Many people are appalled by the recent arrests of women at the Western Wall for donning a tallit prayer shawl and reciting the Shma – a central credo of Jewish faith. How can an open society condone such oppression?

In 1989, when I convened the initial Rosh Hodesh (New Month) prayers of what came to be known as “Women of the Wall,” I intended to initiate women’s monthly prayer celebrations in Jerusalem public sacred space. Women of the Wall are diverse members of an ancient tradition; we humbly contribute to its unfolding. We regard the practice of our most refined ethics to be inextricable from our religious observance. We are rabbinic Jews – fully addressed by the teachings of our people, the Oral and Written Law. We wrap ourselves in tallitot, bind ourselves with tefillin (phylacteries), and chant from a hand-written sacred Torah scroll. We blow the shofar (ram’s horn) during the Elul month of repentance, chant the scrolls of Esther and Ruth on festivals, and the Book of Lamentations on the day of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem. We animate an ongoing cycle of spiritual sanctification, uplift the rhythm of months and seasons.

Over the years, we have initiated thousands into our celebration of women’s spiritual autonomy, leadership, and participation. Among those who do not share our vision, our prayers arouse fear, resistance, and even evoke aggression. For 23 years, Women of the Wall have been exercising the instruments of democracy — the freedoms of assembly, religious conscience, and access to holy sites, the Supreme Court, the Knesset, and a free media — to better fulfill Israel’s commitments to an inclusive, pluralistic, egalitarian society. We are challenging the “Western” wall — the deep, ensconced oppression of women in the West.

Like many nations, the Israeli Declaration of Independence guarantees democratic, equal rights for all citizens, women and men; like most nations, Israel does not completely fulfill them. Gender exclusion and oppression are not features of the retrograde religious world, nor of the developing world, but of the whole world — including the West. In both secular and religious domains, our societies exclude, under-represent, and repress women.

Most faiths perpetrate sex discrimination in core social institutions — in schools, workplaces, markets, worship, leadership, and decision-making. Exclusion from sacred rituals, from positions of authority; physical, educational, and social restrictions; and enforced modesty through surveillance and dress codes are daily humiliations to which religious communities subject girls and women. Religious authorities enforce the rule of patriarchy and its abuses on the basis of canons, laws, and liturgies – in churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues. Behavior that has long been deemed unacceptable to contemporary ethical sensibilities is commonly ignored, accepted, even respected when it is under “sacred” aegis.

Women of the Wall are confronted by an Israeli police officer at the Western Wall last week (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Women of the Wall are confronted by an Israeli police officer at the Western Wall last week (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Gender discrimination is an egregious offense against human dignity. Cultural rituals and practices are not only symbolic; they inculcate gender relationships within the psyche, in the family and community, and engulf humanity in unfairness and often cruelty. The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) advocates for modification of “social and cultural patterns of conduct.” Article 5(a) of CEDAW calls on signatory states to adhere to the following:

To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.

According to the UN, “Neither traditional, religious or cultural practice nor incompatible domestic laws and policies can justify violations of the Convention.” Yet, the treaty provides for infringements of its principles on the grounds of religion and culture.

A number of States enter reservations to particular articles on the ground that national law, tradition, religion or culture is not congruent with Convention principles, and purport to justify the reservation on that basis.

The sheer existence of domains that are exempt from declared universal human ethics undermines their validity as universal. In most states, these domains are hidden from public view and ensconced in unassailable cultural norms.

The rhetoric and illusion of equality fade into oblivion when police handcuff a praying woman. They also fade each time a woman is excluded, humiliated, probed without consent, veiled, confined, assaulted, prostituted, raped — though we seldom bear witness or take action. In Israel, Women of the Wall contest oppression that so much of the world ignores and deflects. All of our societies need women and men at the Western wall – to liberate religious culture from its gender oppressions, and to render religion a liberating force in humanity.