Saturday, December 19, 2009

A week of blogging in solidarity with Women of the Wall

In the coming week there will be a new blog each evening from a member of the Rosh Hodesh group of B'nai Israel.  Last night, at our Rosh Hodesh program, some women wrote a response to the recent arrest of Nofrat Frankel last month at the Rosh Chodesh Shacharit service of Women of the Wall.  Each woman was asked to reflect on a range of experiences: the experience of being at the Kotel, the experience of praying in a tallit, or a time in their lives when they were aware of their inclusion or exclusion from Jewish community as a woman.  Each woman shared something personal, spiritual and deeply moving.  Below is the sermon, delivered on Shabbat, December 18, dedicated to standing in solidarity with Women of the Wall this Rosh Hodesh Tevet.  Please visit us each night to read another solidarity blog.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Standing in Solidarity with Women of the Wall

Last week, a call went out Israel, 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 Jerusalem. 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.

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 Jerusalem. 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.

I have attended a Rosh Chodesh service at the wall – about 5 years ago, when I was in Israel 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.

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 USA, 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.

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.

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