Talking to the Wall

The spitting, the pushing and the tempers: Daniela London joined the women’s prayers at the Western Wall

This article by Daniela London appeared in Hebrew on June 14, 2013 in the Seven Days supplement of Yediot Acharonot, Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper. The article was translated into English for Women of the Wall by Shaul Vardi.

Anat Hoffman, the chairperson of Women of the Wall (WOW), was the Israeli national swimming champion for 1972. מדברות אל הקיר-1 (1)Somewhere in her home she still has a black-and-white photograph of her with nine medals on her chest, but she can’t remember where. A blue pool, cool water, a swimsuit and a podium seem to me to be so alien to the images created by the Western Wall that I find it hard to understand how all this can coexist in the same woman. “Is there any connection?” I ask her. “Did you take anything with you from the swimming pool to the Western Wall?” This was a teasing question and I didn’t expect her to say yes. “Yes,” she replied, “absolutely. From my years as a swimmer I learned how to breathe. I can take long breaths and I also know how to breathe out when necessary. For a struggle that has already lasted 25 years, that’s priceless knowledge.”

It’s a quarter after six in the morning. We’re at Liberty Park in Jerusalem. I’m sitting in a small minibus, one of a convey of minibuses heading for the Western Wall Plaza. My friend Miri Hanoch is sitting next to me. Even she was surprised by her decision to ask to join me on this journalistic mission. “Why not, a bit of adventure,” she replied when I stared at her in amazement.

Behind us are women, in front of us are women, and to our side sits a friendly Conservative male rabbi from San Francisco, the leader of a congregation many of whose members are gays and lesbians. He’s come to Israel specially for the Women of the Wall’s prayers to mark the new Hebrew month of Tammuz. Unlike the services he leads for his own congregants, he will not be able to pray together with the Women of the Wall. They do not engage in mixed-sex prayer. “You’ve come quite a long way just to be unable to pray with them,” I suggest to him shortly after we have introduced ourselves. “Was it really that important to you to be here?” “Yes,” he replies. “To me, these women symbolize the hope of Judaism.” Big words – perhaps a bit too big for a woman who got up at half past four in the morning, hasn’t had any coffee, and feels exhausted by the whole spectacle before it’s even begun.

A Warmongering Woman of the Wall Who Can Find?

מדברות אל הקיר-2 (1)Our convoy travels together. After last month’s riots, when young Haredi men threw chairs, bags of garbage, bottles of water, cups of coffee and stink bombs, the police is “preparing accordingly,” as they like to say. “Accordingly” in this case means a police escort, heavy security, and a separate entrance. We pass through a special sleeve crossing an excavation area and pour out into an area clearly demarcated with barriers on the right-hand side of the women’s section. Policewomen separate us from the kosher women worshippers in the main part of the women’s section. It’s amazing – I’ve been a Woman of the Wall for barely a minute, but I’m already filled with a sense of righteous rage. Why did we receive a much smaller part of the women’s section that they did? There are 300 of us here today and only a few dozen of them. It’s so unfair. How am I supposed to pray like this, damn it? Fortunately my friend Miri reminded me that I don’t know how to pray anyway, and that the Women of the Wall are facing some more serious problems when it comes to inequality. “At least this time I feel protected after what happened here last month,” a Woman of the Wall who’s been in the business a bit longer than I have notes with relief. I felt sad. “Do you think we’ll be able to go home without anyone spitting on us?” I asked Miri nervously.

Riots can be sparked on the rabbis’ orders. Last month, thousands of young Haredim flooded the Western Wall plaza, responding to the battle cry. This was just after Judge Moshe Sobel issued a groundbreaking ruling effectively allowing the Women of the Wall to pray according to their custom. That means with a Tallit, singing out loud, and using a Torah scroll. The expression “according to their custom,” together with the expressions “the custom of the place” (i.e. the Western Wall”) and “offense to the sentiments of the worshippers” (in most cases, the sentiments of Haredi men) appear repeatedly in the story of WOW. To date, around 10,000 pages of legal texts have been written concerning the interpretation of these terms. As I mentioned, Judge Sobel contributed the latest few pages when he ruled unequivocally that “the custom of the place” is to be interpreted in a pluralistic, national and secular manner, and not exclusively in an Orthodox or Haredi manner.

But a legal struggle is one thing and religious extremism is another. The nearer we come to a solution, the more the extremist groups use violence against WOW. Only last month, slogans and insults against WOW were daubed on the door of מדברות אל הקיר-3 (1)the home of Peggy Cidor. Broadsheets crying out “Help!” appeared in the Haredi neighborhoods, and the police arrested a 17-year-old boy who asked the rabbi on the popular religious website Kippa whether it is permissible to shoot these women. Now, at the beginning of my month – Tammuz, in case you didn’t know, just as I didn’t know – it seems that the police has learned the lesson. For every Woman of the Wall there is a policewoman, and for every Haredi man there’s a policeman. The rabbis also realized how much damage they caused to their own image, and this time called only on Haredi men with a lower level of hormones – in other words, married men. It seems that everything is going to go peacefully.

I look toward the kosher women on the other side of the barrier and choose a potential victim to argue with. Perhaps this tall, thin girl dressed in Haredi chic style as she looks in horror at our group will supply the goods. I urge Miri to tempt her to come nearer. Miri is successful and she walks toward us.

Miri asks the girl how she’s feeling. Surprised by the question, she replies: “Sad.” She explains: “What’s happening here is a desecration of God’s name.” “Why?” Miri inquires. The girl is agitated: Because it’s forbidden, because you are women, because the rabbis don’t allow it, because men are men and women are women… All of a sudden the Women of the Wall behind me break out in song. The girl pushes herself back, rushing away from us as if we were a fire. I give up. Women cantors are scattered through the group – not one, but several. Some of them are wearing Tallitot while others are not. Some are young and some are older. They all sing beautifully. One of them, a beautiful blue-eyed woman, looks like an angel. She stands on a chair and leads the singing, holding her prayer book in one hand and controlling an orchestra with the other. I fall silent. I have to tell you that it’s beautiful. I don’t understand what they’re singing, but it’s beautiful. Lots of words like “they will praise You,” “may it be magnified,” “the glory of Your kingdom” – words that don’t really mean much to me in my everyday life when I’m screaming at the kids, but that seem to mean something here. All of sudden. I no longer feel like getting into arguments. I leave them both and go further into the group to enjoy the peace. I really don’t care who they are singing to. To God? Okay, let it be to God. There’s rhythm and rhyme and beautiful imagery, and that’s enough for me. I’ll be the first woman in history who returns to the faith because of rhyme and rhythm.

The Litmus Paper of Israeli Society

The Israeli public don’t know what to make of them. For the religious they are too secular. For the secular they are too religious. Even in circles that might be expected to show ideological solidarity, such as various women’s organizations, they are controversial. Feminists – most of whom are secular, most of whom are like me – find it hard to deal with the Western Wall with all its moss and sadness and religious passion. Even among religious feminists, themselves a small minority within religious society, there are those who have reservations about WOW’s struggle.

מדברות אל הקיר-4 (1)I’ve heard all kinds of opinions from them. Some of them don’t like the fact that civil law is interfering in religious issues. They would rather the debate were confined to the religious establishment. Some of them argue that there are more urgent bandwagons that need to be mounted, such as the subject of women who cannot secure a divorce from their husbands. Some of them simply don’t want or need to put on a Tallit or to sing aloud, and certainly not at the Western Wall. Vered Kellner, a member of the Facebook group of religious feminists, comments about the Western Wall: “I’ve always felt a stranger there. Although their achievement is a civil success of tremendous importance, they’ve only pushed the Wall even deeper into the religious psyche of Israelis, as if what we need is another focus for fetishism…” Na’ama Sharon Weissman, another member of the religious feminist group, adds: “I know that many of the Women of the Wall are first and foremost religious women, but when women come to the service who have no interest in prayer and are only there for the struggle itself, I think that’s kind of problematic…”

It’s amazing that the Women of the Wall are seen as “provocateurs” despite the fact that their activities are quiet and consistent, without violence and without disturbing the public order. People still question their sincerity. Anat Hoffman, chairperson of WOW, offers her analysis of this charge. “When it comes to women, our motives are always questioned. We’ve been asked countless times what really motivates us, whether we are really believing women. That ‘really.’ It’s interesting that no-one would ever ask a man the same question. But the minute we come out of the kitchen, our motives are in doubt.” I can see now the enormous effort they are making to concentrate. Unlike some men who are used to praying out loud, they do not treat their prayers as something to be taken for granted. There is nothing casual about the way they pray. The Women of the Wall are a congregation that is striving and filled with awe.

The claim of provocation, or to use the colloquial form – “All they want is to get some headlines” – is particularly absurd. Headlines? What headlines? For 25 years, since 1988, they have been coming to the Western Wall every month, in summer, winter, spring and fall. The media have only started to take an interest over the past year or two. They have tens of thousands of women supporters (and more recently male supporters, too) around the world, all united under the banner of Women of the Wall. Yet despite this they are perceived as a marginal and eccentric group. Their story is a truly fascinating one, if only because it touches a raw nerve in Israeli reality. Their story may be small, or even tiny, but it serves as a litmus paper that can be dipped in our stormiest waters: religion versus nationality, religious versus secular, state law versus religious law, women versus men, conservatism versus progress, women versus the chauvinistic secular establishment. What more could you ask for in a single story? It doesn’t get any more dramatic than this. Yet despite this, for many years the media dismissed WOW as an eccentric group that did not deserve much attention. Only recently – perhaps because their public relations work has improved, or perhaps because expanding education for religious women has led to a renaissance of religious feminism – the situation has begun to change. Even so, how many of us are aware that despite their “Reform” image, many of the Women of the Wall are actually Orthodox: not Reform or Conservative – Orthodox! And how many of us recognize that the Women of the Wall want to recite their “provocative” prayers solely in the women’s section?

Until recently, this is what your average couch potato, such as the writer of these words for example, knew about WOW: Women, Tallitot, the Western Wall, provocation, police officers. The whole business was wrapped up under the heading of a row. Another row in a place that is already overcharged, brimming over with holiness, paratroopers and Naomi Shemer. From the outset I felt tired with the arena of this battle. Who has the energy to deal with strange women who behave like men and try to carve out some space for themselves in this difficult, complicated place? Who cares? As far as I’m concerned let them take the whole Wall home with them. It seems that their goal of encouraging affinity with the Western Wall among large sections of the public is falling on deaf ears. Yet interestingly, they managed to secure the support of the paratroopers who liberated the Wall, or who shoved it down our throats, depending who you ask.


A Young Woman Stood by the Wall

“Do you like the Western Wall”” I ask Anat Hoffman, certain that she will reply with a long speech about how holy and מדברות אל הקיר-5 (1)important this place is for every Jew. “I don’t know,” she replies. “I don’t like places. I like people. The Western Wall is an opportunity; it’s what we make of it. For me, this is the place where my women friends and I were born as a community. This is where we had the chance to become a unique community that includes all three Jewish streams and prays with its own special prayer book, which we composed. Every new month, without fail, we have this one moment of elevation. For me this is a religious moment.”

What kind of group are you?

“Sisters. I don’t have another word to describe this wonderful relationship.”

Do you accept completely secular women into your ranks? Are you interested in the support of women like me?

“Absolutely. We want to draw everyone closer to Judaism.”

You know that there are some religious feminists who are a bit annoyed with you. They don’t like this attempt to reach out to everyone. They’d rather the debate was confined to religious circles.

“I know, and it really surprises me. On every street corner you see Chabad encouraging completely secular Jews to put on Tefillin – begging them to perform this act, and the general view in the religious community is that Chabad is performing a sacred task. Once again, it’s only seen differently when women are involved. Why is that?”

For 24 years you’ve prayed alongside Haredi women who find your form of worship completely unacceptable. Tell me a little about your relationship with them.

“Some of them have already gotten used to us. We greet each other with a nod. My friend Peggy knows many of them by name. After all, the hard core are women who come every month. Of course we get to know each other. At Purim we read from the Scroll of Esther while dressed as yeshiva students, and some of the women come to listen…”

Wait a second, say that again?!

“You mean the dressed as yeshiva students bit?”

Yes. You’re serious? You really dress up as male yeshiva students?

“Some of us, yes. This is our chance. Anyway, some of the Haredi women come to hear us. They even understand that by doing this they meet the obligation to hear the recitation.”

Do you think that these women approve of the growing trend to religious extremism in recent years – the exclusion and silencing of women?

מדברות אל הקיר-6 (1)“I’ll answer that question with my other hat on – as head of the Israel Religious Action Center. I receive dozens of calls from Haredi women who tell me that it’s fortunate that there are also Reform women around. Because if there weren’t, we would never beat gender segregation on the buses. If Naomi Regan hadn’t stood up against the segregated bus lines (Naomi Regan v Ministry of Transportation, HCJ 476/07 – Google it!), we’d be in a very different situation. If you’re asking me whether Orthodox women are part of this trend to extremism, I’d say the answer is no. I think that even when the young women came here after being incited by their rabbis, some of them surely went home with a subversive question in the minds: Actually – why not? What’s so terrible about it?

I got an answer to the question “why not” from Michal Bregman, one of the supporters here today and a prominent activist on the religious feminist Facebook forum. “The fear is fear of the unknown, of anything new. A feeling that changes – even if they are permitted by religious law – will challenge the foundations of the building. If the conservative circles were certain that the women’s demands would only lead them to put on Tallitot, they might be more willing to accept the change. In Orthodox Judaism there is an approach that preventing change is what protects the Jewish people. I understand the fear of confusion, but I think that discussion and joint learning would lead to the conclusion that this is an unjustified fear.”

Miri lost me, or rather I lost her. Without a companion, I stayed close to a sweet young woman by the name of Racheli Leon, dressed in a straw hat and long skirt. I notice her kind gaze meeting my confused look and immediately I stick close to her. I have been given a prayer book and I ask her to show me where we are. She does so. I realize that I must be disturbing her prayer, so I do so even more. “How did you come to Women of the Wall” I ask. “It was a long road,” she says in between murmured prayers. “I can still remember them from when I was a girl standing over there,” she says, pointing to the other side of the women’s section.

Really? You remember them from when you were a child?

“Definitely. I’m a Jerusalemite. I had a national-Haredi education. We used to come here a lot. I remember that I used to look in amazement at the women and the riot that their presence caused.”

As a child, how did you feel about it all?

“I felt completely alienated from them. They seemed to me to be crazy American women. At that time most of them were English speaking.”

So how come you ended up on this side?

“I studied at university and took an elective course in gender studies. That opened my mind up.”

For the Law Shall Come Forth from Zion and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem

Racheli Leon was just five when WOW was established. That was in 1988. The core of the group were American Orthodox women who had been involved in women’s prayer groups since the 1970s. These groups, which were influenced by the second wave of feminism, sought to change the importance attached to the presence of Jewish women in services. It’s true that women are not obliged to perform “time-dependent commandments,” but the fact that they are not obliged to do so does not mean that it is prohibited for them to do so. Whenever this explanation is offered, it is customarily followed with the example of Rashi’s daughter, a Torah scholar in her own right who customarily put on a Tallit. So I’ll do the same: Rashi’s daughter!

American Orthodoxy was able to stomach and even to welcome such feminist activism, but Orthodox Judaism in Israel is far more nervous and anxious, particularly when it comes to proper conduct in a Haredi synagogue. The Western Wall has changed its character since the Six Day War. Under the auspices of the Western Wall Heritage Fund, it has gradually become nothing less than a Haredi synagogue.

A word about the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. It was established in the same year as WOW, and charged with responsibility for the development, preservation and maintenance of the Western Wall. The Ministry of Religious Affairs appointed a rabbi to head the foundation: The Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz. I could not find any clear definition of his responsibilities. For example, who empowered him to rule that a seven-year-old girl must cover her shoulders when entering the plaza? No-one, it seems. The rabbi also wrote a book entitled The Western Wall: Laws and Customs, extending over 531 pages with dozens of fine color photographs of the Western Wall – at sunrise and sunset, and on the three pilgrimage festivals. But not a single woman worshipper can be seen. Rabbi Rabinowitz is a young rabbi, born in 1970, and his appointment is for life.

To get back to the subject of WOW. Their small innovation – a one-hour prayer service on the first day of every Hebrew month – was soon matched by an opposite tradition: violent Haredi opposition. The police refused to protect the women, who petitioned the Supreme Court. The court handed responsibility back to the government and gave it six months to set things in order. Those six months evolved into 24 years.

The ping-pong of responsibility between the legislature and the judiciary is as story as long as that of WOW itself, but it can be summarized quite briefly. The women appeal. The court recognizes their right “to pray according to their custom,” but expresses concern at “offense to the sentiments” of the [other] worshippers. A ruling is issued containing extensive legalistic argument with very few decisions. The subject of WOW comes back to the government, which busies itself setting up committees, dragging its feet, and introducing regulations specifically designed to restrict WOW. And so it goes on.

Mrs. Robinson (Not the Simon & Garfunkel Version)

In 2003, an extended panel of Supreme Court justices ruled by a majority of just one that WOW should be moved to a side section of the Western Wall known as Robinson’s Arch. However, it added that the area must be made suitable for them. This created a new problem. Robinson’s Arch is an archeological site under the supervision of the Antiquities Authority. The site is too small for the women worshippers, access is difficult, and adapting the site for their use offends the sentiments of another “public” – this time, the archeologists, who are in turn concerned not to hurt the “feelings” of the archeological remains. Sounds complicated? It is.

The result is that to this day Robinson’s Arch has not been prepared for prayer, and WOW therefore continue to use the women’s section in the main plaza area. In recent years the police adopted an increasingly hostile attitude toward the group, arresting and interrogating members. This led to the pictures in the media and the accusations that they are merely trying to cause a provocation. The women are arrested and soon released. Between times, the police scratches its collective head a bit – nothing more. None of the women detained has ever been charged.

Would you agree to pray at Robinson’s Arch?

“Over all these years,” Anat Hoffman replies, “we’ve learned to be doubtful about any promise made by the government. The government hasn’t even discussed the Sharansky plan yet. There’s no budget or timetable, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to overcome all the problems and prepare the site without damaging the archeological remains. At the moment, we have a rare “bird” in our hand: the latest ruling allowing us to pray according to our custom. Are we willing to hand over this bird in return for a bunch of birds on a bush? No way. To Sharansky’s credit, I must emphasize that he did not take the route of legislating against us or taking us to court. He started a process of dialogue, which is the best way to move forward. I welcome the process, but in terms of results we have nothing. First let’s see the government vote for the proposed plan.”

The morning service for the new month is an exhausting affair – over an hour. That’s a long time to stand there when you don’t feel connected to the content. After I got over my excitement, I started to feel bored. I think it’s unlikely that I’m going to be born again and return to the faith, not even for the rhyme and rhythm. Miri is always one step ahead of me, even when it comes to boredom, and she found me the moment I lifted my head up from the prayer book. “Let’s go home,” she ordered. “Enough is enough.” But because of the security arrangement we could not leave. “You came in as a group and you’ll leave as a group,” the guard at the entrance explained to us. But he hadn’t met Miri before, and a minute and a half later we were on the outside. She gave a terrible excuse; I couldn’t possibly repeat it here. We got in a taxi and sped to Ta’ami’s humus bar. We were tired and starving. It’s really exhausting to be a Woman of the Wall. Lots of sun, lots of standing around, lots of text. In the taxi I listened to the new. Bennett was opposing Livnat on the subject of the Women of the Wall. He’s in favor of regulations – more regulations, new regulations, aren’t people sick of regulations yet? – to restrict their right to pray. Livni declares that this will not happen. “It ain’t over till it’s over,” Anat Hoffman told me a few days ago, not realizing how quickly her words would ring true. “You can never tell what direction it’s going to come from.”

At nine o’clock in the morning Ta’ami’s was empty. We were their first customers of the day. We ordered humus, pita, pickles, some more pita, falafel… and naturally a diet drink for each of us. The waiter saw us in action and asked where we had come from. “The Western Wall,” we replied. “Ah, so did you see those crazy women there?” he inquired, while offering us a second helping of pickles. I looked at Miri. Miri looked at me. Oy vay. With reactions like that, we’ll end up having to go back there next month, and the month after that, and for every new month until God knows when. Until every waiter in every restaurant, and every non-waiter wherever they may be, learns that a woman has the right to pray in her own way.

From the Prayer for Women of the Wall, which closes their own special prayer book:

“May it be Your will, our God and God of our mothers and fathers, to bless this prayer group and all who pray within it: them, their families and all that is theirs, together with all the women and girls of your people Israel. Strengthen us and direct our hearts to serve You in truth, reverence and love. May our prayer be desirable and acceptable to You like the prayers of our holy mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.” Amen.

4 thoughts on “Talking to the Wall”

  1. I hadn’t realized the article from two weeks ago was translated into English. Kol haKavod! That will make it all the more accessible for folks in the US to follow.


  2. I am saddened that your idea of traditional religious women is so low. As a religious woman – I feel as if you respect women only if they agree in your philosophy. I have a PhD and 4 children and keep all the laws of kshrut, tzniyus and Shabbos. Your behaviors are creating and publicizing the divide between different sectors of Judaism. In my opinion the negative publicity you are bringing to our people should encourage you to reasses your viewpoint and behavior. Religious women are not pushed down and quieted. We play a pivotal role in religious society. Please stop trying to liberate us!

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