On the Fence about Women of the Wall: A Reform Jewish Feminist Perspective

In theory, I should be a poster child for the Women of the Wall. Aside from my drive to achieve equality for women worldwide and raise awareness of the benefit of unabashed feminism for both genders, I am also a four-year employee of the Union for Reform Judaism as a counselor, programmer, and multi-fellowship participant.

I have wrapped tefillin, worn a tallis, and scowled behind many a mechitza. I could write ballads about the beauty and power of female energy shared and fortified through prayer and song.

The morning of Rosh Chodesh, I rose early and trekked to the Old City, excited and curious for my first glimpse of the famed and infamous Women of the Wall. The older ladies, wrapped in embroidered tallitot, called us “chaverot” as they welcomed us and handed out custom-printed siddurim, courtesy of the Women of Reform Judaism. It was pleasant and refreshing to feel grounded in a prayer environment for once.

Women of the Wall say Mi Chamocha while men look on from the mechitza
Women of the Wall say Mi Chamocha while men look on from the mechitza

Contrary to my past visits to the Wall, these women were not circumspect in their enthusiasm, but rather sang out familiar tunes and occasionally tugged at the hands of the younger girls, coaxing them with smiles to dance in small-stepped circles in the center of the women’s section. I generally waver between uninhibitedly throwing myself into opportunities for fervent expression and stubbornly refusing to join on the grounds that disingenuous dance is as bad as a boldfaced lie. This morning, I was feeling skeptical.

Part of my hesitation stemmed from a stream of questions in the back of my mind, all in my mother’s voice: Will they sneak a Torah in today? Will there be violence? Arrests? Will today be the day they succeed?

Before the Torah portion of the service, Anat Hoffman stood on a chair and, in Hebrew and English, explained that today we would stand together and make a statement about how badly we craved Torah on our side. She instructed everyone to stand on the plastic lawn chairs lining the mechitza and to reach over it, arms outstretched, and one of our male allies would hold the Torah out for us as a symbolic gesture. Earlier in the morning, she added, the Rabbi of the Wall had installed another barrier three meters from the mechitza to ensure no man would pass a Torah through like last month.

I felt a thrill, lining up my chair next to the partition I hated, and then again as I peered over at men who looked at me with about as much contempt. I focused instead on some younger guys who joined in as we sang “Oseh Shalom.” For a time, it was good.

Guards pace the no-man-land while Women of the Wall and male supporters look on
Guards pace the no-man-land while Women of the Wall and male supporters look on

We watched as the man trying to make his way to us with the Torah was surrounded and forcibly diverted away from the women’s side. Both sides tensed, and there was a strange moment which I imagine every child in the schoolyard feels at 4 o’clock as the bully crosses the dirt lot and the onlookers circle ‘round: I don’t want to fight.

Then, a guy about my age, tefillin still wrapped, hopped the barrier and reached back for a Torah, which an elderly man clutched for dear life. As the guards pacing the no-man’s-land ran to intercept him, he wrestled the old man for the Sefer Torah, and as painful as it is to think that that gentleman wanted so badly to keep us from reading the word of G-d at the Kotel that he was willing to put himself in harm’s way for it, and as surprised I was that a young guy like that was so adamant to help us (or to stick it to the Orthodox), I couldn’t stand to see this juvenile clash of the generations in a way so obviously contrary to what we stand for as Jews.

The women began to cheer and clap. I did not.

In that moment, I tried hard to silence my political beliefs and desires for social change and instead to simply pay attention to my gut: Did these actions make me feel good? Was I proud of what I passively participated in?

My heart sunk as my feet found the stone beneath my chair; no, I did not feel good about it.

For the first time, I glimpsed into the Civil Rights struggle of my parents’ generation. I saw derision in the eyes of a man who could be my grandfather, mockingly conducting us as we sang, spitting words of malice and insisting that even if G-d granted Am Yisrael peace, we, the women, would certainly be excluded.

What a feeling, to be hated! What a sensation, to feel powerless! And how young I seemed to myself, an infant staring dumbly as men grappled over a scroll.

The question I ask myself now, no worse for wear but shaken to my ideological core, is: what am I willing to do, and for what?

I want desperately to support equality for women, whether in the form of a closed wage gap in the U.S. or equal prayer at the Kotel. I’ve personally never felt a connection to the Wall, but this emotionally-driven campaign that uses prayer as a political statement seems borderline sacrilegious by the actions of many involved.

On one hand, I pity the women there today who simply wanted to say their prayers at a holy site. On the other hand, I resent their silence. If more moderate voices came out in support of this cause, perhaps the click-bait headlines on Facebook would focus less on the actions of contentious individuals and more on genuine and reasonable dialogue.

Scattered around the women’s side were cards reading, “Woman by birth, rebel by choice.” It’s not rebellious to read from Torah, or even to want to. I can understand the frustration that led to this bellicose tone, and perhaps it is a product of years of clashes with Israel’s neighbors that, as Etgar Keret put it, “brute force is the only language we understand.”

However, if I am to associate myself with this, or any other Jewish feminist movement, I must swallow my pride and declare that to be a force for change, one cannot show belligerent force in the name of any cause centered on the desire for love, justice, and wisdom. After all, isn’t that what we hope to gain from Torah?

Likewise, I cannot hide behind a camera screen, as so many people around me chose to do when the scuffles broke out. More so even than misdirected frustrations, I witnessed the backwards application of hashtag activism. Rather than having a genuinely spiritual experience with like-minded women during prayer, many of us pulled out phones and cameras to document the excitement of participating in this controversial episode in Israeli progress.

It is disorienting to leave a holy place filled with spiritual, driven people and feel utterly disconnected. I may not be the personification of WoW’s mission and message, but I am willing to be its counterbalance. I want to challenge the motivated, passionate women of this movement to establish themselves not as warriors, but as advocates.

Women of the Wall hold their siddurim in the air during prayer
Women of the Wall raise their siddurim during prayer

Let us form another wall, one of peaceful, principled individuals who will stand tall even as our brothers shout their disgrace from the rooftops. Let us be so strong that even the temptation for violence will not permeate our hearts. Let us make waves without throwing stones. Let us be a force for change.

About the Author
Rachel studies Psychology and Gender Studies at the University of North Georgia, where she works with interfaith, feminist, and multicultural groups to keep important conversations going strong.
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