Ask your average Israeli how he or she feels about the Women of the Wall—the organization dedicated to creating a space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall for non-orthodox women’s prayer and song—and you’ll likely be met with a shrug. The organization, led by activist Anat Hoffman, has become a cause célèbre for Reform and Conservative Jews worldwide. But many Israelis, even lifelong liberals, academics, and civil rights activists, largely view the fight to wrest back control of the Western Wall as a fight over symbols they’ve long ago jettisoned. It’s a loud thing, a brash thing, an American thing.
The Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the kotel, is the last remaining section of the retaining wall that surrounded the Second Temple. In the centuries since the temple was destroyed in the year 70, Jews from outside Israel have yearned to pray near the wall as the holiest physical space on earth. The plaza in front of the wall is bisected with a partition so that women and men can pray separately, in accordance with Orthodox Jewish tradition. The rules governing the Wall are set by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, comprised solely of Orthodox Jews.
On any given day on the men’s side you’ll hear boisterous public services and song. On ordinary days, on the women’s side—in keeping with the Orthodox prohibition on hearing women’s voices raised in song—you can hear women praying softly by themselves and to themselves. But once a month on rosh hodesh, the celebration of the new Jewish month, the Women of the Wall show up to do their thing. That’s what they are asking for: An hour a month.
Dalia Marx, an Israeli Reform Rabbi and professor at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem put it this way to me as we took the early morning train yesterday down to the 7 a.m. monthly women’s prayer service at the Western Wall: “The kotel is almost an empty symbol of a lost Israel to most Israelis. It’s not a place I go to pray anymore. It’s so highly politicized on so many levels.” I ask Marx why she’s decided to attend this month’s gathering, given what she’s just told me. “I am going in solidarity. I am going because my Israeli and American students are going. I am going because the fight over Ultra-Orthodox coercion is a reflection of their control over things that really should matter to all Israelis: like personal status, marriage, divorce, and who can be a Jew.”
In the decades since Israel was founded, the Western Wall has somehow become a sacred place to only two constituencies: the extremely Orthodox and foreign Jews. You rarely see anyone else around. It’s as though even secular Israelis have conceded that religious matters are best left to the Ultra Orthodox. This isn’t really their fight.
Marx and I arrived just as the 200 women were gathering and starting to pull out smuggled prayer shawls and leather phylacteries—which they are prohibited by law from using at the site. Orthodox law holds that wearing these items while praying as well as reading the Torah scroll as part of the service is customary for men but not women, although the Women of the Wall follow the Orthodox strictures of eschewing mixed prayer and declining to recite any prayers requiring 10 men to be present. The problem is not what they are doing, in other words, but where they are doing it. The current law here only permits prayer in accordance with Orthodox Jewish customs at the site.
On this morning dedicated to celebrating the first day of the Jewish month of Adar, several women had had male friends sneak their religious garments past guards who have taken, in the past two months, to confiscating these items at the checkpoints. Others have hidden them inside their clothing. Some of the women have been coming to the women’s monthly service at the Wall for more than 20 years. In fact, one of them, Rabbi Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi who wears her prayer shawl or tallit, when she prays each morning, attended the very first women’s monthly prayer service, almost 24 years ago to the day, where the women were met with violence, hurled chairs, and tear gas. In the years since, Orthodox Jews have gone to great lengths to ensure that women are not seen and not heard in the Holy Land—not just in sacred spaces, but on public buses, sidewalks, and radio.
Silverman (disclosure: she is a friend), her daughter, and eight other women were arrested yesterday for wearing their prayer shawls at the wall. They were held and interrogated, then released without criminal charges but barred from returning to the holy site for 15 days. This has become pretty standard. Arrest, interrogation, no charges. In fact, Susan changed transatlantic travel plans to be at the women’s service at the Western Wall, largely because her 17-year-old daughter, Hallel, planned to be here and planned to wear her tallit. Hallel, I should tell you, was in Rwanda with her father last week, testing a solar field for a youth village that suffers from frequent blackouts. She’s a gorgeous blonde who is about to begin her military service. I, personally, would not opt to mess with Hallel.
There is one strain of thought in Israel that holds that the women who insist on praying and singing here each month are simply provocateurs. The law is the law, they say, and this action is not legal. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which has total control over the worship space, told the New York Times in November that the wall “is not a site for any kind of protest” and “not a place for the individual, where everyone can do what they want.” I’ve seen these gatherings compared to forcing peanut butter on those with allergies. In more than one instance the women themselves have been blamed for the violence they incite.