Ve’higiy’anu laz’man hazeh. As hundreds of women sang Shehecheyanu towards the end of Monday’s Rosh Hodesh service, the joy and the relief of having reached this occasion was palpable. For many of the participants, it has been 25 hard years in the making. For me, I felt a little bit like I had cheated, waltzing into the Kotel past the ring of female guards and into the women’s section to proudly claim my place among friends and strangers. Some of the women there had been arrested and had been pelted with unkind words, spit, or rocks so that they could read from the Torah and wear their tallitot and teffillin at the Kotel. Instead of a comrade in arms, I had arrived in time to partake in the camaraderie of women linking arms, praying, singing, and dancing.
The experience, in different ways, merited the singing of Shehecheyanu for me. Beyond it being Rosh Hodesh and being my first time with Women of the Wall, it was one of the first times in my life that I connected so deeply to prayer. I felt the glory of being enveloped in a group of women, their voices victorious, joyous, powerful, and at the same time reverent. I was lifted up by their vivacity and jubilation.
In his 1912 treatise on religion, social theorist Émile Durkheim (himself the progeny of three generations of Rabbis) describes the “effervescent” energy of groups, “a sort of electricity” that emerges from the closeness of assembled individuals that “quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.” In Durkheim’s theory of religion, it is the power of group that leads a person to feel there is something greater than herself: the sacred emerges from people gathered to perform ritual acts. While I certainly do not wish to make any theological statements here, I can positively say that being one body in the collective whose energy pulsated through and beyond the Kotel’s women’s section was powerful. The electricity conducted by the voices that moved around and through me was spiritual. It was also political. It was hard to detach the two, and as I reflect on the excitement of the day, I wonder whether it was the feminist political project –easier for me to latch onto than the spiritual—that carried me toward the ineffable.
At the same time, there was a lot about the political project that I struggle with. I had been nervous—to the point that I considered not going—about walking into a conflict that had the potential to blow up into physical violence or legal entanglement. I was in fact surprised, when I arrived, at the absence of open conflict. The show of resistance that I witnessed from where I stood in the sea of women was, relative to my expectations, altogether lame: I saw a small group of Ultra-Orthodox boys, not more than 10 years of age, yelling outside the women’s section; I heard the sound of a beating drum at one point; and a voice of a man leading prayer on a loud speaker stopped short, a results of one of the “confidence building measures” (as Anat Hoffman later explained) that included a “mysterious” power-outage before the heart of our service began.
If I’m being honest, the feeble dissent was a relief and a disappointment. I was happy to arrive, feel safe, and be able to participate in the positive vision of the organization. At the same time, the idea of being part of a real struggle for women’s rights seemed exhilarating. Cut out of the cloth of a different generation and unseasoned by activism—or, I’m willing to grant out of a bit of cowardice, as I was too afraid to show up with my tallit out of fear it would be taken away—I was not really willing to really get my hands dirty for the cause. Writing is a much more comfortable feminist practice for me, and I’m not sure what a healthy level of discomfort entails.
This discomfort from conflict is, no doubt, shaped by the world in which I was raised. My generation did not have a battle to fight akin to that which the Second Wave Feminists fought for educational opportunities and professional advancement, for example. I grew up in the space these women fought to create for me. When the Women of the Wall first began in Israel, I was a very young child in America. For my whole childhood, I was blissfully unaware that being a girl came with any restrictions: I grew up feeling that I could do anything that I put my mind to. Religiously, since I was raised in a reform synagogue, I also had no idea that there were parts of my religion that some sought to deny me.
It really took until graduate school, as I began to think seriously about career and family, that I began to identify as a feminist. It took until planning my wedding, when my now husband and I carefully considered how to make the traditional ceremony reciprocal and egalitarian, for me to start thinking of myself as a Jewish feminist. It took arriving in Israel to study at the Conservative Yeshiva to really reckon with what it meant to be a woman in the Jewish tradition, especially to be immersed in the Rabbinic tradition. And it took until the 25th anniversary celebration of Women of the Wall to really appreciate, face to face, what it has been like to fight for women’s religious and political rights.
New to the scene, both of Women of the Wall and of Jewish Feminism, I was impressed and moved by Nashot HaKotel’s younger supporters. The climax of the day was the sight of young girls being lifted up with empty Torah covers in their hands. One day—one day soon—I hope these girls can return with these covers full, or more to the point, with the covers placed aside as they read the Torah at the Kotel. This is the dream for the future, on which Anat Hoffman elaborated later in the day at the Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism, which hosted panel discussions as part of the anniversary celebration. Her goal was to have two plazas at the Kotel, one for the Ultra-Orthodox and one that is open to all, that is not under the jurisdiction of the Western Wall Heritage Fund, and that (to paraphrase) “has the same budget and jurisdiction and does not have ushers putting schmatas on every kid over six years old.” This mission, Hoffman went on to explain, saw the Kotel as a microcosm for the Jewish world. The bigger picture was to push back at the exclusion of women from public spaces.
As an American Jewish woman who runs in mostly egalitarian circles, I am left considering an even broader picture: To what extent do we want our world, both sacred and profane, to be defined by gender? Should we hope that girls grow up in a world where they don’t have reason to think about their gender? In such a world, girls may not feel the sting of banging their heads on glass ceilings or patriarchal norms nor the paradoxical weight of not being bound to the mitzvot like their male peers. Yet, is it also a world where the particularity of womanhood is lost? What do women lose if lighting candles, baking challah, or going to the mikveh are no longer theirs? (With the possessive “theirs,” I celebrate women’s interpretations and reinterpretations of these mitzvot). What have I missed by never praying in an all-female space?
I think we must also ask, who does a gendered world exclude? There are those who are alienated by gender binaries, and there are parts of each person that are suppressed by gendered expectations. There are also the men who prayed outside of the women’s section as supporters, as liminal allies of Women of the Wall. What is the function—and I do not deny there is one—of separation in a movement seeking solidarity, access, and freedom? These are the questions that I hope can emerge from those feminists who have grown up in the spaces created by Women of the Wall.