jew on this

critical, progressive ideas from pondering jews

Tag: Women of the Wall

challenging judaism’s spaces

by tobybee

of course, jewish communities aren’t always so good to jews. that’s kind of obvious, I suppose: communities make dividing lines, allowing some people in and pushing others out. Making others Other. and, in particular, in the last few weeks, we have seen in israel a move to make it even more difficult for jews who have converted to be considered jews – the so-called ‘conversion law’ that Yisrael Beitenu is trying to get made into law. The bill, as this article in the Jerusalem Post explains, “which passed the Law Committee last Monday and now needs to undergo three Knesset readings before becoming law, would enable city rabbis to conduct conversions, while putting the conversion issue in Israel under the legal jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate. Critics fear this would legally prevent any non-Orthodox conversion from being conducted in Israel, and would allow the establishment to also reject converts from abroad.”

Of course, there has been great opposition from within Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox movements around the world. Apparently (according to J-Post) Netanyahu has said that he would oppose this bill being made law; which has moved MKs from Y.B. and Shas to say that they would leave the coalition if he did indeed prevent it being made law. There’s been plenty of coverage elsewhere, in papers and throughout the blogworld (see, for instance the Union of Progressive Judaism site, which is keeping people up to date).

we’ve also seen the arrest of Anat Hoffman, a leader of Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel), during prayers at the Western Wall at rosh hodesh. she has been charged with praying with a torah at the Wall. (you can read an interview, which contains a detailed description of what has happened, with her here) which is all kinds of incredible, I think: that it has been made illegal for women to pray in the ways they want in what is supposedly a jewish state. you’d think that if there was anywhere that protected judaism, it would be there.. but no…

and, finally, from the worlds of orthodox judaism… a new edited collection, entitled “Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires” was released in America a couple of months ago. I’m in the process of reading it, and loving it deeply. i’m loving it for the spaces that it demands are opened up; for the ways it plays with preconceptions of what constitutes a lesbian, a queer woman, an orthodox woman, a woman. for its embracing of spaces of dissent and spaces of inclusion. i’d highly encourage you to listen to this excellent podcast of an interview with the editor of the collection, Miryam Kabakov, interviewed by Nadja Spiegelman (who, on a side note, I think is Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s daughter), available here, from the forward. She describes encounters she’s had with other orthodox lesbian women; the process many have been through in finding the language to describe who they are and what they do; the ways in which these women have remained inside their orthodox worlds or have left; and the possibilities that they endlessly create.

so in these three examples we can see different ways in which jewish orthodoxy is being challenged from within: we can see pushing for restrictions, for tightening of spaces; and pushing for wider spaces, for embracing of difference.

(you might also be interested, perhaps… in another of my roles as a ‘professional jew’ (as a friend and i have come to term ourselves), I’ve just had an article published in borderlands ejournal, entitled “‘We’re dealing with how do we live and work with this memory and what are we supposed to do about it’: Making use of Jewish liminality”. It looks at the ways in which liminal spaces are productive of new Jewish identities: it presents an analysis of a sign, created by left-wing Jews, which was attached to a pole on a street in the Lower East Side of New York in December 2006. By reading the sign—in all its multiplicity and complexity—we can unravel the ways in which Jewish identities in liminal Jewish/non-Jewish spaces, such as New York, are affected by memories of the Holocaust, knowledge of Israeli colonial practices, and Jewish religious identities. This sign can open up new ways of thinking through (Jewish) diasporic languages and identities: it points us to the uncertainties which can be a part of being a leftwing Jew in New York today. By examining the significations of this sign we can open up broader questions of the place of Jewishness(es) in relation to modernities, and the struggles which are continually played out in the diaspora in relation to the practices of the Jewish nation-state, and the ongoing effects of that thoroughly modern event, the Holocaust.)


plastic chair = weapon

by tobybee

perhaps, as the woman in the video suggests, the haredi men were just concerned that the women didn’t have any chairs on their side? or perhaps it’s just that they’re not the most creative thinkers, and could only think of throwing something… in any case, some haredi men threw some chairs at women (of Women of the Wall) who gathered to pray at the Western Wall on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Because hearing women’s prayers is so much worse than being hit by a chair, and throwing chairs at people who pray is clearly in keeping with halacha…

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.