From a tiny Torah scroll, a great reading

I just returned from an historic Rosh Hodesh prayer celebration at the Kotel.

Women of the Wall shared the joy of an intact morning service, including reading from a sacred, kosher, hand-scribed Torah scroll. This was not the first time in twenty-five years. Since the late 80’s, we succeeded to read Torah at the Kotel a number of times. However, among the cacophonous bustle of prayer at the Kotel this morning, today we performed a remarkable, moving and bold act.

Shmuel Rabinovitch and his Western Wall Heritage Foundation of ultra-Orthodox men administer the site in defiance of Israeli law. Following Rabinovitch’s instructions, last year police prohibited women from entering the Kotel plaza with a Torah, prayer shawls and tefillin-phylacteries. His instructions to the police precipitated the detention and arrest of women-at-prayer. They also encouraged unsavory behavior by thousands of ultra-Orthodox men and women who were bussed to the plaza to demonstrate against women’s prayer in the women’s section at the Kotel.

In April 2013, Justice Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court interpreted a Supreme Court ruling to include women’s public prayer practices as part of the custom at the Western Wall. Justice Sobel states in his decision that “custom of the place” can be interpreted more broadly in pluralistic-secular-nationalist terms and not exclusively Orthodox. The arrests abated—women now don tallit and tefillin without inhibition or objection.

Compared with the harrassments of last year, the feeling of liberation is tremendous. I swirl my tallit around my body, bind the small boxes to my arm and head, at home at our sacred core. Nonetheless, Rabinovitch has maintained his prohibition against women’s Torah reading. His enforcement of a factional and discriminatory rule for which there is no legal or halahkic ground degrades the Jewish People; it humiliates Jews who are women and who are men.

Tiny torahToday, Women of the Wall succeeded to bring in a precious, tiny Torah from which the bat mizva, Sasha Lutt read. Mazal tov to her and her family and to all those who made it possible today—I am deeply grateful. The scroll was apparently saved from Europe. It was probably written for the purpose for which we used it today—to be smuggled and hidden from the view of those who forbid Jews to read from our sacred text. Who would have dreamed that Jews would need to resort to smuggling a Torah scroll past Jewish authorities in our own sovereign state? Inside the women’s section, I perceived not a single objector. Not a whistle, a shaken finger, a condemnation or curse. To the contrary, many rejoiced with us; faces lit up.

Together as a community of diverse women and girls, we sanctified the divine among us—

I am sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I, the Divine sanctify you (Leviticus 22:32)

Today, we women of the wall exercised creativity and fortitude, and a healthy measure of civil disobedience.

Today, we women of the wall proved that women’s prayer—with Torah reading, tallit and tefillin—belongs at the Kotel. If you freely seek egalitarian prayer at the exquisite Robinson’s Arch site, please proceed.

Today, we women of the wall proved that there is absolutely no reason to consider for a moment agreeing to remove women’s full autonomous prayer from the Kotel plaza.

Today, the current board of Women of the Wall must end its affair with the Mandelblit plan that would make the Kotel a women’s-autonomous-prayer free zone: no Torah, no tallit, no tefillin.

Today, the current board of Women of the Wall must affirm the commitment of the organization we founded—to fulfill women’s prayer at the Kotel.

Women who have prayed with us in the past, those here today, and those who will come to the Kotel in the future are all present with us.

Women of the wall are here to stay—at the Kotel.

Hodesh Tov—a fine month to all!

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.