By Rabbi John L. Rosove
A group of us arose very early on Monday, November 8 to walk from our hotel to the Western Wall to join the “Women of the Wall” for Shacharit services on Rosh Hodesh Kislev. “Women of the Wall” have been meeting since 1988 on Rosh Hodesh each month.
(Photos by Barry Leff shows several of our group including past TIOH Presidents Geri Mund and Keri Hausner)
There were, in all, about 100 women who gathered along with 15 men supporters for 7 AM prayers. Though this women’s prayer group has been meeting for 22 years, in recent years it has met increasing hostility and abuse from the ultra-orthodox worshippers at the Kotel, so much so that the Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, forbid women from wearing tallitot, carrying or reading Torah, and singing their prayers as a Minyan. Last Shavuot, Anat Hoffman (our Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and the current Chair of the Women of the Wall) was arrested for carrying a Torah. If convicted, Anat faces a sentence of up to 3 years in prison.
This reminds me of the story of Golda Meir who when told in the early years of the State that women were being attacked and raped in settlements and, in response, a curfew would be imposed on them, she said, “If men are raping women, it is the men who should be under curfew, not the women.” So too should the hareidi men be the ones held in contempt, not the Women of the Wall.
The Kotel is the most sacred place in Judaism and belongs to the entire Jewish people. For 19 years between 1948 and 1967 when Jordan held the Old City of Jerusalem, no Jew was permitted to pray there. After 1967 the plaza was created and Jews from Israel and around the world made pilgrimage in fulfillment of the promise “Next year in Jerusalem.” In those early years after Jerusalem’s reunification there was no mechitzah (divider between women and men). A creeping orthodoxy, however, began to overtake the wall. In recent years the ultra-orthodox rabbinate has seized the entire Wall area including the vast plaza and deemed it an “orthodox synagogue.” Two years ago, Chief Rabbi Rabinowitz forbid any kind of assembly that he did not personally approve, including the traditional citizenship ceremony for new immigrants that had taken place there for decades.
On November 8, the women entered into the women’s section (one third the size of the men’s section), stood at the rear of the section while we men stood at the back of the men’s section on the other side of the mechitzah so we could join the women in their davening. We men wore our tallitot as usual. The women, however, wrapped their tallitot around their necks as “scarves” (see photo above) to avoid “offending the sensitivities” (per written instructions from Rabbi Rabinowitz) of the other 400 worshippers at the Kotel.
The women began their prayers quietly, almost inaudibly. There is an ancient Talmudic principle Kol b’isha erva (i.e. a woman’s voice connotes sexual exposure and impropriety – BT Berachot 24a), and so, again, in order not to create a disturbance or “offend the sensitivities” of the hareidi worshippers, the women were quiet in their worship.
This effort, of course, didn’t satisfy the hareidim. One man turned to the women, stood on a table and shrieked reproach for more than 10 minutes; “You are sinners and whores! You bring shame upon the Jewish religion! Your immodesty is an affront to the people of Israel! etc. etc. etc.” His screaming was harsh and echoed against the stone walls and plaza slabs filling the air with hate and rage. When his voice finally and mercifully gave out a legion of 50 hareidim gathered feet from where I was standing to take up where he left off. They raised their voices in a cacophony of shouted prayer to drown out the women’s voices.
Frankly, it was as ugly a scene as I could have imagined at the holiest site in Judaism. No fights broke out this time. No hareidim threw chairs at the women as they had done in the past. The police were stationed everywhere to contain the women on the one hand and protect them on the other. As that one older Jew bound in t’filin screamed blasphemy and the hareidim shouted prayers over the women’s voices I looked into the men’s eyes, and all I saw there was hatred and disdain. The women did their best to ignore the provocations. They prayed with kavannah (loving intent), despite the angry and hostile response.
The contrast between these two groups was striking. The women brought honor and dignity to themselves, to Judaism and to that sacred place. The men violated a fundamental Jewish moral principle – Derech eretz kadmah l’Torah – Common decency precedes Torah.
The women then proceeded to an area to the south, out of sight, at Robinson’s Arch where they could read Torah in peace and security.
We were proud to pray with these religious women, and I was reminded of the rabbinic explanation in the Talmud for the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. This singular chorban (destruction) came because of sinat chinam, the gratuitous hatred of one Jew for another. In this month of Kislev when the fate of our people once hung in the balance during the time of the Maccabees (circa 165 BCE), I wonder still, even if peace is achieved with the Palestinians, whether there can ever be peace between Jews in Jerusalem.