Last Shabbat I went to a hotel with my family in the Jerusalem mountains. There were families who were there for special occasions like weddings and birthdays, and just families like mine who were looking for a fun Shabbat away from home.
The truth is that when I packed for the weekend, I was not planning to go to synagogue. Unless there is a good reason, I prefer not to go to synagogues where I don’t feel I belong. But this past Shabbat was “Shabbat Zachor,” and on this Shabbat one is obligated to hear the Torah portion that speaks of Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jewish people.
And so, on Saturday morning, just before we went down for prayer, my partner informed me that women would be sitting in the back. I almost regretted the idea of going down to the synagogue, but I knew I had no choice.
We descended the stairs together, and at the entrance to the synagogue, I quickly observed that the main entrance was only for men. The women’s entrance was located at the back of the synagogue. Once in the women’s section, I tried to pray and had a hard time concentrating. It was not the noise of the children that bothered me. In fact, I like hearing their voices while praying. But as everyone listened to the cantor, I heard the silence, the absence of women’s voices in prayer.
At that moment I discovered the meaning of the term deafening silence.
Each community and each synagogue decides for themselves the customs that best fit them. But I realized last Shabbat just how hard it is for me not to hear female voices in a synagogue. I am used to Shabbat services in my own community, where women are present and of course, at the Western Wall – where the Women of the Wall lead all the prayers and the Torah reading.
On Rosh Hodesh Adar II, we went to the Kotel as has been our custom for 33 years. We marched with ten Torah scrolls and were joined by the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements from Israel and North America. The guards at the security gate did not allow for a smooth entrance. We went through checkpoints, one by one, with a physical examination and a thorough rummaging through of our belongings.
On the other hand, at a nearby entrance, 15,000 seminary girls entered without a queue, without undergoing any inspection at all, while the security guards urged them to enter quickly. Their goal? To prevent us from reaching the women’s section – a goal that they unfortunately achieved. What is the difference between the two groups? One group is approved by the Kotel Rabbi, and the other is not. We are women who want to pray with a tallit and tefillin, to read the Torah, together as a group. This is very frightening for the Kotel Rabbi and various Ultra-Orthodox leaders, therefore thousands of girls were encouraged to come and protest against our prayer. What is so scary, so threatening about our presence?
The commandment to “wipe out the memory of Amalek” is puzzling nowadays, when it is not known who the descendants of the Amalekite people are. Today, the concept of Amalek can be interpreted as facets of our lives that are harmful and must be purged. According to Hasidic spiritual custom, Amalek can mean doubting the existence of G-d.
According to extremists, this can be doubting any strict interpretations of Judaism, going against the grain.
Fear can be a good thing, useful even, in the face of real danger. But when baseless fear prevents unification and progress, we must fight against it. I am painfully reminded every month of the baseless hatred between Jews that led to the destruction of the Temple. It is our duty to work toward understanding, pluralism, and unity – not to give into fear.