Twenty-four years ago, in December 1988, a group of us, women from the diaspora, carried a Torah scroll to the women’s side of the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, and began chanting from it. We had been attending a conference about women held by the American Jewish Congress, and represented a cross section of Jewish denominations. Soon after our service began, a haredi woman nearby started shouting that women were not permitted to read from a Torah scroll. With that, men on the other side quickly climbed on chairs to jeer and spit at us while we tried, as calmly as possible, to complete our reading.
Twenty-three years ago, in November 1989, many of the women who had attended the service a year earlier traveled to Israel to present a Torah scroll to a group of Israeli women, called Women of the Wall. These women had been impressed by our service and started their own group, meeting at the start of every Rosh Hodesh, the new Jewish month. As soon as the women began praying together, they were cursed and shoved by ultra-Orthodox women in the women’s section, and had chairs thrown at them from the men’s side. When they appealed to the authorities for help, some were arrested instead. Still they kept trying. When those of us who had brought the Torah scroll to these Israeli women attempted to pray at the Wall and read from it as we had at the first service, we were forbidden to enter the Kotel plaza.
Twelve years ago, in 2000, after lawsuits by the Women of the Wall and their diaspora supporters, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Women of the Wall had the right to pray at the Wall according to their custom. However, after all sorts of political maneuvers by their opponents, the women were forbidden to pray aloud there as a group, wear tallitot (prayer shawls) or teffilin (philacteries), or chant from a Torah scroll. They had permission only to pray silently and move to another location for Torah reading.
Last month, on Oct. 16, 2012, Anat Hoffman, head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Israel and chair of the Women of the Wall, was arrested at the Wall for leading a prayer service for women, including a large group of Hadassah women, and singing the Shema prayer out loud. Hoffman was dragged across the floor of a police station and placed in a prison cell overnight with a prostitute and a thief.
Now, here are some of the things that have happened in the world at large in the course of those same years: Saddam Hussein was killed, Muammar Kaddafy executed, and Hosni Mubarak overthrown. The Internet developed and connected all parts of the globe; Google was invented (and turned into a verb as well as a search engine); texting became a new way of communicating. In Jewish life, Birthright Israel brought hundreds of thousands of young people on visits to Israel, and female rabbis stopped being seen as novelties.
The world has changed radically since 1988, 1989 and 2000. But at the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest site, nothing has changed. Women’s voices are still regarded as an abomination and the Torah belongs only to men.
Hoffman’s arrest rightfully triggered a wave of angry protests here in the States, and brought much needed attention to the struggles of Women of the Wall. It brought some sympathetic coverage in Israel, but also criticism of the Israeli women and, especially, of their American supporters. The Wall has always been an Orthodox synagogue, the argument goes, with no place for non-Orthodox customs. Never mind that many Orthodox women in America wear tallitot and read aloud from the Torah at women-only services. This is an Israeli Orthodox institution, these critics hold, and American Jews should not attempt to change it.
Which brings me to Jacob Blaustein. Back in 1950, Blaustein, an American Jewish Committee leader, complained that Israel’s claim to be the homeland of all the Jewish people raised questions of dual loyalty for American Jews. Under pressure from him, David Ben-Gurion agreed not to present his country in that way. But he and succeeding prime ministers regularly flouted that agreement, urging Jews everywhere to regard Israel as the mainstay of Jewish life. American Jews today no longer have Blaustein’s anxieties and many do view Israel as their historical home, even if they don’t live there. The Western Wall symbolizes that home. To allow one religious group to monopolize it and disenfranchise all others is to take away much of the spiritual and emotional connectedness that ties Jews to Israel and to each other.
The Women of the Wall are courageously fighting for the rights of all Jews to their religious heritage. They can’t wait another 24 years.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.