Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian
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Heart of Stone: Liberating the Wall for women too

Women will keep praying at the supreme site of Jewish longing and demanding that the Kotel be liberated for them too
Lesley Sachs, director of 'Women of the Wall' being detained and arrested for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall (photo: Miriam Alster / Flash 90)
Lesley Sachs, director of 'Women of the Wall' being detained and arrested for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall (photo: Miriam Alster / Flash 90)

Most Israelis and probably the vast majority of haredi women do not know that halacha, Jewish law, permits women to wear talit and tefillin, and read Torah from a Torah scroll. Secular Israelis do not know this, for obvious reasons. The religion they do not practice is Orthodox – ultra-Orthodox. In an unwritten, unholy alliance of Israeli secularism and ultra-Orthodoxy, Judaism stays so archaic, alien and repulsive that secular Israelis need never encounter it seriously – which, conveniently, leaves the ultra-Orthodox variants in unchallenged control of a culture that is the national heritage – and the national responsibility – of all Jews.

But anyone with a modicum of learning in Jewish texts knows that halacha does not prohibit women doing these things, as some modern Orthodox rabbis have recently begun pointing out to their congregations. That haredi women – the ones shrieking at the Women of the Wall about sacrilege, cancer, Divine condemnation, and the rest – do not know this, speaks volumes about the subjugated place of women in that society; and about the male structures that construct and control that society with an iron hand and what they succeed in imposing on the rest of us.

The Women of the Wall go straight to the heart of the matter. We are Jews. Not just daughters of Jews, wives of Jews, sisters of Jews, mothers of Jews. Jews. Adult, responsible Jews, praying, celebrating, living as such in our own right. What we seek to do at the Wall is done there every day of the week by men; these are no heterodox acts. When men do them they are mitzvot – commandments – but under the current regime there, when women do them, they are sacrilege, “blasphemy,” “disturbing the public order,” offensive to “the worshipers” (meaning, haredi men and women), denying that the Women of the Wall are worshipers.

If the sancta of Judaism are blasphemy and criminal acts when women undertake them in public, at Judaism’s holiest site and the site of highest national memory, there is something wrong not with the women, and not with Judaism, but with a society that allows utter misogyny hegemony there.

The Women of the Wall began not as a political act or expression. It began, nearly a quarter of a century ago – and remains at heart, in essence, and always – about women’s religious expression at the Kotel. Going there to read Torah was the brainchild of an Orthodox Talmud scholar, Rivka Haut, from Brooklyn in December, 1988. Only if women who were not Orthodox would join her could it happen; if we did all join her, despite our religious differences, we would have something none of us would otherwise know: the experience of the highest religious expression at that place, in solidarity with one another, Jewish women.

It happened, and thereafter, was organized as an Israeli group by Bonna Haberman. The group has gone ever since without fail, in rain, shine, cold and heat, rising early to be there for tefillot at 7am, women coming from as far as Beer Sheba and the Shfela. Religiously we are utterly diverse. We belong to no movement, we are independent and autonomous. We go for the same reasons we ever did. Because the Kotel is what it is, the supreme site of Jewish memory, Jewish longing, Jewish connection and hope, and we wish to pray there with one another. That is, in essence, Jewish. It is no different, in essence, for being done by women. It becomes different only because of the outrageous reactions to it. Those reactions say nothing about us. They speak volumes about those who oppose us.

Prior to 1967, under all the powers that ruled the area, whether Christian or Muslim, down to the British and the Jordanians, Jews had limited access to the Wall. We could not pray in a group or raise our voices there. We could not bring a Torah scroll, blow a shofar or celebrate joyous occasions there. That all ended in June 1967…for men. The very restrictions that obtained for all Jews until 1967 are in place today against Jews who are women, in the Jewish State, enforced by authorities on the public payroll.

The Wall was liberated – for Jews who are men – in 1967, with abundant new customs created since then, as befits a free and sovereign people – but only on the men’s side. To claim that women cannot pray there as a group, with voice, Torah, talit, tefillin, because these are innovations, “violations of custom,” is absurd. Men doing any of this, or holding bar mitzva or wedding ceremonies, is an innovation. So is the mehitsa diving men and women. Shall it be abolished on grounds of being an innovation in custom? But for men, innovation of custom there is liberation, the realization of the promise of 1967. Women are still awaiting our liberation of the Wall.

The criminalization for women of the same acts that are considered mitzvot when men perform them is not Judaism. It is institutionalized misogyny, contempt for and control of women, it is abuse of power and rank stupidity. The vast majority of Israelis reject the exclusion of women from the public space. The current arrangements at the Wall are nothing but that. One might argue that synagogues, as private organizations, can make such arrangements, but the Kotel is not a synagogue, and it is no private organization. It belongs to the entire people. The paratroopers who liberated it and those who died in the effort did it for us all.

Natan Sharansky’s proposal retains the status quo at the Wall as a haredi synagogue, with women silenced, without Torah scrolls, without the possibility of celebrating bat mitzva, weddings, needing even the special dispensation of the rabbi appointed to administer the Wall so that women saying mourner’s kaddish will not be arrested (how kind of him). All this in an area one third of the space allotted men. If the Wall merited making its capture the highest goal in 1967, it is worth making it a place for all Jews now.

If having been sanctified by the yearning of Jews for two thousand years makes that place a “fetish” now, why care about ancient rocks a few meters away and make those a new place of devotion? For that matter, why make a “fetish” of Jerusalem, or the Land of Israel altogether, if place and historical memory do not matter?

In time, perhaps, other areas may attain sanctity, and all the better if they do, but if so, that will come from the bottom up, so to speak; it will evolve spontaneously. It will never come by fiat from above, whether from the various commissions that have pronounced on the claims of the Women of the Wall until now, banishing the group to Robinson’s Arch, or from Mr. Sharansky, however improved he proposes to make Robinson’s Arch. By all means, let there be new and inclusive prayer options, let many variants of Judaism be respected and accommodated in this country, and at the Kotel, as well.

The rabbi appointed to administer the Kotel area is not the rabbi of the site, there is no such position; the Kotel is not a synagogue with a mara de’atra, an appointed sole rabbinic authority. This man, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowich, asserts constantly that there must be “unity” at the Kotel. But the “unity” of which he speaks, and which he imposes, is totalitarian. It is his will, the will of a segment, an extreme one, of Judaism, imposed on all the rest.

When Judge Sharon Lary-Bavli asked the police in Court last week what the definition of “public disturbance” is, the police responded that it is whatever Rabbi Rabinowich says it is. That is the very definition of arbitrary justice – an oxymoron – and of prejudice: the rabbi hates this group; whatever we do is “public disturbance,” and the police act on his orders, bearing no relation to what the worshipers are actually doing. As the judge rightly noted (finally!), having viewed the police video, we were praying that day, as we do every time we go. It was those who oppose us who were disturbing the peace, shrieking at us, some of them, in our midst, in our faces. Blaming us for their behavior is, as the Judge put it, like blaming rape victims for being attacked. No civilized country under the rule of law can permit such a perversion of justice.

Rabbi Rabinowich defends the imposition of his will. For him, this is unity. There is another form of unity: pluralism, a recognition of elu va’elu – embracing the legitimacy of opposing opinions – of realizing that we are diverse, and respecting and accommodating one another, in love. That is ahavat chinam, freely given love, and that is the unity we desperately need in this country.

So women will continue to demand that the Wall be liberated for us, too. And to go there, where Jews have gone for millennia, drawing on ancient memory, and creating new ones, with heart, and with song.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history and an award-winning author of books on Jewish modernity and on Jewish women's history.
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