By Abby Caplin and Ami Goodman
The Western Wall, or Kotel HaMa’aravi, in Jerusalem is considered the spiritual center of the Jewish people. Since the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, and the dispersion of the Jewish people, the Wall has been a site of Jewish pilgrimage. Throughout their history, Jews have always managed to congregate and pray at the Kotel, interrupted only by Jordanian rule from 1948-1967. Since the Six-Day War in 1967, Jews worldwide have had full access to the Kotel.
A major struggle we face today in Judaism is allowing for differences among religious norms of Jewish practice. In Israel, those who practice ultra-Orthodox Judaism (Hareidim) wield considerable political power. As a result, they have retained control over the Kotel, which now functions essentially as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. As in all Orthodox synagogues, men are divided from women by a partition, (mechitzah). Unfortunately, the Kotel has become a dangerous place for women who wish to pray in a group, or wear prayer garb traditionally used by men. They are often the victims of insults, curses, taunts and violence (chair throwing, spitting, tear gas, pushing) from the ultra-Orthodox Jews.
In 1988, a group of Jewish women formed, the “Women of the Wall” (WOW), with members representing all Jewish denominations. They have attempted to pray according to their custom, wearing prayer shawls, reading from the Torah, and praying as a group at the Kotel. Despite physical danger and verbal abuse, these women have continued to meet monthly for a prayer service to celebrate the new moon (Rosh Hodesh). They petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court for protection, but lost their case in 2003. The court ruled that intolerable unrest would ensue if WOW was allowed to congregate, even for eleven one-hour prayer services a year.
In synagogues throughout the Jewish world, women participate on equal footing with men. Yet it remains illegal for women to pray at the Kotel while wearing a prayer shawl (tallit), donning phylacteries (t’fillin), singing or praying aloud, sounding a ram’s horn (shofar) or chanting from the Torah.
On November 18, 2009, at the Rosh Hodesh service marking the Jewish month of Kislev, a young woman was arrested for the “crime” of wearing a Jewish prayer shawl at the Kotel. The image of this Jew being arrested, while carrying a Torah, provoked outrage both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Several communities across North America held prayer services in support of the Women of the Wall and their right to pray according to their custom.
Such a prayer service was held at Union Square in San Francisco on January 10, 2010 to bring attention to the gravity of the situation. Two hundred people attended, including several Bay Area rabbis and cantors. We introduced “The Silver Thread Ritual,” conceived by Ken Rosenstein and Rachel Eryn Kalish who created it with the vision that all people who pray at the Kotel will learn to see the Holy One in each other, and soon find a way to pray that works for everyone. This ritual has served to connect us to the consciousness and openheartedness, in the context of the ongoing struggle of the Women of the Wall. As we pray, the threads will serve as reminders of a vision of the Kotel free of strife where all Jews can pray according to their custom, as well as of a world in which no person’s light must be diminished for another’s to fully glow
The ritual involves silver silk cords, or “threads,” similar to those shown in the photo, which are affixed to the prayer shawl (tallit). The tallit has four corners, to which are tied fringes (tzitzit). The wearing of the tzitzit is a biblical commandment, and they are knotted and wrapped in a specified manner. The tzitzit serve as reminders of our Jewish identity and of the biblical commandments (mitzvot). At our service, we tied these silver threads, two per person, adjacent to the tzitzit as a reminder of our connection to the courageous Women of the Wall. We are also connected to the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God, whose presence is constant at the Kotel.
According to Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, the Moon represents Shekhinah, the feminine indwelling presence of the Divine said to reside at the Kotel. We invite each of you to take two silver threads, the color of the Moon, which we will affix to the corners of our Tallitot as representations of the Shekhinah, which is longing for expression, growth and full parity in all realms. As we pray, the threads will serve as reminders of a vision of the Kotel free of strife where all Jews can pray according to their custom, as well as of a world in which no person’s light must be diminished for anothers to fully glow. They will serve to remind us of a world in which space exists for the full blossoming of feminine power, wisdom and blessing, and of masculine creativity, passion and blessing.
In a few moments, you will tie the threads onto the four corners of your Tallitot, or elsewhere on your Tallit if you prefer. Now please choose two threads for each of you…
(The threads are handed out. Then, hold up the left side of the tallit together with the first silver thread)
On the left corner, the feminine side according to Kabbalah, let us bless the health, well being and empowerment of women, that they/we remain clear, strong and loving while standing their ground for the right to daven fully, in their/our own voices at the Kotel. May the strife among our people end “bimheirah b’yameinu,” speedily and in our days, with a creative solution that honors everyone. Please tie the left side.
(Wait for a few minutes until everyone ties the left thread. Then hold up the right side of the tallit together with the second silver thread)
On the right corner, the masculine side according to Kabbalah, let us bless that the men of the Wall soon sense the presence of Shekhinah in every woman, with hearts open to honor the prayer of women who daven at the Kotel according to their understanding of the tradition. Please tie the right side.
(Wait for a few minutes until everyone ties the right thread.)
Say together a version of the Sheheheyanu: a blessing of thanks for having reached this moment.
Barukh Atah Adonai/Ya, Eloheinu Melekh/Ruah ha-olam, sheheheyanu, vekiyemanu, vehigi’anu lazman hazeh.
B’rukha Aht Ya, Hashekhina Hei ha-olamim, sheheheyatnu, vekiyematnu, vehigi’atnu lazman hazeh.
We hope that someday soon we will no longer need these threads, that perhaps we will untie them together at the Kotel.
Judy Chicago’s extraordinary poem, echoing the Aleinu prayer recited at the conclusion of our prayer service, expresses the vision of complete peace and harmony, a balancing of feminine and masculine energies, which will herald the time of the Messiah.
by Judy Chicago
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
Copyright Judy Chicago, 1979. Used with permission.
Schwartz, Howard. Tree of Souls: the mythology of Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, pages 112-113 (midrash about the sun and moon).
Chesler, Phyllis and Haut, Riva. Women of the Wall: claiming sacred ground. Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2002.
Used by permission of authors