This time of year in Israel, with Hanukkah upon us, we are surrounded by imagery of heroes. We have the mighty Maccabees of the Hanukkah story and we even have Prince Charming slaying the dragon to save the princess in the annual Festigal children’s musicals put on during this holiday season.
The heroes – in the stories of religious and Jewish history as well as fairy tales – are male. Their heroic acts are those of military force – often out of necessity, as in the story of Hanukkah to save the Jews – and their leadership is one of physical strength. Amidst the delicious food and the candles, the message we send to children is that, yet again, the (male) hero physically overpowers our enemies and leads the Jews to (military) victory.
Next week, Women of the Wall will celebrate Hag Habanot, Festival of Daughters on Rosh Hodesh Tevet December 4, 2013 at the Kotel. In anticipation of celebrating a North African Jewish tradition which is new to me, I learned of the unique leadership of Hannah and her seven sons, Yehudit (Judith) and the daughter of the High Priest. Each in her own way played a crucial part in the victory over the Greeks in the Hanukkah story. Their leadership was strategic, personal and emotional.
Their heroic acts are vulnerable, risky and stealthy. These women sacrifice their children, their bodies and they raise their voices to be heard in a time when women’s leadership was an exception to all of the rules.
These women did not save the Jews only by sword, but also by faith and by good planning and with a brave, strong voice. This is what my heroes look like- female, smart, calculated strategists and unafraid to speak up about injustice: Hannah, Yehudit and the High Priest’s daughter in 2nd Century BCE and Women of the Wall in 2013! Heroes and leaders are women and men who raise their voices on behalf of those in need and the disenfranchised. A hero’s power is not only by sword but by working together in the community to strategize, initiate and navigate change.
Women of the Wall have strategically and bravely carved out a new space for women’s leadership in Israel. These women have been scorned and arrested; they have sacrificed their physical safety and anonymity for the greater good of the Jewish people. I truly believe that the treatment of women in the public space in Israel, Jerusalem and specifically the Kotel will dictate the future of the Jewish people. In these spaces we will congregate, celebrate, mourn and build community. If women are less than, marginal or unequal in any way at the Western Wall, then how can we teach the future Jewish leaders, boys and girls, about kindness, respect, democracy and justice?
This year the Jewish denominations- Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Renewal, and non-denominational Jewish activists have come together for the greater good for the future of Israel and the Jewish people. We stood up to injustice, we used our bodies and our voices – we stood our ground for equal rights – but we also did this through strategic planning and with strong faith.
Most recently, we have added a new method of leadership and heroism to our social change arsenal: Negotiation and cooperation with the government.
If female, non-militaristic heroism is under-recognized in our communal memory, negotiation and cooperation as a form of heroic leadership is nearly unheard of.
As Jews, our history is overrun by war and attempts to eradicate our people from existence. We are used to fighting with our backs against the wall: the Greeks, Spain, Masada and Germany just to name a few. But now it is 2013 and we must realize that our Jewish movements and our Jewish state are strong. It is time now to define the lines of democracy and social justice – and women’s rights, for 51% of the population!
Women of the Wall stepped up to the negotiating table to reshape the Western Wall plaza and the space that surrounds it so that all Jews are reflected, represented and welcome there. It takes courage, bravery and risk to put down our proverbial swords and shields, to negotiate now, after 25 years of struggle. Many people can fight and be arrested, but it takes great strategic thought and vision to re-imagine and design the Western Wall area with the decision makers shaping Israel today.
Like Miriam and Moses who led the Children of Israel to the Promised Land without ever having seen it, Women of the Wall work now courageously to carve out a space for all Jews to pray freely at the Western Wall.
Like the Suffragists who for nearly 100 years, rallied and coordinated and negotiated their way to free women to participate equally in democracy Women of the Wall work now with all the tools this democracy has to offer.
This Hanukkah, let us teach our daughters and sons that the heroes of this holiday are not solely mighty Maccabee warriors but also women like Hannah and Yehudit, women whose strong voices, dedication, faith and vision paved the way to victory.