March 8 marked International Women’s Day, a day dedicated toward marking women’s economic, political and social achievements. I have personally chosen to mark the occasion by reflecting on all the wonderful women, from across the religious spectrum, that I have met both locally and in Israel, thanks to my involvement in Women for the Wall (W4W.)
Prior to my involvement with W4W, the debate surrounding women’s roles in Judaism was not on my radar. I was unaware of the group Women of the Wall and their mission. I was largely unaware that there were groups of Jewish women who felt unsatisfied with Traditional Jewish gender roles and as a result were demanding revolutionary changes, reparations for past transgressions against women. My life has been so full, so blessed, so spiritual because of my religious beliefs and traditions, that I was shocked to learn that there were women who felt differently. I personally felt so uplifted and holy from observance of the laws of tznius and Kol Isha and liberated by the exemption from time bound Mitzvot, such as Tallis, Tefilin, that I was shocked that there were women who felt subjugated by these customs and traditions.
Thanks to my involvement with W4W, I became exposed to the ideas of women from left, right and center of the religious divide. I joined Facebook discussions, read blogs and articles representing each side of the issue. It was heart warming to meet and watch the prayers of thousands of like minded women, who wished to preserve our holy traditions and felt satisfied and uplifted in their current religious roles. While at the same time, I sympathized with women who yearned for a greater involvement in communal aspects of traditional Judaism and sought opportunities for more opportunities for women to participate in leadership roles. It was also eye opening to learn about the political climate that informs many of the activities and initiatives of organizations such as IRAC and Women of The Wall. I have gained so much in these pursuits, learning from different women, from different communities, from different individuals with differing religious and political beliefs.
There has been only negative aspect of this journey, one thing that has often left me feeling heartbroken and estranged from my peers. This has been the feelings of frustration and rejection that I have experienced when people have summarily dismissed the ideas of traditional women and men as wrong, without engaging them in thoughtful, meaningful debate. I have had many experiences where instead of trying to listen, ideas have been summarily dismissed, entire arguments, presented intelligently and eloquently, rejected by the because of the assertion that the “opponent” is a byproduct of years of brainwashing and subjugation by Rabbinic Handlers and as a result their opinion is unimportant. While many individuals are willing to listen, to debate, in a respectful way, others in the name of feminism and/or pluralism, have resorted to good old fashioned mudslinging, cat fighting and name calling. I have heard the desire to protect traditional religious practices compared to rape and women participating in silent prayer inexplicably linked to rambunctious and inappropriate hooligans. I personally have been labeled on numerous occasions as a delusional, anti-democratic, religious fundamentalist, troglodyte. In dealing with my more “progressive sisters,” for the first time in my life I have felt silenced, oppressed and stifled.
Just a few examples of this “silencing” that my colleagues and I have experienced, have included being banned from Women of the Wall’s Facebook page for asking polite but challenging questions. Our comments deleted for being too challenging or controversial. While professional journalists, who have written well researched articles challenging WoW’s position or their leadership, have been threatened with lawsuits and ordered to take their articles down. While at the same time, various attempts to create a forum for dialogue between W4W and WoW, by independent organizations, on the radio or by a mediator between W4W and WoW, have been cancelled or WoW just refused to attend. The only appearance, to date, where WoW agreed to appear with W4W, was at the Jerusalem General Assembly’s forum on the “Wall of the Heart of Israel, How it Connects and Divides a Nation,“ but unfortunately when publicizing the event on their Facebook page, Women of the Wall excluded Ronit Peskin’s name from the list of speakers. When questioned, they stated “we never speak her name.”
The more I put myself out there, participating in dialogue between the various incarnations of Jewish women, I often wonder how can we create a future where we preserve tradition, while at the same time meeting the needs and desires of twenty first century women when our partners in dialogue are not there. When the ideas of hundreds of thousands of women are dismissed because they are too brainwashed to know any better. Day after day, I wish I can get my sisters to understand that we have a voice too, it may different than theirs, but it still valid and deserves to be respected. We still deserve to be listened to. We are not oppressed, delusional or brainwashed, we just disagree.