Monday, December 01, 2008


The Women of the Wall, Twenty Years On
Feminists challenge the Israeli ultra-Orthodox
by Phyllis Chesler, November 30, 2008

Twenty years ago today, on December 1, 1988, 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.

What we did was the equivalent to nuns conducting an all-female prayer service--but at the Vatican. As important: The participants came from Israel, the United States, Europe, South America, and Australia; represented every religious denomination of Jewry, (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, meta-denominational); and every political persuasion (left-wing, centrist, right-wing). 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.

That is where I first met the woman whose idea this all was: Over an open Torah, under the early morning skies. Rivka Haut, who has since become my beloved chevrutah, or Torah study partner, was, at the time, already a long-time Orthodox feminist pioneer of womens' halachic prayer groups. After the service had started, Rivka turned to me, and offered me the honor of opening the Torah for the women. This single, "accidental" honor wedded me most fatefully to the struggle that was to come.

For years, I did not know why Rivka, with whom I would go on to co-author a book about this struggle, Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site, had picked me. There were so many scholars and rabbis amongst us. Only recently, Rivka told me that she chose me because I had "an otherworldly look on my face" while I was praying.

We left Israel, high as kites.

The Jerusalem-based women, initially led by Bonna Haberman, Miriam Benson, Shulamit Magnus and Anat Hoffman, a.k.a. the Women of the Wall (WOW). continued to pray. They were mainly "nice Jewish girls." With one exception, the group was not involved with politics of any kind.

Nevertheless, beginning early in 1989, WOW was met with serious and continuous violence. Ultra-orthodox (haredi) men threw heavy metal chairs at them over the high barrier that separated men from women. One young girl was hit and had to be hospitalized. Canisters of tear gas were thrown into the womens' section.

Ultra-orthodox women, often following male orders, sometimes on their own, uttered terrible curses, and tried to silence the quietly praying women in every way possible. They shrieked, circled, raged, and made awful faces. They pushed and shoved a pregnant Bonna Haberman who was holding onto the Torah with all her might. At one point, the government of Israel actually hired women to physically remove the women-- not for disturbing the peace but for praying.

At first, we organized solidarity prayer services for the women under siege in America. We were on the phone to Jerusalem almost constantly. We founded a not-for-profit International Committee for the Women of the Wall (ICWOW). At the time, there was no law which prohibited what the women were doing. But the violence escalated and the women decided to go to the Israeli Supreme Court to demand protection for their peaceful, religiously lawful prayer services. The Court took the case but prohibited the women from praying at the Kotel with a Torah until the court rendered its decision. The women continued to pray at the Kotel but went to the Archeological Gardens, Hulda's Gate, or to a site overlooking the Kotel plaza, for their Torah service.

And so, we decided to raise the money, acquire a Torah, dedicate it in the streets of Jerusalem, donate it to the women of Jerusalem, and pray with it at the Kotel, according to our custom, as we had done the previous year and as many of us routinely do in our synagogues all across America. We were prevented from doing so--and were thus able to join WOW's lawsuit in the Israeli Supreme Court.

After much discussion and many disagreements, we petitioned the court for only eleven hours a year, on Rosh Chodesh, the new month, a holiday expressly given to Jewish women. (In the month of Tishrei, Rosh Chodesh is actually Rosh HaShanah). On other holidays, where non-Torah scrolls are read, (as on Purim or Shavuot), WOW continued to pray there, reading aloud from the megilla of Esther and Ruth.

We understood that even a modest demand was revolutionary. The opposition saw us coming, they saw the future in us, and they knew that if they yielded even a little, that the future would instantly be upon them. In upholding tradition, they not only continued to uphold misogyny, they also sought to hold back and sully the inevitable tradition-honoring changes that Jewish women, (and men), living in a feminist era, were obligated to bring to our tradition.

WOW has never stopped. WOW has prayed at the worst moments of this most recent, endless Intifada. According to Rivka Haut, "WOW has maintained a group presence that is welcoming to every Jewish woman, teaching bat mitzvah girls as well as elderly women who never heard women leading prayers and never saw women reading from a Torah scroll, that they can actively participate in prayer. The women have persevered despite the rocks thrown over the mehitsa at them by haredim, despite the rocks raining down upon the Kotel area from the mosque above."

WOW became "legendary" and was written up everywhere--and uproariously misunderstood by almost everyone. Some reporters thought we wanted to pray on the men's side of the mehitza or together with men. Others thought that we had "feminized" the prayer service and were counting ourselves as a minyan (Prayer quorum). None of this was true. It took us awhile to understand that people visited their own longings upon us; we were a "projective" test.

Artists created tallesim (prayer shawls) and tambourines in our honor. We were included in feminist Passover Hagadot. Two films have already been made about this struggle. The most recent film, by Yael Katzir, a secular Tel Avivian and a professor of film, is a powerful, haunting, soulful, heartbreaking, and enraging film. It is called "Praying in her own Voice." You may both read about it and order it here and see clips of it here.

This film shows WOW's inspiring and steadfast women, both at home and under siege. It is a searing film. It cries out to heaven for justice. It also shows WOW's last visit to the Israeli Supreme Court; hope dashed; and it shows the archeological dig/prayer site the government has prepared for them.

Katzir, whose film was recently showcased at the Israeli Film Festival, managed to catch on film a great deal of WOW's hope and joy, as well as several particularly ugly instances in which ultra-orthodox women, led by one Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, may be seen cursing, surrounding, and creating a riot against WOW. Schmidt is seen on camera trying to steal their Torah away. (I have been told that Schmidt has begun to tell people that she had been "paid to be an actor in the film." This is a bald-faced lie.)

Katzir's film now includes opening comments from prominent American woman rabbis but it also includes deeper portraits of WOW's core of long-timers: Danielle Bernstein, Batya Cohn-Kallus, Anat Hoffman, Rahel Jaskow, Haviva Ner-David, Peggy Sidor, and lawyer Frances Raday at their most heroic.

How ironic! All over the world, including in Israel, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish women are rabbis and lead their congregations, both male and female, in prayer. Orthodox women in Israel, the United States, Europe, and Australia, pray together in women's prayer groups in which they chant from the Torah. More recently, orthodox women began to pray together with orthodox men in partnership minyanim (prayer quorums). This has included both women and men chanting from the Torah and receiving previously male-only honors.

Only in Israel, and at the site most holy to Jews, at a site where soldiers are sworn in, and national celebrations are held--at that place, Jewish women were, (and still are), prohibited from praying aloud in a group with a Torah.

Although I care deeply about Jewish womens' religious rights in Israel and of course, about all womens' right to both practice their religion--and to not be coerced into doing so--the struggle in Jerusalem is an intra-tribal matter and important in its own right.

However, as the Intifada of 2000 continued to rage against Israel, as did the United Nations, Muslim terrorists, and Western academics everywhere, I did not have the heart to join the jackal chorus against the Jewish state. Rivka and I decided to dedicate our book to the state of Israel and to refrain from writing articles or giving interviews to the non-Jewish media on this subject.

But such silence is not possible forever. Is Israel head and shoulders above Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia in terms of womens' rights? Absolutely. But our struggle also proves that justice for Jewish women is quite imperfect in the only Western-style democracy in the Middle East.

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 Muslims 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. They have done so, at great cost. You may see it all in Katzir's moving film.
When I asked Rivka for her comments, here is what she said:
"Looking back 20 years after having organized the first halakhic women's group prayer at the Kotel, complete with prayer leader singing aloud and Torah reading, I have mixed emotions. I was 20 years younger, my husband was alive and with me then, and I felt exhilarated and proud at having begun a great spiritual adventure. Since then, however, the brave and pious Israeli women who have doggedly continued, coming every month, despite the narrowness and hatred they experienced emanating from our own tribe, have endured much, and have not succeeded in the Israeli Court. They have been banished, exiled, to Robinson's Arch, an archeological site they do not want and did not choose as a place of group prayer. What we all wanted to accomplish has not happened. We are still journeying towards our dream, towards women's freedom to pray, halakhically, and read torah, at our holy site."

This struggle empowered me to study Torah something which gives me much joy. It taught me that one should not try to change tradition if you have no intention of practicing it and without re-interpreting it smartly, humbly, carefully. WOW symbolizes the extraordinary learning in which Jewish women have been engaged and, as important, prides itself on finding ways to include all Jewish women in its prayer service. WOW does not separate from women of any denomination and is willing to sacrifice in order to do this.

From the outside, it may appear that our struggle has been legally defeated by ultra-orthodox fanatics. To some extent that is true--but we have also had orthodox supporters, both male and female, as well as orthodox detractors; feminist supporters as well as feminist detractors; Israeli supporters and Israelis who have such negative views of the Orthodox rabbinate that they will have nothing to do with religion--and they have viewed WOW negatively, as yet another religious group. Please remember that, as I've noted, it was a liberal, progressive, highly esteemed man, the President of the Israeli Supreme Court, who refused to grant justice to Jewish women in this era.

To WOW: Happy 20th Anniversary! We only have 20 more years to go before we reach the Promised Land in the promised land.

To Jewcy's readers: Please see Katzir's film, read our book, and go and pray with WOW when you are in Jerusalem.

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