In December 1988, a group of Jewish women calling themselves the Women of the Wall began what would become an over 20 year battle for women’s rights. Their mission? To pray together at Judaism’s holiest site, the Kotel (aka the Western or Wailing Wall):
What we did was the equivalent to nuns conducting an all-female prayer service—but at the Vatican. As important: The participants came from Israel, the United States, Europe, South America, and Australia; represented every religious denomination of Jewry, (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, meta-denominational); and every political persuasion (left-wing, centrist, right-wing). Some of us donned tallesim (prayer shawls) and head coverings, many of us did not. We were radiant, overwhelmed, humbled, united.
Unfortunately, egalitarian, unified worship by women at the Kotel is illegal, and the Women of the Wall have met violent opposition from ultra-Orthodox men at the Wall. Ultra-Orthodox Jews (also known as Haredim or Hasidim) are only a small minority of the Jewish population worldwide–about 10% of Israeli Jews and 3% of American Jews–but they wield disproportionate power in Jerusalem, where the Israeli government allows their rabbinate to control access to the Kotel. Unfortunately this allows the Haredim to impose their extremely narrow, misogynist version of Judaism on all who pray there. Women who want to read Torah and pray aloud–the accepted standard in many, if not most, Jewish congregations–are met with threats and harassment.
In “Returning to the Kotel” Women of the Wall member Ha-viva Ner-David describes what happens when they go to pray:
As soon as I arrived at the Kotel, I spotted my group. In fact, aside from a few female worshippers under umbrellas up at the Wall, we were the only women who showed up that stormy morning. Yet, I heard loud protests coming from the men’s section. It seems a group of ultra-Orthodox men had shown up that morning not to pray, but to protest our service. They were yelling “Gevalt! Gevalt!” over and over again. And when we left the Kotel plaza to read the Torah portions for Rosh Hodesh and Hanukkah – singing “Not by weapon and not by might but by spirit!”- they followed alongside us on a raised platform and spat on us and threw plastic bags filled with water on us from above.
There have been numerous reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting, cursing, shoving, slapping these women worshippers, as well as throwing tear gas, bottles and metal chairs at them when they come to pray en masse. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz explains why:
The women are not permitted to pray in the women’s section at the Western Wall for three reasons: They wrap themselves in a tallit, they read the Torah and their voices rise up and trill exactly like those of the men. They thus feel closer to their God. However, this is precisely what rankles the ultra-Orthodox establishment. Their behavior offends the sensibilities of the other worshipers, say the representatives of that establishment. According to halakha (traditional Jewish law), a woman may not touch the Torah, lest she is unpure, she may not raise her voice in prayer because “hearing a woman’s voice is indecent,” and wrapping oneself in a prayer shawl is arrogance, because “the honor of the king’s daughter lies within.”
But the zealots who oppose Women of the Wall claim–completely unconvincingly–that their opposition is not gender discrimination or a denial of the women’s right to worship. The Haredi rabbis say the Women are motivated not by a sincere desire to worship, but by a desire to make a political statement against traditional Judaism. They also criticize the women’s language and behavior as “belligerent” and “provocative.” That they think they can judge the sincerity of women’s prayers is ridiculous and patronizing, and merely a front for what really offends them: that women are challenging their misogynist rules. For the ultra-Orthodox the real problem is that these women are not properly submissive, either in religion or in life:
During the 14 years of their struggle, the Women of the Wall were depicted in the ultra-Orthodox community as provocateurs, Reform and American. Although most of them are Orthodox, their liberal style of dress and their open speech could mislead an observer. The majority are independent, practitioners of the “liberal professions,” and while raising children also work at outside jobs, no less strenuously than their husbands.
To the incredibly conservative Haredim, nothing’s worse than an assertive, independent woman who wants to change centuries-old practice or challenge their patriarchial authority. This is as much a societal conflict as a religious one.
Unfortunately, because the Israeli government funds the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate and allows them to control Israel’s holy sites, the Israeli Supreme Court has gone back and forth on their support of the Women of the Wall but ultimately refuses to back them up (it’s a long story: you can read the legal details here if you’re interested). And while the Women of the Wall might normally find common cause with feminists and civil libertarians, the fact that they are overtly religious means they don’t get support from Israel’s extremely secular leftists.
Anat Hoffman, one of the group’s founders, explains:
“We are a turtle with wings,” Hoffman says. “We have no parents. If we were secular feminists, the entire liberal wing would embrace us. If we were God-fearing Orthodox, the entire Haredi wing would adopt us, but we are a hybrid with no father or mother, and so people say we are American Reform women, even though there is not even one woman among us who answers to that description.”
Personally, as an American–and Reform–woman, I bristle at the notion that being called such is considered a slur, particularly by a population that’s constantly demanding the political and financial support of American Jews, who are predominantly egalitarian and Reform.
Despite the slurs and the violence, it’s clear that the Women of the Wall will not be deterred; in fact, they’re fighting back:
[Hoffman] said that they are also considering suing the religious head of the Shas political party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who in his weekly public address last Saturday night said that women who pray in a tallit at the Kotel are “stupid” and “deviant,” and “should be slapped,” as reported earlier this week by The Sisterhood.
Apparently beating women is consistent with Rabbi Yosef’s interpretation of Judaic law, but praying alongside them is not. Oy gevalt.
After several women were arrested, detained and interrogated for praying at the Kotel in January, The Forward–America’s most influential Jewish publication–ran a fiery editorial entitled “Liberating the Wall”, in which they praised the Women of the Wall’s efforts and harshly criticized Jerusalem’s rabbinate and the Israeli government for condoning its bigotry:
The arrest in November of Nofrat Frenkel of Women of the Wall for the alleged “crime” of carrying a Torah and wearing a tallit in the shadow of the Kotel’s ancient stones cannot be dismissed as yet another oddity of Israeli life. Especially when that was followed, on January 5, by the interrogation and fingerprinting of Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, who has led Women of the Wall for its 21 years and who was told that she is now suspected of a felony.
Indeed, if Jerusalem, in whatever form, is to remain the capital of Israel, then it must truly be the capital for all Jews. The practices of a small number of fundamentalists — a minority in Israel, in the United States and around the world — cannot be allowed to dictate the religious future of the Jewish people. That is close to happening now, and unless this current destructive trend is stopped and reversed, the precious City of Gold will become a place of alienation to a sprawling Diaspora it, ironically, must count on to survive.
Women like Anat Hoffman and Nofrat Frenkel are the vanguard of the fight for Jewish women’s rights, as well as the fight against religious intolerance and the tyranny of a fanatical minority. It’s discouraging that Israel’s nominally democratic and secular government, when confronted with a fairly straightforward test of gender and religious equality, behaves like their absolutist, theocratic enemies in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
By demanding that their prayer be recognized as equal to men’s and refusing to be cowed by a campaign of harassment and intimidation, the Women of the Wall are following in the non-violent footsteps of leaders like Gandhi and King. In the Jewish world, they should rightly be held up as the purest examples of eishet chayil--the woman of valor.