Missing the Wall & The Religious Misogynists’ Arresting Development

Today, I missed the Wall.

While living in Jerusalem for the academic year, I’ve made it a point to pray each month with Women Of the Wall.

After my first time praying with WOW (a great acronym), I realized that I was in a truly special place at a special time, with special people. This was not an experience I could keep to myself. I had to share it with others.

The excitement of challenging a corrupt system. The fear that doing the right thing endangered us. The awe of standing in front of two and a half millennia of Jewish history. The doubt of sanctity in a place where so many have acted unjustly in the name of God. The hope that we can be a light unto others, and the worry that the future may be as dark as the present.

So much life in one small plaza. How could I experience so much and  tell others nothing of what I saw?

How could I not go every month?

Sometimes you get sick.

Today was the first time since arriving in Jerusalem that I did not pray with WOW. Instead, I went to the doctor.

But enough about me (I’m starting to feel better anyway), let’s talk about WOW.

WOW was fairly quiet the last time I prayed with them. In the times I’ve prayed with them, the biggest to-dos have generally been police officers telling me to move away from the “fence” that separates the women from the men at the Western Wall, or telling men not to speak to those who have verbally confronted the Women of the Wall and their egalitarian-ish allies.

But I heard today was different.

At 11:46 AM, @WomenOfTheWall tweeted to me:

@jonahrank It just wasn’t the same without u! An eventful service, we hope you are feeling better and we hope to see you next month!

I thought that was very sweet.

Also, I didn’t realize it was actually a really eventful service.

At least, when someone nearly gets arrested, I consider that “really eventful.”

Especially when there is no crime involved.

I’ve seen her do it a few times and never thought much of it, but police at the Western Wall saw something dangerous when they saw Deb Houben wearing a tallit.

Many Women of the Wall wear a tallit, but they often wrap their tallit like a scarf so that the tallit is disguised.

Today, Deb’s tallit was worn like–get this–a tallit!

A quick Google search on “Women of the Wall,” “tallit,” and “arrested” can show you all of the illogical excuses why Nofrat Frenkel was arrested in 2009 for wearing a tallit. You and I can guess forever what Frenkel or Houben’s crime could be, but the truth is that there is nothing criminal about their action. There is nothing wrong with a woman wanting to practice their religion as a fully enfranchised and free person.

Arresting someone for wearing a tallit isn’t about Jewish law. Any serious study of Jewish literature proves that it is permitted, and that women in the Talmudic era wore known to don the fringes of a tallit.

Arresting someone for wearing a tallit is about fear. It is a sign that the Western Wall’s police force is not ready for a woman wearing a tallit.

But does that mean that the police is not ready to accept a world where women can practice almost all the same rituals as men? I’m not sure of  the answer to that question. But I am almost certain that the police is not prepared to handle the response of Religious Misogynists.

I am not speaking about Haredi Jews, Ashkenazic Jews, Mizrahi Jews, or what-have-you. I am talking about people who claim that God’s will demands that women live their lives under men’s control, beneath men’s quality of life, and within a narrower range of freedom than men have.

Religious Misogynists claim that Jewish law forbids women from being seen “too much” in public, and they might cite the Rabbinic dictum of mippenei kevod hatzibbur–“out of respect for the community.” Religious Misogynists claim that women are not the community. And Religious Misogynists claim that women are certainly not the priority. That’s why women should sit in the back–whether it’s the back of the shul or the back of the bus.

A Religious Misogynist is not only the man who throws chairs from the men’s section over to the women at the Western Wall. A Religious Misogynist is also the woman who chides another woman not to sing so loudly that a man might hear her prayer.

A Religious Misogynist speaks of a man-like God I’ve never met, and a Religious Misogynist defines God’s will as an unjust sexism that dresses in teachings that have rarely encountered the Enlightenment.

A Religious Misogynist resides in Jerusalem, but that Religious Misogynist is part of a whole community of Religious Misogynists. Some of them are more actively Religious, and some of them are more actively Misogynist. And of course, some of them were just born that way. Maybe they would choose another life if they knew of one.

Women of the Wall might get about 100 people on the good days, and you can tell who’s part of them and who isn’t.

Religious Misogynists dress like hundreds of people who pray daily at the Wall, and there’s no way of telling them apart from anyone else making the same fashion statement.

You’d have to talk to them to find out who’s really who.

As a Rabbinical Student studying in Israel for the year, I’ve had opportunities to meet and speak with Israeli Arabs, with Palestinians, with Christians, and with Jews living in outposts and settlements on the West Bank.

Despite all the programs for me to meet these colorful characters in the Israeli political climate, no one has offered me a trip to speak with Haredi leaders, rabbis, teachers, lawyers, politicians, students. Not even Haredi Jews who are uncomfortable with Religious Misogyny like spitting on little girls for not being dressed modestly enough. Either no one thinks it’s important for me to speak to Haredi Jews, or maybe no one knows how to speak to Haredi Jews.

Maybe that’s why the police at the Western Wall stop me from speaking to those not praying with Women of the Wall on Rosh Hodesh. And maybe that’s why the police give in to Religious Misogynists.

Maybe that’s why the Western Wall’s police go to arrest a woman when they see that she is really wearing a tallit.

Because such a sight will open the mouth of a Religious Misogynist, and no one will know what to do. The words are so violent, who knows what may come next?

Rachel Dudley Zerin, a good friend and classmate of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary, led Hallel today for Women of the Wall. As she sang Psalm 118, she tells me, she reflected on the words “Min hammetzar karati yah…” (“From the narrow straits, I called out to God…”), and the response: “Anani vammerhav yah” (“God answered me in broad open space”).

As she recited these words, she knew exactly where to find hammetzar–her narrow straits–in that tiny, narrow Women’s section of the Western Wall, where even spreading out her arms and fully revealing a tallit would be taboo. But she wondered when she will be vammerhav–in a broad, open space. When, where and what will be God’s answer?

But, for now, we are all too scared to talk.

The Religious Misogynist does not understand me, and I truthfully do not understand the Religious Misogynist.

I pray that one day, the Religious Misogynist and I will speak. I pray that our conversation will broaden our narrow understanding of each other.

But, in my religion, misogyny has no true positive value. I pray that the Religious Misogynist will learn from those who still enjoy religious differences between men and women while removing themselves from misogyny.

And I can pray all day, but I cannot engage in any serious dialogue or truly see anything for myself until I go out there to see what’s happening.

At the Wall, honest religious dialogue is just waiting to happen.

I missed the Wall today.

About the Author
Jonah Rank is a musician, writer and co-founder of Jewish Eyes On The Arts. Jonah received a B.A. in Music at Columbia University and a B.A. in Jewish Music at the Jewish Theological Seminary. At the latter, Jonah is now enrolled as a rabbinical student. He is the secretary of the new Conservative prayer book Siddur Lev Shalem (Rabbinical Assembly: New York, NY--expected circa 2016).