The following comes from the February 2013 bulletin of my congregation, Temple Isaiah www.templeisaiah.net The responses that I have heard from my congregants affirms my understanding that many are not aware of (at least the full extent of) the situation and status of women in Israel in the public religious sphere. It also affirms my understanding that we care and are outraged. This bulletin article comes on the heels of sermons and teachings, but, in many ways, is still the beginning of the conversation.
My love of Israel is deep as I know it is for so many of you. My concern for Israel’s well-being and her people’s well-being is equally as deep. At a time when Israel is routinely attacked, it can be difficult to express anything critical of her actions, but there are times when our love and care must turn from protection to challenge. It is out of my deep love and commitment for our homeland that I offer my concern about the role of progressive Judaism in Israel and the place of women in the public religious sphere. In many ways, Israel is a more egalitarian country than most Western countries. Golda Meir became Israel’s fourth Prime Minister in 1969, which makes it all the more difficult to accept and allow the illegality of women’s public prayer at the most sacred of all sites to the Jewish people, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
When I lived in Jerusalem a number of years ago, I made it a point to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each new Hebrew month, with an extraordinary group of women. At 7am each Rosh Chodesh, I would make made my way to the Western Wall in my long skirt and long sleeves and join a group of women that spanned age, nationality, and Jewish denominational background.
Once we were all gathered, we would pull out our prayerbooks; someone would take the lead and we would begin to pray as a group. As the heckling began, we would lean into one another for mutual protection. A woman not of our group would begin to yell at us that what we were doing was inappropriate. She would call us Reform Jews (an insult) or Christians (another insult). She would shush us, but we would just sing louder.
That is often when we would begin to hear the heckles from over the fence that separated the female from the male section. They would scream, Had we no respect for God? Had we no respect for halacha (Jewish law)? If we were lucky, insults would be all that was hurled. Chairs and stones have also found their way from the men’s side over to the women’s.
Why was this simple act of praying such a defiant one? What was the problem here?
The problem was and continues to be that women are not allowed to pray freely at this site that is sacred to all Jews. Our gathering was disturbing the public peace (no matter that women make up the public, too). We were breaking not just custom, but law to pray out loud lest our female voices distract the men from their prayer. Our tallitot and kippot, ritual garb traditionally reserved only for men, were illegal.
Those days when a woman would smuggle a Torah scroll stuffed in a duffle bag into the Kotel square were the days that often moved us far beyond heckling into what felt more like war. Fights have broken out over Torah scrolls as men have tried to pull them out of the arms of women.
Women of the Wall, the group that is attempting to fight this fight in the public sphere as well as the courts, has been engaged in this battle for over 24 years. They dream, as I dream, of a pluralistic vision for the Wall, one that honors all Jews as opposed to just one faction of Jewry.
Women who pray with Women of the Wall have been detained and arrested intermittently over the years, but there has been a particular crackdown lately with at least a detainment or an arrest nearly every month since June.
New procedure has dictated that women be searched at the gates and not allowed into the Kotel square if they have a tallit or a kippah on their person, ritual items that we take for granted in our community. If they want to enter, their prayer shawls must first be confiscated.
As of the writing of this article, there has been some good news. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, responding to outrage to this situation from Jews the world over, has appointed Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to head up a commission to look at this issue and determine if any compromise is possible; compromise including the allowance of certain times when women’s prayer is sanctioned and not only in a secondary location, but in the public sphere. It has been reported that Netanyahu told Sharansky that the Western Wall “must remain a source of Jewish unity rather than division.”
My fears and concerns are great regarding the issue of women and the Western Wall. I am worried that Jewish women are being short-changed their heritage. I am worried that Judaism in Israel automatically equals Orthodox Judaism. I am worried that diaspora Jews, especially young ones are becomingly increasingly distanced from their homeland due to a variety of reasons, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The suppression of the rights of women at the Kotel is further pushing young Jews away from Israel.
Tremendous work in this area is being done by Women of the Wall as well as by the Israel Religious Action Center – and we can be a part of that work. Our potential to make change is great. Our voices raised together led to Netanyahu’s appointment of Natan Sharanksy to review this issue and it is absolutely crucial that we continue to make our voices heard. Our most holy of sites belongs to all of us and we must not be afraid to not only dream of, but to demand an approach to the Wall that deems it a place for all of us to pray, no matter if we identify as a Reform Jew or a traditional one and no matter our gender.
Rabbi Jill Perlman