Fast for Esther, for Jewish women and our state

The decree was given out in Shushan the capital; and the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Shushan was perplexed.                                     Scroll of Esther 3:15

Soon a new edict is to be signed in Jerusalem halls of power. The signatories plan to seal an agreement in private chambers while we are unaware of its clauses or effects. The Mandelblit agreement proposes to ban women’s public prayer with tallit, tefillin and Torah from the Kotel — in our generation and for generations to come. Whether you agree or disagree about women wearing tallitot, binding with tefillin, and reading from the Torah, the Mandelblit plan threatens to undermine a core tenet of our precious state, a rare phenomenon in our region, one which our children serve to defend every day — religious freedom.

Under administrator Shmuel Rabinovitch’s jurisdiction, police confiscated women’s tallitot and tefillin, arrested praying women, and continue to prohibit women from reading from a Torah scroll at the Kotel. The current law of Israel upholds women’s freedom to pray with tallit, tefillin, and Torah in the women’s section at the Kotel (Justice Moshe Sobel, April 2013 interpreting Supreme Court ruling, 2003). If you embrace –

  • coercive enforcement of sectarian prohibitions,
  • the repression of women, Jewish faith and its diverse forms,
  • the exile of women who yearn to pray in our historic, public sacred space, and
  • the empowerment and reward of intolerant bullying with territorial hegemony

stop reading now, and let the Mandelblit agreement roll!

The 25 year-strong struggle of Women of the Wall is at a precipice. Esther reveals treachery in the halls of power —

for we are sold, I and my people. . . .        Scroll of Esther 7:4

The Mandelblit agreement proposes to betray religious freedom and women’s rights. Purim is a time of revealing what is hidden, of unmasking and redressing the machinations of power. In dire hours, when the edict is about to go into effect, Mordecai calls upon Esther —

If you remain silent at this time . . . you and your father’s house will perish.

Today also, silence is acquiescence. Mordecai’s exhortation to action applies timelessly to all of us —

Who knows whether it is for a moment like this that you have attained your power?                             Scroll of Esther 4:14

מי יודע אם לעת כזאתQueen Esther resolves to intervene to prevent the edict from taking effect, in spite of the tremendous risks of speaking truth to power –

And so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.                    Scroll of Esther 4:16

Mordecai immediately accedes to her authority –

So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.                  Scroll of Esther 4:17

The Kotel is a symbolic center of Jewish sacred, historical and spiritual life. What happens at the Kotel ripples forth on a sea of world attention. The health and flourishing of Israeli civil society are jeopardized by religious and gender repression.


Women and men pray at the Kotel, 1917 Matson collection, Library of Congress

Women have been praying at the Kotel for centuries, evolving our traditions. Today, more women than ever are engaged with, committed to, and contributing to Jewish study and practice.

Prioritizing life over the infallibility of sovereign power, Queen Esther calls upon a king to repeal an edict (Scroll of Esther 8:6).

Today, call on the government of Israel and/or the current WoW board –

  1. to retract the clause in the Mandelblit agreement allotting exclusive jurisdiction over the women’s section to an ultra-Orthodox administrator, Shmuel Rabinovitch
  2. to uphold Israeli law according to which women’s prayer with tallit, tefillin, and reading from a Torah scroll are part of the accepted custom in the women’s section at the Kotel.

Esther overcomes male authority bent on oppression. Faced with Esther’s petition, the king conciliates superbly —

‘Whatever your petition, Queen Esther, it shall be granted to you; and whatever your request, even to the half of the kingdom, it shall be performed.’                Scroll of Esther 7:2

Perhaps male figureheads in our time could take a cue from the Scroll of Esther. Women’s full visibility, leadership, and power are as desperately needed now in the Jewish People and throughout the world as in Esther’s day.

Let us follow Queen Esther and overcome narrow interests that threaten the greatness of our endeavor – let the State of Israel welcome and sustain women’s freedom of religion. On the Fast of Esther, we hunger to annul an impending edict of repression.

To express your voice in support of Jewish women’s religious freedom, click on Referendum: Women at the Kotel.

About the Author
The late Bonna Devora Haberman is author of 'Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink' and 'ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter,' National Jewish Book Award finalist. Dr. Haberman taught at Harvard, Brandeis and Hebrew universities. In Jerusalem, she initiated Women of the Wall, a 25 year strong movement for women's full participation and leadership of public religious practice. -- Dr. Haberman died on June 16, 2015.
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