Women of the Wall and the Fight for Jewish Sacred Space
The Kotel – Western Wall – in the Old City of Jerusalem has been long considered among Jews to be of particular religious and cultural significance as the remains of the Second Temple. It is a site of pilgrimage and prayer for millions each year, many who leave small written prayers in its crevices. The plaza, created by razing scores of homes in the Mughribi Quarter shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, is presently a tourist destination for people from around the world as well as a sacred space for observant Jews.
On a typical day, the Western Wall plaza is crowded with busloads of tourists, Israeli school groups, active duty soldiers and locals milling about absorbing the solemnity of the space. Closer to the wall is a place reserved for those seeking to pray without distraction from other visitors. This space is partitioned by amechitza, which segregates men and women worshippers in accordance withHalakha, Jewish religious law. In this space, women are permitted to pray; however, based on the rulings of the Rabbi of the Western Wall and the Supreme Court of Israel, women are barred from wearing tallitot (pray shawls), blowing theshofar (ram’s horn), singing or reading from the Torah.
Over the past twenty-five years, Women of the Wall (WoW), a group of Jewish women from around the world and across the various religious movements within Judaism, have held prayer services in the women’s section of the Kotel as an open challenge to the gender-based prohibitions on worship. Women from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism converge at WoW actions in order to express a commonality of purpose; namely that Jewish women have the indisputable right to engage in religious practice at the most sacred site in Judaism.
While WoW activists hold events at various times throughout the year, Rosh Chodesh – the first day of each lunar month in the Hebrew calendar – has come to serve as a regular occasion for WoW actions at the Kotel. The choice of Rosh Chodesh as a WoW day of action is particularly appropriate given that the holiday celebrates the arrival of the new moon; often associated with the feminine aspects of creation. Furthermore, the midrash Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer explains that Rosh Chodesh commemorates the steadfast refusal of Israelite women to surrender their gold for the building of an idol during the exodus from Egypt. During the WoW actions, Jewish women who engage in any form of religious expression beyond silent prayer are subjected to removal and detention by the Israeli police for engaging in religious practice at the Western Wall.
In recent months, the WoW activities at the Kotel have received a more severe and high-profile response from the Israeli authorities. In October 2012, according to media reports, WoW Chairwoman Anat Hoffman was not only removed from the Kotel, but arrested, strip-searched and chained by the Israeli police. Over the next few months, WoW activism was met with increased media coverage that highlighted the treatment of WoW activists. This included the December 2012arrest of prominent New Jersey Rabbi Elyse Frishman and, perhaps most notably, the February 2013 detention of 10 WoW activists including Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of American comedian Sarah Silverman.
Despite the centrality of Jerusalem’s Kotel to Women of the Wall’s activism, the struggle for recognition of women’s rights to participate in worship at the Western Wall has expanded far beyond the confines of the Old City of Jerusalem. Solidarity minyanim – groups of ten adult Jews required for public prayer – have been held by Jewish women in London, New York, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Fort Lauderdale along with other cities. These solidarity prayer sessions, in conjunction with the increased media coverage of WoW actions, have put renewed pressure on the Netanyahu government to find an accommodation that satisfies all parties involved. To date, such a solution has proven elusive. Yet despite the continued crackdown on WoW activities, there is much that can be gleaned from their efforts.
While the struggle of WoW activists provides general insights into how small groups of activists engage in acts of civil disobedience in order to raise awareness and effect political change, the particular actions of WoW also reveal a set of undercurrents that have long defined the relationship between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism as well as the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews.
Rather than viewing WoW’s actions as isolated, it is more appropriate to view WoW activism as yet another front in the struggle over who has authoritative power within Judaism, particularly within Israeli society. For example, the question of whether religious students should perform mandatory national servicehas long plagued the Israeli political system. Similarly, Orthodox Judaism has maintained a controlling voice in decisions surrounding marriage, conversion andimmigration in Israel; a system that effectively denies the perspectives of Conservative, Reform or secular Jews both in Israel and around the world. In their struggle for equity in religious practice, Women of the Wall’s activism heralds a new era of multi-vocality within Judaism and presents a significant challenge to the hegemonic position held by Orthodox Judaism in Israel.
Originally published by Anthropology News – Online