By Rabbi Elan Adler
It depends who you ask.
Some would say a “Shanda”. I would say a “Kiddush Hashem”. Can’t be much farther apart than that.
Over the years, I can’t say I’ve been particularly attuned to Women of the Wall, except to say that I’ve read about the prayer groups at the Kotel and the legal battles and protests. Even as an Orthodox rabbi, I always reacted sympathetically to the cause, feeling that sincere women praying together and lifting their voices to God at the Kotel have at least as much right to be there as men.
I host an Arutz Sheva radio show every Wednesday from 2-3 pm called The Derech Eretz Hour. The concept of the show is to highlight courtesy, decency, ethics, sensitivity and compassion as a way of making our religion and our God look really good to the world. In my weekly introduction to the show, I stress that personal piety, along with exemplary behavior, make each of us a worthy vessel of God’s presence. During the show, besides emphasizing derech eretz, I also speak out on issues that reveal a lack of it.
So, I decided to do a show on Women of the Wall, because I wanted to hear more about the kinds of physical and verbal abuse the group has had to endure. I felt it was important for my audience to hear of the profane reactions to the women, much more sacrilegious than any possible line they thought the women were crossing.
Rachel Yeshurun Cohen, a neighbor in Maale Adumim, put out an email about the upcoming WOW tefillah for Rosh Chodesh Adar 1, we were in touch, and she gave me some names of people to contact for an interview on the radio show. Candidly, Rachel was quite surprised that Arutz Sheva would air such a segment. She also arranged for rides from Maale Adumim to the Kotel, and I was one of her passengers. She put me in touch with Emily who was extremely helpful and whom I looked forward to meeting at the Kotel.
I was fortunate to interview Batya Kallus on the show, whose articulation of the goals, struggles and triumphs of Women of the Wall was indeed impressive. I looked through the book “Women of the Wall” by Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut to find several quotes from Batya, who brings honor to the cause. She also described the often anguished gatherings at the Kotel, with verbal and physical attacks from across the mechitza as well as by women spitting at them before leaving the Kotel. By the end of the interview, I was more determined than ever to go see the tefillah group myself, and to be a personal witness to what unfolded in the women’s anticipation of a deep, spiritual connection at the Kotel.
Those of us in Rachel Cohen’s car parked near the Damascus Gate and walked through the Moslem Quarter until we arrived at the Kotel.
I stood behind the partition between the plaza and the very back part of the women’s side of the Kotel. There appeared to be dozens of women, singing, swaying, some with a Tallit, some with a Kipah, all united in heartfelt prayer. As I looked through the holes of the partition, I imagined what it must be like to be an Orthodox woman, sitting in the ezrat nashim of the synagogue, having to contort this way and that to get a decent view of the other side. I appreciated the guards, both near me and near the women, who made sure to keep things calm. I found myself agitated at a large group of yeshiva students on the men’s side, who were singing loudly and with great fervor, but who assumed that they were the only ones that morning at the Kotel. They were certainly louder and more co-opting of the Kotel space than the women’s voices could ever have been- why didn’t anyone stop them?
I appreciated the combined voices of the women’s tefillah group, a sound I don’t often hear as an Orthodox rabbi. I had a strong feeling their voices were reaching a special place. I left at the end of Hallel, impressed and moved, and grateful that the women didn’t have to deal with a lack of derech eretz. As I walked away, Emily caught my eye, and introduced me to Batya. The circle was complete.
I walked away feeling proud of WOTW, for the spiritual way in which they carried themselves and lifted their voices, and for coming this far over 20 years. The journey, of course, is far from over, as there are those who feel in their marrow that WOTW is a shanda. Count me in as one who feels in his marrow that WOTW, and valuing women’s spirituality as much as we do men’s, is a slam dunk Kiddush Hashem.
Rabbi Elan Adler’s website and blog, and connection to the radio show, can be found at http://www.elanadler.com/