raising our voices

by tobybee

yesterday (the 15th) was rosh chodesh adar, and so Women of the Wall, as they do every rosh chodesh, gathered at the Kotel to pray the morning service together. As they explain on their website, Women of the Wall is “a group of Israeli women joined by Jewish women from around the world, seeks the right for Jewish women from Israel and around the world to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall– Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish people-hood and sovereignty.

Our purpose is both social advocacy – to change the current status quo which prevents women from being able to pray freely at the Western Wall, to educate Jewish women and the public in general about the social, political and human rights issues involved in women’s right to pray as a prayer group; and to empower Jewish women to take control of their religious and prayer lives. WOW stands with other non-ultraorthodox activists in the forefront of the movement for religious pluralism in Israel. WOW offers a unique contribution as the only group reclaiming public holy space by our regular presence at the Western Wall. […]

On December 1, 1988, for the first time in history, 70 Jewish women prayed together out loud as a group at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem. That December, Women of the Wall read from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall for the first time. Twenty years later, we are still reading Torah, singing and praying.”

So, of course, haredi men and women oppose these women and their presence at the Kotel. Apparently, to them, it’s more important that other people’s ways of engaging with Judaism are policed to ensure that they fit with a haredi vision, than that people find new and more personally fulfilling ways of engaging with Judaism. And so on Monday, as this news report explains, men and women yelled and cursed at these women, including telling them that they are Nazis and that God should kill them. Nice. And on their facebook page the Women explain what happened:

“We were thrilled that more than 150 women joined the services today. In addition, more than 50 men supported us with their own prayer services in the plaza behind the women’s section of the Kotel. We were delighted that this month, more than half of the participants were Israelis!

We prayed the morning service and sang Hallel out loud on the women’s side of the Kotel and then shifted to Robinson’s Arch for our Torah service and Musaf. At about 7:30 am, ultra orthodox men on the men’s side began shouting and screaming at us. This was quickly controlled by police. Minutes later, about ten ultra orthodox women on the women’s side began to shove their way through the crowd of women heckling, pushing and spitting. The women screamed epithets and in one case, actually screamed the words of Hallel back at us! The police intervened by standing in front of the WOW women and stopping any direct physical violence; although not verbal violence.

We moved on to Robinson’s Arch for a beautiful Torah service lead by Nofrat Frenkel. Women who had never read Torah or have never read Torah in Israel were invited for a special aliya. At the conclusion of the service, Women joined together in singing and dancing.”

The actions of these women make me think of two things. I remember being in Israel in 2007, which was an extremely alienating experience for me, for personal and political reasons. But there were two moments when I felt at home: when I was with the women of Machsom Watch, and when I saw, and walked through, the Old City in Jerusalem. The Old City, for me, has a relevance and importance which can be outside the Israeli nation-state. It’s very much not just a Jewish space (and, really, most of the Jewish quarter is missing the busyness that makes the Old City), but it is importantly a Jewish space. And it’s a Jewish space not only because a state made it so (although of course the ways in which the state and the army has seized parts of it, and works to control parts of it is inherently part of the old city today), but because it carries a Jewish sense of place that predates the state. I know that for others there are many places in Israel which carry this Jewishness but, for me, it was only in Jerusalem that I had any sense of a place in which I could spend time.
Yet, as I write these words I recognise that they are embarrassingly simplistic. I could take them down, but I think I’ll leave them up here. Hmmm…

The other thing that the Women of the Wall make me think of is this coming shabbes, which is the yahrzeit of both my grandmothers. So we’re going to shul, where my dad will have an aliyah for his mum, and I will have one for my mum’s mum. It’s my first aliyah in Australia (I had one at a lovely tenement shul in NYC, at a women’s torah service which took place one shabbes in the basement of the orthodox shul), so it’s a bit of a way of turning a sad event – my bubba’s twentieth yahrzeit – into an event which can, in a small way, symbolise for my family a part of our active reengagement with Judaism, in a way which we have never done.