Women and The Wall


Over the past few months, I’ve used this space as an opportunity to discuss a what it might mean to “have it all, spiritually” and my own personal struggles with connecting to communal prayer with my family in tow. Rather conspicuously, I avoided fully discussing the role a place can play in helping to lift mundane thoughts into fulfilling prayers. Mainly because whenever I think about it in the context of the country I live, it makes me feel like this.

Love it or hate it, the Kotel provides a powerful symbol of Jewish spirituality (and peoplehood). The Western Wall of our ancient, destroyed Second Temple remains the traditional physical place we direct our prayers. Jewish scholars like Judah HaLevi composed longing poetry about it. Synagogue architects perform miracles to try to ensure our sanctuaries point towards it. Nonetheless, for many Jewish feminists, the Kotel can represent the suppression of prayer, not its ascension.

But last Thursday, Israeli District Court Judge Moshe Sobel upheld a Jerusalem Magistrate Court ruling; he stated that “there is no reasonable suspicion that the [Women of the Wall representatives] violated a prohibition in the law governing holy sites.” This signals a seed change. It validates and empowers women to pray openly, communally, and in traditional prayer garments at the holiest of Jewish sites.

In response to this ruling, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz – the Western Wall’s head rabbi – expressed an important anxiety. He worried that this would turn the Kotel into a site of “antagonism between brothers.” Indeed, I feel the same disquiet about the Western Wall’s recent history; although, perhaps for different reasons. I fear that preventing half of the Jewish population from fully participating in their religion at their holiest site will create animosity between siblings; it is grievous and unjust that sisters cannot use the same avenues to seek spiritual fulfillment as their brothers. Furthermore, in a world in which girls see young women steadily attaining parity with their male peers in almost every other aspect of their lives, how can they love a religion that doesn’t? And why would their mothers encourage them to?

My daughter and the Kotel

Be happy and Shout out its Adar!

Be Happy its Adar!  Happy Rosh Hodesh Adar!

This month is considered one of the happiest months of the Hebrew Calendar.  It is said:  Those who welcome Adar increase joy and happiness in the world!  For it is in this month we celebrate the survival of Judaism despite another attempt by someone, this case Haman (may his name be erased) to annihilate us.   Fortunately, Haman did not succeed and we are here to celebrate and boo his name when we hear it during the reading of the Book of Esther on Purim, which this year we celebrate on February 23 & 24.  When I read the Book of Esther I try to remember how amazing it is that we have a whole book of the Hebrew Bible named for and featuring one woman, a rare but not exclusive situation.  Ruth exists as well.  It is easy to look at this book and dismiss Esther’s role in the story as that of a patriarchal stereotypic view of a woman especially because it was her physical attributes that got her to a place where the males in her life directed her behavior.  I personally was always more drawn to Vashti than Esther because it seemed that Vashti had more spunk, drive and courage.  I have always been amused that the authors of this text saw Vashti’s refusal to do what she was told as a threat to the very structure of their society and their place in it. They worried that other women would hear of her refusal and would make “their husbands contemptible in their eyes”  Esther 1:13-22.  But Esther can be viewed in another way, the ultimate insider who could have ignored all issues around her while living her life in the relative ease she has obtained.  But instead Esther risked it all to do what she had to do.  She recognized the power she possessed and used it to save her people.  We can admire her resolve and especially her patience in getting the King warmed up before she pressed for his support in saving her people.  Her story gives us much to admire, her book gives us great insight into the workings of the minds of our ancient authors and yes, it gives us a fun wondrous holiday to celebrate.  But I know that we cannot always use her methodology to press for things we believe in today.

 As I write this post today nine women were detained for committing the crime of trying to pray as a group covered in their prayer shawls at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  There are many who think that their act of civil disobedience is distracting from more major issues confronting Israeli society.  There are those who think that they are involved in a struggle that does not resonate with Israeli society because the Kotel is just not so important.  There are those who think that this is only a “Diaspora” issue, not a “real” Jewish issue.  There are those who don’t want to be identified with these “fringe” women because they want to stay solidly in the mainstream.  But those who wish to belittle this struggle are missing the point that it is not just a struggle about a place to pray, rather it is a struggle about the strength of women’s voices and presence in Israeli and Western society.  This is a struggle about whether the world will truly support a woman’s right to be an equal participant in society.  This is a struggle about a woman’s right to express a strong opinion and not be labeled as “confrontational” or “bitchy”.  This is a struggle for all people who are on the fringes of society having a right to still express themselves in the mainstream.  Yes women could pray as a group in other less public sections of the Old City of Jerusalem by why should they have to?  Why should only one type of religious authority be recognized?  Why is it that accommodations can only be made for the religious extremists of one type?   Today the Israeli police waited until men (including members of the paratroopers who liberated the Kotel in 1967)  who were supporting the Women of the Kotel left before  they grabbed nine women and detained them.  In prior confrontations the police were physically rough with the women they detained.   This action against the Women of the Kotel is an affront to women and is an attack on women’s rights and not only at the Kotel.  If this struggle for a woman’s right to pray with her peers at the Kotel is lost, it will be easier to chip away at other women’s rights issues.   It will be easier for religious authorities to continue to control marriage laws in Israel.  It will be easier for religious authorities to pressure women to conform to stricter religious standards of dress, where they should sit on buses, the number s of children they must have, the streets they can walk on and they marriages they must stay in.   It will be easier for people outside of Israel to reverse decades of progress for women in other areas as well.  This “small” issue has big ramifications for the status of women in society as a whole. 

As we rejoice in this month of Adar, may we remember all of our sisters and brothers who are crying out to have an equal voice in our world and may we help give voice to their struggle.  May the month of Adar bring joy and gladness and peace to us and to our world.    

A Statement from our Women’s Rabbinic Network Director on the arrest of Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall

The Women’s Rabbinic Network deplores the recent actions of the Israeli police, Israeli government, and the religious and administrative powers of the Western Wall, in the detainment, arrest, and imprisonment of Anat Hoffman, on Rosh Hodesh Heshvan, this past week, for wearing a tallit and praying the “Shema.”  She was accompanied by hundreds of women participating in the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

Women of the Wall’s efforts over the past 25 years, to create a gathering place for prayer for women of all denominations and beliefs, is a singular one in the Jewish world.  The arrest, imprisonment, and cruel treatment of Anat Hoffman, a founder and organizer of Women of the Wall, and director of the Israel Religious Action Center, is an affront to Jews everywhere. It is a condemnation of the values of religious freedom and tolerance. The Western Wall is not, as some believe, an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. It is a symbol of Jewish peoplehood and sovereignty, a Jewish home that must be open to all people, a religious site that must protect the religious rights of anyone who wants to pray there.

For the past 3 years, since the arrest of Nofrat Frenkel on Rosh Hodesh Kislev 5770, November 18th, 2009, police and governmental response to the presence of Women of the Wall’s prayer service has increased. Police now routinely remove women from the prayer service, bring them to the local police station, detain them, fingerprint them.  These actions are deplorable anywhere, especially in the State of Israel. Women must not be treated as second class citizens.  Any efforts to silence women at the Wall, to discourage our attendance on Rosh Hodesh, will be met with continuous resistance and renewed commitment to participation in prayer services at the Wall, out loud and with great strength.

We will never submit to the efforts of the authorities of the Western Wall to silence the voices of women.  On this occasion of Hadassah’s centenary celebration, in which the efforts of women to build the Jewish state are highlighted, it is a crime to see a woman arrested for a behavior which so many women take for granted everywhere except in the Jewish homeland.  The Reform movement and the Women’s Rabbinic Network support the efforts of Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center to challenge the status quo at the Western Wall.  The most meaningful response to this offense is to renew our commitment to women’s services at the Western Wall. As it is states in Isaiah 62:1:

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.

We recommit to our efforts to make Israel, Jerusalem, and the Western Wall a place of safety and security.  We will continue to fight to have an Israel that is truly an embodiment of our hope for a Jewish homeland that stands for freedom, justice, and peace, a true democracy that values the participation and religious commitment of all Jews.

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, Director, Women’s Rabbinic Network