Old new moon, new moon/Vanessa L. Ochs

By Vanessa L. Ochs

Vanessa L. Ochs is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia. She was a faculty member this summer in the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel. She is the author, most recently, of “Inventing Jewish Ritual” (JPS) winner of a National Jewish Book Award.

Rosh Hodesh Av this past July was my first time praying in Jerusalem with Women of the Wall. It was a quiet time, compared to the month before, when two women were detained for wearing prayer shawls, and the month that came after, Elul, when four women were arrested on August 19th. The prayers of Av took place without a bump; in Elul the women ended up taking their Torah to the police station just inside the Jaffa gate and prayed in solidarity with the four held inside.

As the month of Av approached, I did not know what would or would not transpire.  That is the situation of Women of the Wall these days, being in state hovering between guarded serenity and agitation. Perhaps this is a state known to hostages who sometimes trust the humanity of their guards. I shall return to this matter later.

I have been one of the directors of the International Committee for Women of the Wall, a supporter from  its beginnings, so you would think I was a Rosh Hodesh regular.  But no. You could attribute my absence to happenstance;  brief trips to Israel that came and went without a new moon, and without the motivation to keep lingering in Jerusalem, I’d be back in Virginia.

I can tell you this: I’m not the only one who doesn’t rush to pray at the Wall, the only one who collects reasons for opting out. It may be on every tourist’s list, but religious Israelis have their own synagogues for prayer and secular Israelis have no reason to show up, unless there is a special ceremony, say the swearing-in for new soldiers enlisting in the army or  the beginning of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial Day.

For me, there was the matter of the Wall being a giant outdoor gender-segregated right-wing Orthodox synagogue.  There was the status of the place: was it a holy site or the major attraction of a Holy Land  theme park, as much a simulation as the “Wailing Walls’ set up in Jewish nursery schools and Jewish community centers  complete with paper, pencils and cracks for inserting prayers. There was the need  to interrupt prayer in order to dodge endless request for alms; perhaps this is even worse for men subject to being lassoed by the bestowers of tefillin, the ones who ask, “You Jewish?”

I’d rather hover in the distance as an anthropologist at the Wall. This is my life policy, why my profession has  chosen me well: better to observe than to be aggravated and pushed into despair.  At the Wall, I’ll gaze at little dramas of piety and family celebration, watch bouncy yeshiva boys displacing pent-up energies upon their sorties from the study hall, or marvel how the scantily clad female tourists, clinging to the modesty wraps the guardians had imposed upon their tops and bottoms, make as much as they can of the funny little challenge they take on of walking backwards from the Wall in their kitten heels.  Or I’ll watch the brown-snooded woman who prays at the Wall for the coming of the Messiah, not with words, but with her pail of sudsy water, squeegee and rag, preparing the way.

Why have I cast my fate with Women of the Wall then, all these years? I was asked to help by Jewish feminists from America and Israel who were spiritual, political and scholarly mentors.  The cause remains just and important; whenever  women’s rights are violated in Israel, on busses or on the street, my resolve is affirmed.  Even when the process keeps breaking my heart.

I finally went to the Wall to pray. Rosh Hodesh Av. I pressed through my discomforts in the service of a fine educational goal.  I was on the faculty of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel.  My  26 American teens, I discovered, were agonizing over the question of whether they have the right to criticize Israel from afar, the same way my friends and I used to stress ourselves out  in the late sixties asking:  “If American and Israel went to war, who would you fight for?”   Praying with Women of the Wall, I could demonstrate to my students that, yes, I believe that  Jews who live outside of Israel can be “good friends of Israel” not just by affirming  the government’s current policies, but by lending  a hand, helping to shape the soul of a young nation with good advice as it works out the kinks.  Whether or not my students ended up deciding if the goals of Women of the Wall (to pray aloud as a group, wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah) were worth fighting for, they could witness one American Jewish teacher putting in her two cents by standing for up for women’s rights  and open access to holy places. That was lesson one. Lesson two fit right into their curriculum on Jewish pluralism:  they would see Jewish women of diverse religious backgrounds who had figured out how to pray together as Women of the Wall and still remain, more or less, on speaking terms.

Covertly (well, not now), I wished for support from the girls who would join me and from boys who were willing to hover as spiritual protectors in the back of the women’s prayer circle, or just over the mechitza. They would help me contain my awe for the heroic local Women of the Wall who have been praying together so courageously for decades of new moons.  Their presence would cause me to temper my  anger at a nation whose legal codes define women’s worship  practices at the Wall by the very terms used  to describe the types of sins one repents for on Yom Kippur:  the avon, the chet.

Being a responsible adult in their presence would keep me from hasty civil disobedience. Not that I had anything particular in mind, but who knew what I was capable of, if provoked?

Before our visit, my colleagues insisted that security needed to be addressed.  With Av falling during Ramadan, they were particularly concerned that there be adequate police presence.  There would be: the police set up a little outpost for the occasion.  But I knew Ramadan wasn’t going to be the issue for Women of the Wall. True, the police are there to keep the women safe by keeping an eye on those who choose to cry out hatefully as the women pray.  I hesitated to add this, but needed to:  the police are also the ones who decide if and when the women will be harassed and arrested.  Whether there is action or tolerance for facts on the ground, it is in the police’s hands.  They decide what kinds of prayer shawls are permitted or forbidden, and they decide whom they will tell to wrap her prayer shawl around her neck as a muffler. They could decide if they wish to silence the praying women if their voices become exuberant. Are the police on the ground acting as autonomous religious arbiters? I am not so sure.  They certainly are serving as the agents of the Western Wall Foundation, which has been allowed by the state to govern what is permissible at the Wall and what is not.  Who is on the other end of the phones the police hold, telling them what to do, when, and to whom? Who is watching the footage of the women who are under total surveillance, videoed as they pray?

Ramadan was peaceful and we were set to go.

I arrived early in advance of my students and in advance of the Women of the Wall, with my colleague Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum. The day before, she and one of the students had asked about wearing the tefillin they don each morning. I checked into this. Apparently, there is no law against women wearing tefillin at the Wall and thus, it is technically permitted even though some of the regulars presumed that was not the case.  But the practice of the group has been to postpone donning tefillin until the group reassembles at Robinson’s Arch for Torah reading. I suggested that our group would do best to follow conventional practice and not heat things up, even though I was told that women were free to make their own choices.

Slowly the group assembled and it was time to greet each other “ Hodesh tov” for the regulars, my students, other youths, and visitors who had come to pray as a group of women in the very back of the Wall.  Copies of the group’s Rosh Hodesh prayerbook were distributed. The leader of Shacharit, wearing a traditional tallit, was nestled tightly into the middle of the group.  I put on my flowery and colorful Women of the Wall tallit, bought years ago, uncertain whether to wear it as a tallit or as a neck decoration.  I saw that all women wearing untraditional tallitot were wearing them in the regular fashion and the police showed no reaction to them.  Because of that, though with some hesitation, I signaled to the girls who were with me that we could probably do so too. The psalms of Hallel were sung exuberantly, not exactly loud, but far from whispery either, and I was surprised that the police did not hear this as a transgression.  The police did shoo away women who stood on the edges of our prayer, especially older lady who was moved to sing along and wave her arms heavenwards to the refrain of our prayer.  Eventually, when they spotted one of the women in a traditional tallit, they mimed tying it in a knot around the neck, saying this would be their last warning. Seeing their strangling gesture, she complied. All the time, a police officer was videotaping us; I could hardly stop thinking about the kind of constant surveillance Foucault has written about, in which the power of the state, through a constant gaze, disciplines the bodies of its citizens.

We processed to Robinson’s arch, a nearby historical site where women may pray unhindered, all along singing, a little sad parade of exile.  Those men and boys of our group who had stationed themselves  just over the mechitza reported that the police had dealt with the man who shouted out that the Women of the Wall were worse than the Amalakite enemy, and with the men who claimed that it was the rabbi of the Wall who had instructed them to curse the women.

Along our way,  the group was singing its regular “travel music” from the Psalm “Ozi V’zimray Yah” (My strength and the song of God will be my salvation)  (http://www.rabbishefagold.com/OziVzimratYah.mp3). That’s what my mouth was singing, but my heart was singing the sad song of the upcoming Tisha B’av, the fast of Ninth Day of Av,  recalling the Babylonian exile, “ Al na’harot bavel:” (By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and remembered Zion).  One of our students had been delegated to bring over the Torah we would use to this juncture, and I thought of  the ancient Rabbi Yochannan Ben Zakkai, who to sustained his students after the destruction of the Temple only by going outside of Jerusalem , carried, as the story goes, in a casket.

Once we were assembled to read the Torah, I was honored to have an aliya and so was Rabbi Nussbaum. I was pleased that our students could witness our aliyot and empathize with the complexity of our feelings. Some weeks before, I had been asked to give the dvar Torah (brief lesson on the weekly portion of Torah) at the Kiddush that followed afterwards. It happened to be in honor of my first and only teacher of Jewish pedagogy, Dr. Barbara Wachs, who had died some years ago in Israel while saving the life of a drowning child.

For the days before, I had struggled over what to say in this dvar Torah that hadn’t already been said before and emailed the Women of the Wall sisters in America to share ideas. Rivka Haut wrote that the coincidental connection between the Daughters of Zelophehad  in the Torah reading and the women of the Wall was prophetic! Indeed, the story concerned five strong sisters who had joined forced to come before Moses and the elders to oppose the laws of inheritance that denied the rights of women. Wrote Haut, “…this Tisha B’Av, we mourn not only past destruction, but the lack of proper leadership. WOW’s struggles to pray as Jews, in that holy space, highlights the tragedy of today, when Jewish women have to struggle against the leaders of Israel, both religious and political,  to obtain our rightful inheritance. “

Standing on a plastic chair and holding someone’s outstretched hand for balance, I said that I used to think that the story of the Daughters of Zelopehad was not only one of the happiest in the Bible but it was also like many children’s stories. The Daughters were were fatherless orphans.  They started out unhappy with the status quo, they relied upon their own resources, and they trusted justice, even if it has to come from a supernatural source.  God’s will to be just to all trumped the existing tribal laws and the women were entitled to inherit land.

In my understanding the story, the Daughters pursued  social justice, changing their social system to provide for equity.  Their strategies for a more just society were heard by the highest authorities of their day, men  who  came to recognize just how flawed the system was,. The Daughters  organized, presenting their claims in a unified voice, expressing solidarity and resolve. They divided the work equally according to the talents and passions of the individuals. They were fluent in the policies and mechanisms by which social change happened. They knew their audience and could speak to their logic. They aimed for good timing, knowing you have to seize moments most  hospitable  to change and innovation.  In all these ways,  the Women of the Wall have acted as their ancestors, the Daughters did.

Of course, it is not an altogether happy story if you look carefully.  Men appeal God’s equal opportunity judgment. The Daughters can be legitimate heirs, but they must marry their cousins, meaning that female agency is ultimately trumped by male tribal power.   It is hard not to see the parallel to 2003, when the Israel Supreme Court ruled that women did have the right to pray at the Wall, only to allow Shas and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to press for what has come to be the current situation of disgraceful intimidation at the Wall.

Happy to hop down from my chair, I concluded my little oration with an appeal to my students and to all the young women and accompanying men who were among us that morning.  I told them that when I first became one of the organizers of Women of the Wall, I had wondered if my daughters could celebrate their bat mitzvahs at the Wall. Each came of age and it was still not possible. I have a granddaughter now, and she will soon turn four. Will it be legal for Jewish women to pray as Jews at the Wall when she comes of age? I could only be optimistic about that possibility  only if there were young people to develop new strategies for securing the rights of women at the Wall and beyond.  What strategies did I have in mind? Not bringing the matter to the Israeli Supreme Court:  done, and dragged on over years.  International petitions, letter writing campaigns, done. Meeting with the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, with the leadership of Hadassah, the world’s largest association of Jewish women: done. Books written, articles in newspapers, magazines, CNN coverage,  social media, facebook:  done too.  I was looking for strategies that hadn’t yet been invented.

The next day I was in the city Tsfat, housed in a dreary hotel that had no charms other than a porch which overlooked a stairway which religious men in a range of garbs used to get from where they lived to their synagogues. On  that porch, monitoring the climbing, I thought about how unsettled my experience at the Wall left me;  I was seized by a kind of fretful vertigo.  It was not caused by belated anxiety over the possibility that my students could have been arrested for praying aloud and their parents would have to be notified; that was a done deal, it had been a quiet day. It was the constant surveillance we underwent as we had prayed, the intrusiveness.  It was one thing if God watched and discerned the hearts of supplicants.   Without sufficient equilibrium to attend the day’s prayers, I got out my camera, and spent the morning in surveillance.  Click, click, click.  If there were a crime committed in Tsfat that day, I could document each man unknowingly captured by my camera. My exercise in reconnaissance was a soothing, a retaliating ritual that at least got me out of my room.

As I have said, four Women of the Wall were arrested this past Sunday on the Month of Av. One was wearing the white—that is, untraditional—tallit she wore in her home synagogue for daily prayer; the arrest blindsided her.  According to reports I had received, the women were detained for hours at the police station. Their sins were,  “Disturbing the public peace according to regulation 201 A4 of the Israeli legal code, the punishment for which is six months in prison, and the violation of regulation 287A by performing a religious act that ‘offends the feelings of others.’ The punishment for the second crime is up to two years in prison.”  I was reminded of something my grandmother once said when she caught my husband juggling; “You have time for this?”  I made a note for myself: next time I am in Jerusalem, I shall stop by the police department to let them know that if they continue to have extra time and need to raise funds by levying fines, they  might want to know that Maimoinides declared that tallit with Gods name’s or a verse of Torah beautifully  embroidered on it in silk was a profanation and was prohibited.  A few rounds each morning through the men’s section of the Wall, where this kind of gold or silver threaded decoration is widespread, could keep a whole police squad busy.

On the Facebook page of Women of the Wall, one person asked if “this”—meaning the criminalization of women who pray as Jews do– has ever been contested.   Yes, as a matter of fact, yes: it has been contested since the  late 1980’s when Women first came together with a  Torah scroll to pray there.  One of my students, Sophie, wrote me with great energy, and I found her letter heartening:  “I was planning to write a piece for my blog on my experience in Israel encountering sexism/women’s rights activism, and really want to include something about these arrests in my article. I think it is really important for people to know about and I want to spread the word in any way I can.”  I hope she will, and in ways that actually make the difference that has not yet been made.


3 thoughts on “Old new moon, new moon/Vanessa L. Ochs”

  1. Yashar kochech. How appropriate that your d’var Torah was in honor of Barbara Wachs, z”l, since she was herself a Woman of the Wall during the year that she spent in Israel.
    It would be great if someone could put a picture of her on this page. There’s one in the Chesler/Haut WOW book.

  2. I was a Hebrew School student at Temple B’nai Zion in Bloomfield NJ in the 1950s. I took a candid photo of Saul and Barbara Wachs standing near the synagogue. If you send me an email address, I will send a copy to you, or… at least, I will try.

  3. I learned only recently of Mrs. Wachs death in Israel. It made me want to find out more about her on the web and that brought me to this site.

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