Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz
Standing in Solidarity with Women of the Wall
Last week, a call went out
the USA, and Europe, to make yesterday, Rosh Chodesh, Tevet, a day of
solidarity at venues around the world in support of the right of women to pray
at the Western Wall in "dignity, in safety and in shared
community." Why did such a call go
out, and what was the response?
First, a little history, courtesy of Phyllis Chesler, an American, Jewish feminist: 21 years ago for the first time in history, 70 Jewish women prayed together out loud as a group at the Western Wall (or "Kotel") in
. Women have always prayed at the
Kotel, often silently, and alone. What made this service radically different,
certainly transcendent, was that we not only prayed aloud but we also chanted
from the Torah. The group consisted of
women of every Jewish denomination, but many of the founding leaders were
Orthodox women – educated Orthodox women, and the group’s way of praying,
including their Torah reading among a group of women only, was then, and has
remained, entirely within the remit of halachah – Jewish law. Jerusalem
Phyllis Chesler, describing that first time, tells us: Some of us donned tallesim (prayer shawls) and head coverings, many of us did not. We were radiant, overwhelmed, humbled, united. However, once the ultra-orthodox men and women understood that Jewish women were chanting from a Torah, they began hurling unholy and terrifying curses at us which fouled the very air. Threats of physical violence quickly followed. We made it out safely: this time, the first time.
As the group continued to meet, early morning, once a month, every month, at Rosh Chodesh, the response of the ultra-orthodox who have claimed the Wall as their own, personal synagogue, became increasingly violent. Metal chairs were thrown over the mechitza at the women, curses were shouted out. Women of the Wall, as they called themselves, decided to go to the Israeli Supreme Court, asking for permission to conduct their women-only service, on the women’s side of the mechitza, and read from the Torah, for 11 hours a year – one hour, once a month, on Rosh Chodesh. Women around the world rallied in support. Artists created tallitot to help raise money for the cause (and tonight I wear the Women of the Wall Tallit), tambourines for Women’s Seders, and much more.
Phyllis Chesler tells us: The Israeli Supreme Court would ultimately render three decisions. The first decision, in 1994, sent us to the Knesset where, I kid you not, the guys tried to banish our prayer group to rubble-strewn Arab areas of
. We returned to
court and, in 2000, rejoiced over a unanimous three judge decision in our
favor. The state immediately appealed this decision. We then faced nine judges.
In 2002, four judges were in our favor, four opposed us--and the fifth and
decisive vote against us was cast by none other than the great liberal and
humanitarian, Chief Justice Aharon Barak, a man who has been able to find
justice for Palestinian Arabs, both Christians and Jews but not for Jewish
women. This 2002 decision ordered the government to build a
prayer site for us at Robinson's Arch, which is mainly an archeological and
tourist site. Jerusalem
I have attended a Rosh Chodesh service at the wall – about 5 years ago, when I was in
for a summer program. Even before we
left for Robinson’s Arch for a beautiful Torah service where a young woman had
her batmitzvah (and her grandmother came up for an aliyah for the very first
time in her life), as 70 women began to quietly sing the Hallel prayers at the
Kotel, I witnessed a bearded man stand on a chair and start hurling abuse at us
– ‘You are worse than the Christians!’
‘You are prostitutes!’ he hollered in Hebrew. Two soldiers came over to our group and told
us we had to lower our voices. Israel
Things have been pretty quiet for the Women of the Wall in recent months. So quiet that, last month, they wondered if perhaps the ultra-Orthodox at the Wall had stopped paying attention. And so, when they’d reached the end of the morning prayers without hearing any abuse, they thought they’d take out the Torah and see if they could continue without moving to Robinson’s Arch. It became evident in moments that they could not. As they packed up and started to walk away from the Kotel to continue, as usual, at Robinson’s Arch, Nofrat Frankel, an Israeli medical student and Masorti/Conservative Jew, holding the Torah, was surrounded and taken to the on-site police station, apparently for wearing a tallit which, they claimed, was forbidden (incidentally, halachah states that women are not obliged to wear a tallit but absolutely does not state that it is forbidden). She was told that a criminal file was being opened on her, and that she was banned from the Kotel for two weeks.
And so, once again, women of every Jewish denomination, as well as men, are rallying to stand in support of Women of the Wall. Last night, we dedicated B’nai Israel’s Rosh Hodesh group program to Women of the Wall. After studying the history, and the recent events, each of us wrote a personal reflection that related to the issues at hand. Tonight I want to share just the topics. But each piece was powerful and moving, and needs and deserves to be seen and read in its entirety. And so, beginning Saturday night, for 8 days, in echo of the 8 days of Chanukah that we complete tonight – our festival that celebrates and remembers our reclaiming of our Religious Freedoms – one of these pieces will be posted on our congregational blog, shma koleinu (which, if you still haven’t found yet, can be easily accessed via the link on the front page of our temple website).
There is a beautiful piece on the experience of praying with a tallit. It begins:
Wrapped in the ‘arms’ of God, Embraced in love and intimacy… Easing into the secure comfort, I am free to pray with all my heart…
Another woman writes of a moving experience at the Kotel on a quiet evening, on the way to break fast at the end of Yom Kippur.
Marjorie Freeman writes of her experience, growing up in a Reform temple, with new-found appreciation for a sense of inclusivity she felt from childhood.
Barbara Levine reflected on her experience of an adult batmitzvah, and the powerful ritual of mikvah that she chose to have before that special day. Highlighting the beauty of existing in a pluralist Jewish community, she tells of the day that she met an Orthodox woman who had been so deeply moved by the article she wrote about her mikvah experience. So much spirituality from a willingness for all of us to open up to the God-moments that we can find in each others’ expressions of Judaism.
Beth Lazar writes about visiting synagogues of different denominations in the
, and the
bond of connecting to the Torah rituals in each one, praying that all women
everywhere will one day be able to feel that connection. USA
Heidi Gassel shared some deeply moving parts of her biography, and some of the life-changing moments of inclusion of exclusion experienced by her and members of her family in the context of Jewish community.
Becca writes a powerful prayer, celebrating the fullness of being Jewish and a woman, calling on God’s presence, and singing praises to a God that embraces and loves all of us.
And I wrote about my first Tallit, how I came to wear one, and how it transformed my prayer and, subsequently, transformed my life.
Nofrat Frankel, and all the Women of the Wall, we stand with you, we rededicate ourselves to support the cause of Women of the Wall, and we rededicate ourselves as Jewish men and women to embrace and celebrate a pluralist Jewish community, committed to being mindful of when we are guilty of erecting unnecessary barriers of exclusion, wanting to see the day when all of us, every part of Klal Yisrael, is able to explore and express our Jewish spirituality without fear.