On my way in to the Western Wall plaza for Rosh Hodesh prayers with Women of the Wall this morning, the security officer held me for 10 minutes while he tried to verify with his superior whether or not I should be permitted to enter with six copies of my new book about Zionism. They were in my pack with my tallit (prayer shawl), tefillin (phylacteries), siddur (prayer book), and water bottle. He indicated that he had been briefed about women arriving that morning, and that there were special precautions he had been instructed to take. When he did not succeed in contacting his officer, and admitted that my books and I seemed not to pose any imminent danger, he permitted me to enter.
We were dozens assembled at the rear of the women’s section at the Kotel -- Israeli-born and immigrants, young and older women, visitors, women on sabbatical, students, and tourists from a wide range of halachic backgrounds. Women of the Wall perform the traditional prayer services, including the sacred utterances; the prayer is full, intact and uplifting. For one hour every month, women have an opportunity to participate in a joyous, inclusive prayer community at the Kotel – a privilege that our society avails to men at every hour.
The current police approach to Women of the Wall is to select a couple of us for detention on the grounds of alleged prohibitions against certain tallit styles. A black-striped prayer shawl draws special disapprobation. A number of women have been detained in the past months for wearing such shawls, some from deceased male relatives with deep prayer connections. The other criterion for detention is whether we wear our tallit draped on our shoulders or in a shawl-like fashion. The police make their detentions during Shaharit – the first morning prayers. Police officers stand on the side facing us, pointing and selecting whom to apprehend in her act of prayer. They approach, pick people out one by one, and escort them away from our midst to the police station.
This treatment by the police is violating, particularly during the vulnerable opening of our hearts that prayer occasions. Women of the Wall are inquiring about how we might best ease the increasingly aggressive police behavior. We hope that the police and other officials also seek to repair the humiliation and trivialization of their honor and our state entailed in policing women’s prayer shawl styles. We must all take thoughtful steps toward better fulfilling the promise of freedom of religious practice and gender equality on which Israeli civil society is founded and depends.
I led Hallel, the thanksgiving prayers of the new month, with my tallit draped in a traditional way, as many others among us did. The police did not take more of us into custody by that stage of the morning. Perhaps they had filled their quota for today. Some of the many police officers and photographers tapped their toes to the rhythm of our prayer, and smiled.
After Hallel, we departed from the Kotel Plaza with a special prayer for Jewish women’s freedom to practice our faith according to our tradition and conscience. In the area immediately in front of the Kishle — the police headquarters for the Old City where our sisters were being held — we draped ourselves in our tallitot and bound ourselves with tfillin, and recited the Torah reading and the Mussaf prayers. Assisted by her walker, an older women approached the makeshift reading platform on the stone slab benches. She sang out her blessings in a clarion voice while two religiously attired Muslim women looked on with curiosity.