July 12, 2010…1:58 pm
Praying with my Feet
There’s an old joke: A prominent woman has an audience with the President in the Oval Office. The President offers to let her use the “G-d Phone,” a phone line that connects directly to G-d. The woman picks up the phone, and talks to G-d. A week later, the President sends her a bill for a thousand dollars, which she pays with pleasure. After all, she got to talk directly to G-d.
Years later, the woman is visiting the Israeli Prime Minister and notices a similar-looking phone in the office. She asks if it is a direct line to G-d and the Prime Minister says, “Yes,” and offers her use of the special phone. She accepts, has another conversation with G-d, and sits down to write a check for a thousand dollars.
“Don’t worry about it,” the Prime Minister shrugs her off, “It’s a local call.”
As a teenager, I found that joke funny and, fresh off the plane from my own moving Israel experience, true. Trekking through Israel’s deserts and swimming in its waters, learning its history and meeting its people, I had never felt closer to G-d.
Now, in Israel again, hearing this joke stings. It’s a slap in the face. Yes, there are many avenues to experience G-d in Israel, from its natural beauty to the ease with which one can mark Jewish time and experience Jewish community.
It is also one of the most complex and heartbreaking places in which to try to be a progressive Jew, or a proud Jewish woman, as I tried to be today.
This morning was Rosh Chodesh Av, and for months I knew where I would be at 7 a.m. You all know that there are only a few things important enough to make me get up at 6 a.m., and this morning I woke up without my alarm at 5:45. I put on a skirt and sneakers, grabbed my tallit and siddur and bakbuk mayim (water bottle), and walked across town to the Kotel to celebrate the new month with Women of the Wall.
I’ve previously only prayed with WOW on Purim, when their actions are considered less objectionable (after all, on Purim, Israelis let their children smoke and their men wear dresses). This was my first opportunity to see firsthand how the women’s prayer group–which adheres strictly to halacha (Jewish law)–prays, reads Torah, and celebrates Rosh Chodesh in the face of harassment and, sometimes, violence.
One challenge I sometimes have to traditional prayer is that much of it is done silently or in a low unintelligible mumble. Given the opinion of the haredim that “a woman’s voice is lewdness,” I was concerned that this would be a quiet, rushed prayer service rather than a joyous celebration of life and G-d’s goodness, like it should be.
But even with the constant reminders of a police officer to keep our singing volume to a minimum–I naively thought that he was there to protect us from being harassed by the haredim–much of the service was sung proudly and sweetly, by women wearing tallit and kippot.
One of the greatest challenges I have had praying during this month was that a terrible cold had completely robbed me of my singing voice. Singing, for me, is an integral part of praying, and being involuntarily silenced made me think a lot about those women who NEVER have the opportunity to pray out loud.
Somehow, though, as we reached hallel, the collection of psalms that celebrate G-d’s goodness at the beginning of the new month, my voice returned. It was softer, thinner than it usually is (which is probably good, as if I had been able to sing in my full voice I most certainly would have been arrested), but it was there.
The sweet sound of women singing was almost overshadowed by the cacaphony from the other side of the metal mechitza. Some of it, I later realized, was actually the mournful tunes used for prayer at the beginning of the month of Av, in which we commemorate the destruction of the Temple, though I imagine the sheer volume of it was not unrelated to our presence.
One voice rose louder than the others, though, belonging to a white-bearded man standing on a chair on the men’s side. His head and upper body was wrapped in a tallit, tefillin protruded from his forehead, both physical reminders to love G-d in every moment and every action. Between his responses to the male leader’s prayers, he screamed at us in Hebrew. I only caught snippets of what he said.
At one point, another man shouted at us in English (I was not sure whether he was translating for the bearded man or shouting his own obscenities). There were some shouts from haredi women, mostly related to our wearing tallitot, but not many. The police officer circled the crowd and reminded the women that tallitot had to be worn around our necks like scarves.
There were comparisons drawn between our joyful singing, the destruction of the Temple, and the crimes of the Nazis. There was a claim made that our prayers were particularly offensive since Av was a solemn time (even though they were praying the same prayers on the other side). And, most ironically, the one phrase I caught from the bearded man was sinat hinam, which is what the rabbis blame for the destruction of the Second Temple. Translation? “Senseless hatred.” Says the man screaming at a group of women peacefully praying.
Although I felt safe, surrounded by a group of women as male supporters looked on from the other side of the mechitzah, I trembled when we sang of G-d’s kindness and mercy. There was a clear dissonance between the shouts of hatred from the men’s side, the rising ire of the police officer who would ultimately arrest Anat Hoffman, and our refrain of hodu l’Adonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo: “Sing praise to G-d, for G-d is good; G-d’s kindness endures forever.”
Particularly moving was when we sang Pitchu Li, some of which I’ve translated below:
Open the gates of righteousness for me/ that I may enter them and praise the Eternal/ This is the gateway to G-d–/ the righteous shall enter through it./ I praise You, for You have answered me,/ and have become my deliverance./ The stone that the builders rejected/ has become the chief cornerstone./ This is G-d’s doing;/ it is marvelous in our sight./ This is the day that G-d has made–/ let us exult and rejoice in it (From Psalm 118).
This image of reversal of fortune was at once a prayer of gratitude and a hope for the future. I have freedoms and gifts that many do not have, but there are many who are still not free, even in this, the Jewish homeland.
And here is what happened next (if you just want to see the scuffle, it’s about six minutes in):
Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, took out the Torah and led a procession to the approved site for our Torah reading. Although it has been months since she has attempted to take out the scroll while still in the Women’s Section, she ordered us to march slowly, singing loudly, to our designated space at Robinson’s Arch.
We never got there.
Once we were through the security gates and OUTSIDE of the Kotel Plaza, Anat was arrested and the Torah scroll taken away. Nofrat Frankel, who was arrested in November for the same crime (“performing a religious act that offends the feelings of others”) was knocked down in the struggle.
We followed Anat to the police station. Several members of the group wrapped tefillin as we prepared to finish the Torah service, without a Torah. Others stood by in the modest dress and head coverings of the Orthodox, reminding us that this is not an issue of Orthodox versus Reform, but a multi-denominational struggle for a woman’s right to pray and read Torah in public.
This makes it a tricky cause for me to support. While many participants in Women of the Wall services are progressive Jews, when we pray at the Kotel, we follow strict Jewish law. Certain prayers are omitted because they require a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish men. We pray behind a mechitzah. Not being counted, and being hidden away, are two things I would never tolerate in my own synagogue.
But I am here not to force my own way of praying on this space, but to make sure that no one anywhere is ever harassed for peacefully practicing their religion, and that no voice is silenced here when they come with the pure motive of singing praise to G-d.
It difficult to balance between the acts of praying, protesting, and preserving the moment. I wasn’t sure whether to try to photograph or video any of the service. But I’m glad I can share with you this struggle, so that one day prayer at the Kotel won’t HAVE to be political. As we begin the month of Av, I can think of no better way to commemorate the destruction of the Temple than to fight against sinat hinam, senseless hatred, at this most holy site.
Anat’s arrest coincides with the passage of an outrageous bill in the Knesset that would invalidate the conversions of Progressive (and some Orthodox) rabbis. Join the fight here.
Here is the professional video of the incident, where you can see me, our tormentors, and that, even as she got into the police car, Anat didn’t let go of the Torah: