Looking Beyond the Surface / Ali Cohen

By Allison Cohen

Alli Cohen is a rabbinical student attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The first year of the program is spent at HUC’s Jerusalem campus.

For me, visiting the Kotel is a reminder of the divisions within our Jewish people. Instead of leaving with the idea that we are one, pluralistic Jewish peoplehood, the borders between each denomination are heightened. From this, I continue to feel deeply frustrated with the peoplehood I wish we could be, especially in a land that was created for the Jewish people as a whole.

Still, attending the Women of the Wall Rosh Hodesh services has been a great learning experience and addition to my year in Israel. One of the first courses I have had in my HUC Year in Israel program, Biblical History, has taught me to question the intent behind every action of the Jewish people. We have studied the many conflicts of our history and the techniques used by our people to preserve our cultural identity when living in close proximity of others. Studying the archaeological remains is one way we have been able to examine the lifestyle of our people and the ways they interacted with other cultures.

Anthropologically, it has been observed that throughout history, as the interactions between the Israelites and Philistines intensified, “the process of boundary maintenance intensified, [as] each group stressed the habits that were different from those of the other group (cf. the processes described by Jones 1997)” (Faust and Lev-Tov 20). For example, pork bones have been used to determine what type of people lived in certain areas. Another example of boundary maintenance may be seen with pottery. It was common for Philistine pottery to be ornamented and decorated with birds while Canaanite pottery was often plain. Still, while we can attempt to identify the people behind the different types of pottery, we must not fail to recognize the purpose behind each pottery item.

Currently, the Kotel police are allowing women to use colored tallitot for praying at the Kotel but not those representative of traditional, Orthodox tallitot which include black and white stripes. Why should a tallit’s color be a focal point during time of prayer? By doing this, we devalue the purpose behind this sacred piece of cloth. Similar to the pottery of the past, we can choose to observe merely the surface of the items, or we can choose to identify their purpose. While the Israelites and Philistines distinguished themselves through design, they both used the pottery for identical functions. Distinguishing between a black & white tallit or a colored tallit completely misses the point all together. After all, what are some of the purposes of using a tallit in prayer? As the tallit holds the tzitzit tassels, one answer is to remind us to do mitzvoth and remind us of our responsibilities (Commandments) as Jews. Others use it because they feel it enhances their spirituality and connection to G-d while praying. Nevertheless, among the Women of the Wall, the tallit is being used for these moral intentions. Tallitot are not just worn as if embellishment, they are used as a tool for prayer.

This past week, four women who wore black and white striped tallitot were detained. If we look past the color of a tallis, beyond the surface, it’s as if they were punished for prayer…Is that what G-d wants of us…to be punished for prayer?

You answer that!

Anat Hoffman & Alli Cohen – WOW Rosh Hodesh Elul


Works Cited:

Faust, Avraham, and Justin Lev-Tov. “The Constitution of Philistine Identity: Ethnic Dynamics in Twelfth to Tenth Century Philistia.” Oxford Journal of Archaeology (2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.): n. pag. Print.

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