D’var Torah in Honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Women of the Wall

Shabbat Birkat Ha-Hodesh Kislev Women of the Wall
Paula Jacobs
Temple Israel of Natick, MA
Nov. 2, 2013
It was just one month ago on Friday morning, October 4th that I was in Jerusalem welcoming Rosh Hodesh Heshvan with the Women of the Wall at the Kotel. The group has received significant media attention lately, and I know that many of you have been following what’s happening in the American and Israeli press.
Before I describe my experience and share my thoughts, let’s review briefly some historical background.
Women of the Wall, or נשות הכותל in Hebrew, is a group of Jewish women from around the world who strive to achieve the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Each month they welcome the new month at the Kotel.
Twenty five years ago, in the morning of December 1, 1988, a group of approximately seventy women approached the Kotel with a Torah scroll to conduct a halakhic women’s prayer service. As no provisions for Torah reading existed in the women’s section, they brought a sefer Torah, stood together, and prayed out loud. Many wore tallitot. The service was disrupted with verbal and physical attacks from Ultra-Orthodox men and women who screamed, cursed, and issued threats.
That was then. In the years since, there’s been ongoing harassment, violence, arrests and legal appeals to the Israeli Supreme Court. Finally in 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the Women of the Wall had a legal right to pray — but at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site next to the Kotel.
Things were relatively quiet until four years ago on Rosh Hodesh Kislev, when the police arrested a young Israeli medical student for the “crime” of wearing a tallit at the Wall. Meanwhile, confrontations and arrests continued, while synagogues and other Jewish organizations began holding solidarity events.
Throughout 2012, the police continued to arrest and detain Women of the Wall supporters for disturbing the public peace, for which the punishment is six months in prison. At one point a decree was issued forbidding women to enter the Western Wall plaza with Jewish holy articles, tallitot, or tefillin; police confiscated these items before women could enter the plaza.
In recent years, there’s been increased pressure from synagogues and Jewish organizations in the diaspora which have organized solidarity rallies in support of Women of the Wall. In light of increased pressure, last December, Jewish Agency Chair Natan Scharansky was asked to come up with a feasible solution to satisfy all parties.
In April 2013 the Jerusalem District Court handed down its decision in Israel Police versus five members of Women of the Wall who had been arrested for allegedly disrupting the peace. Judge Moshe Sobel stated that there was no cause for arrest and that the women did not disturb the public order.
The battle continues to this day — and the Women of the Wall continue to fight for legal recognition to wear prayer shawls, read from the Torah, and pray out loud at the Western Wall. Most recently, the Women of the Wall presented a list of 16 conditions, under which they would agree to meet at the egalitarian section at Robinson’s Arch rather than at the women’s section in the main Western Wall plaza. Whether a compromise solution can be achieved remains to be seen.
That’s enough with the history lesson. I know that some of you sitting here are asking yourselves, “Why should we in America care about Women of the Wall?” That’s a good question.
Admittedly, for many years, I paid little attention to the Women of the Wall. I dismissed them as a small group of North American and British women — mostly Conservative and Reform — who were trying to make a point. My attitude was basically, “What’s the fuss? There are many wonderful egalitarian services in Jerusalem so why should I pray in a place I find uncomfortable; most Israelis couldn’t care less so why should I?” But I have come to change my position.
Now let me share my own recent personal experience and why I believe that the Women of the Wall matter to each and every one of us sitting here at Temple Israel today.
It was a beautiful Friday morning in Jerusalem. Around 5:30 AM, David and I started walking to the Kotel. The sun was just starting to rise and the Jerusalem sky was magnificent. It was a picture perfect day. I was dressed in my frum long denim skirt reserved exclusively for Jerusalem.
I was excited but my enthusiasm was tempered with trepidation. As we walked down from the Jewish Quarter, we saw a large group of IDF soldiers being briefed. We knew about the physical violence that had occurred in the past and wondered what would be in store that day.
David was carrying a tallit bag with two tallitot — one tallit hidden inside another. Why?
My cousin advised us to do so. She said that I should not carry a tallit in case police confiscated it at the security check— and if they saw two tallitot, they would come to the obvious conclusion. Although the police had stopped seizing women’s tallitot in recent months, there was no predicting what would happen on a given day.
We made it through security, although there was a tense moment when a policeman asked me whether I belonged to Nashot HaKotel. I left David at the Kotel Plaza, made my way to the women’s section, and put on my tallit. Never was I so mindful of the act of donning a tallit.
The women’s section was already crowded with hundreds and hundreds — the media actually reported thousands — of Haredi women and teenage girls who had been bussed in that day, ostensibly to offer prayers of healing for Rabbi Ovadia, the Shas leader who has since passed away.
Our group consisted of approximately 200 women of different ages and religious backgrounds. Some had participated in this group for years; for others, like myself, it was a first-time experience. Before the service began, we were told that if we were provoked, simply to respond, “Hodesh Tov.” Our prayer leader was the Hazzan from Hebrew Union College; her beautiful voice set an inspirational tone for the service.
It didn’t take long before the disruption began. No, no one threw apples, oranges, or chairs at us. If you have been following the issue or saw the Women of the Wall documentary that was shown at our community selichot service a few years ago, you know what I mean.
I was standing in the first row, eyeball to eyeball with Haredi teenage girls who were facing our group. I concentrated on my siddur. I don’t think I ever prayed so hard.
Standing there facing a sea of hostile women, suddenly prayer became an act of defiance. Although I didn’t think about it consciously at the time, afterwards I realized how much it was about protecting my rights. Although I grew up in a highly progressive Conservative congregation, not until I was an adult could I be counted for a minyan or read Torah.
The Haredi girls started squeezing us in, moving away from the Wall, talking on their cell phones, mocking us, cursing us, and taking pictures of us with their cell-phones. Then the screaming and yelling began.
The more and louder they screamed —and apparently the noise level reached a record high that day — the more fervently and louder we prayed. Simultaneously, in the men’s section, the voices got louder and louder to drown us out. I understand that the only time the loudspeaker system is used in the men’s section is when the Women of the Wall come to pray.
Someone asked me whether I was afraid. The truth is these attacks provided inspiration to pray more fervently. Despite the noise, I don’t think I ever prayed more intently or focused more on the words of the prayers. At one point, when I was kissing the tzitzit during the v’ahavta, an older Haredi woman glared at me with such venom that I thought she might punch me in the face. So I just prayed louder. Meanwhile more and more policewomen came to separate “us and them.”
What I did resent that as we recited key prayers, such as the Sh’ma and the Hallel, the verbal attacks grew louder in volume. It felt very disrespectful and I truly felt violated.
I don’t think I ever davened the Hallel with such kavanah or intention. I simply cannot describe how beautiful and meaningful the prayers were, despite the hostile atmosphere all around. As a young JTS cantorial student and I discussed, we never thought praying at the Kotel could be so meaningful.
We ended by singing the Hatikva with a powerful show of force. The police then escorted the Women of the Wall out onto bullet-proof buses as protection from physical violence. One Haredi man was arrested for spitting. So began Rosh Hodesh Heshvan.
Why am I sharing this story and why do the Women of the Wall matter to us as Conservative Jews in America?
First, I want to make this crystal clear. My intent is not to bash the Ultra-Orthodox, their beliefs, and religious practices.
Picture for a minute the Kotel. If you have visited Israel, you may be thinking about your first visit there. Many of us sitting here can remember watching on television the poignant footage of Israeli paratroopers reclaiming the Kotel during the Six-Day War. Others have seen the photos. The image of the Kotel is a powerful and evocative symbol for Jews worldwide.
Please ask yourself the following: In 1967, when the Israel Defense Forces reclaimed the Kotel was it for only certain types of Jews? We need to remind ourselves that the Kotel is a holy site to Jews all across the entire spectrum of religious beliefs and practices.
Now reflect on the ongoing violence at the Kotel. Think about this the next time you visit Israel and make the choice to pray there.
I realize that some people may argue that the right of women to wear tallitot and read from the Torah runs counter to what has become “local custom” at the Wall. However, in its April 2013 court ruling, the judge declared that the women are not violating this law. Moreover, he stated that the “local custom” is to be interpreted with National and pluralistic implications, not necessarily Orthodox Jewish customs.
The custom of the place has evolved since 1967 when we won back the Kotel. At the same time, the traditional divide in Israel between secular versus Orthodox has also evolved. Young, secular Israeli Jews are now seeking meaning in Judaism rather than Eastern religions, and are finding their places in egalitarian synagogues and minyanim.
The issue is not just about the right of women to pray at the Kotel — but is much broader in scope. There are important implications for Conservative Jews who love Israel.
The issue is about religious freedom. It’s about our right to pray as Jews as we wish. Tomorrow we mark Rosh Hodesh Kislev. In a few weeks we will celebrate Hanukkah and our religious freedom as Jews. Yet, as Conservative, egalitarian Jews,
we are unable to exercise full religious freedom at the Kotel.
The issue is about the relationship between the State of Israel and those of us in the diaspora. Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and Director of the Engaging Israel Project, talks about the need for a new covenant between Israel and world Jewry based on meaning. If as American Jews we are to be meaningful partners with Israel, it’s problematic when the Kotel, which is such a powerful symbol to world Jewry, comes into conflict with these values.
It’s about mutual tolerance, respect, and civility. In their struggle for women’s rights, the Women of the Wall are opening the door for greater mutual tolerance.
Rather than “us versus them,” both the Ultra-Orthodox and the champions for religious pluralism must learn to become more tolerant of each other. It’s a great learning opportunity and one that also applies to how we relate to those whose views on Israel do not conform to our own. Instead of raising our voices, let’s learn to listen respectfully and try to understand the other side, even if we don’t agree.
Finally, here’s what I learned by davening with Women of the Wall. The rabbis taught about Yerushalahim shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of our dreams, and Yerushalayim shel matah, the earthly Jerusalem, the Jerusalem as it exists on earth with its problems and where it’s less than perfect.
If we focus exclusively on Yerushalayim shel ma’alah — and continue to put on blinders when it comes to Jerusalem, then we are blatantly ignoring the harsh realities that exist in Jerusalem today as exemplified by the Kotel clashes.
On the other hand, if we focus exclusively on Yerushalayim shel matah —and just see the negative aspects of Jerusalem, then we don’t allow ourselves to envision what the Holy City of Jerusalem could be as a fulfillment of our dreams.
The Kotel is the emblematic symbol of Jerusalem where, as Jews, we have directed our prayers and yearnings for centuries. The challenge is to reconcile the two Jerusalems, the real Jerusalem as we know it today and the ideal Jerusalem of our dreams and spiritual aspirations.
We have a huge task ahead: If Jerusalem is truly to fulfill our dreams, we, as American Jews connected to Israel, are obligated to become partners with Israel, fulfilling what Hartman calls a new covenant.
We have much work ahead to make Jerusalem a better place — a holy makom that truly reflects our values and a place where we can feel God’s holy presence. Let’s each ask ourselves how we can personally work in partnership with God to achieve this goal.
As we lift our prayers towards Zion, the Holy City of Jerusalem, let us fervently pray that the Kotel not be a symbol of what divides us as Jews. May this sacred site reflect our Jewish values and become a symbol of Jewish unity and peace predicated on respect, tolerance, and civil behavior.
Only then can we truly view Jerusalem as Yerushalayim shel ma’alah — the Jerusalem that embodies our dreams — as a place where Jews of all kinds, including those of us living in the diaspora, can feel welcome and comfortably pray in peace, without fear, according to our own customs.
In the words of a slogan popular a few years back, HaKotel l’Kulanu, the Kotel belongs to us all. I hope that we may soon realize this dream.
Shabbat Shalom v’Hodesh Tov.

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