said the Prayer for the Women of the Wall. As I read the English translation, all I could think was “this prayer belongs in every siddur, everywhere; in every Jewish day school and Hebrew school classroom.”

Finally, we quickly grabbed our things and sang and clapped our way to Robinson’s Arch. Tourists waiting in security lines, who probably had no idea what we were doing or that we were breaking any laws, clapped along with us as we passed.

Since we could not bring a Torah into the Kotel complex, it was waiting for us in the archaeological park. We set down a table cloth and talis over a stack of ancient Jerusalem stone bricks and laid the torah down. It was as if this pile of bricks was left just for us as a lectern for the Torah. The organizers asked that the men and boys who joined us to step to one side, so that the women could have the “front row seats.” The entire Torah service was conducted by women. It was followed by a quick Musaf and then an oneg and dvar Torah. As I was already late for work, I grabbed a few almonds and was on my way.

As I made my way out of the Old City, to a bus stop, and to my office on the other side of Jerusalem in Talpiyot, I could not stop thinking about what I had just done. I felt so empowered and rebellious, part of something so important and special, I wanted the whole world to know. Instead, I just smiled to myself, knowing that my morning made a difference in the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel, a cause that I continue to work so hard for as the Public and International Communications Fellow at Melchior Social Initiatives.

When I settled in at work, I opened the internet to find the headline “The Real War Against Women” near the top of my homepage. I immediately clicked and was redirected to Why do they Hate Us? The Real War on Women is in the Middle East. As I read, I felt my feminist high of the morning come tumbling down. While the article concentrates on Israel’s neighbors, which is for another email and conversation entirely, there was one quote, attributed to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that struck me: ‘”Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me…. But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.” This resonated so deeply with me because she’s right: whether we’re talking about the Taliban, the Christian right in the US, or the hareidim and Chief Rabbinate of Israel, they are all patriarchal social movements which seek to unjustifiably and irrationally control women with burkas, trans-vaginal ultrasounds, and a monopoly over religious expression in the Jewish State, which is supposed to be the only democracy in the Middle East.

I could go on, but I need to get back to work and do not want to take another week to actually send you this email.

I hope all is well and I look forward to seeing you when I come home this summer.

Best,
Alli

I read Alli’s words and shuddered. Why are women treated so harshly, so many decades after they were supposedly liberated? What craziness guides the thinking of supposedly sane men, who blindly follow what they misconstrue to be God’s wishes? How long will the politicians endorse extremism and tolerate hate?

I’ve always loved the Kotel. And yet, now, as the global War on Women plays itself out in Israel, the Wall has become a locus of strife rather than unity.

How lonely sit the stones of the Kotel. The dove is gone.

The Shechina has left the building.

It is up to us all to welcome her back.


This article was originally published in The Times of Israel and is reposted with the author's permission.

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