This past week, almost to the day of the 27th anniversary of the first women’s tefilla at the Kotel, four women filed suit to enforce Supreme Court and lower court rulings that recognize Jewish women’s right to full religious expression there, including Torah reading. I am one of the plaintiffs. I was at that first tefilla, in 1988, and read Torah right up at the stones that day. I have been active in this cause ever since, as have the other plaintiffs in the cases, Cheryl Birkner Mack, Hannah Kehat and Andrea Wiese, and thousands of supporters.
We bring this action because not to act would be to allow the denial of women’s right to Torah reading at the Kotel to become enshrined; legal rights are actual rights only when enforced and lived out, on the ground. We bring this action because we and the group in which we are active, Original Women of the Wall, have remained committed unwaveringly to the goals of this cause since its founding, which are: women’s group prayer at the Wall, with talit, tefillin and Torah. We are of, by, and for Jewish women in all our diversity; independent of and unbeholden to any denomination or movement. We accept no alternate site, under any conditions or blandishments, and we will never allow our cause to be subsumed in or substituted by another cause.
Our cause is Jewish women in Jewish sacred space, with the same, full rights that Jewish men have enjoyed there since 1967.
We and our supporters are all veterans of love for this tradition and of the struggle to right the wrongs, injury and pain which it, and in particular, its official representatives in contemporary Israel, inflict on women, half our people, who are equally in the Divine Image and were equally at Sinai.
We do this for every woman who has ever been demeaned or harmed by this system, including some of our mothers – for every aguna/mesorevet get; every woman silenced, denied realization of her potential, denigrated because she is female and told to make a blessing of it; sent to the back of the bus, or told to go to a different bus; erased from photos in public space; disappeared from professional and national events because she has been made a sex object, her creation in the Divine Image denied.
To whom we say: this is not Torah, and this is not Torah’s reward: zot lo torah, ve’zot lo s’kharah.
We go to the Kotel as Jews. Not daughters of Jews; mothers of Jews; sisters of Jews. Jews.
This – this tradition, this place, all of it – is ours, along with the rest of our people. We are not denizens. We are equal claimants.
For all the abuse, the slander, the incitement to hate and violence, and the actual violence; for the detentions, the insults, here is our response:
We will pray together at the Kotel, aloud and beautifully, wrapped in talit and tefillin. And we will read Torah.
Those immersed in religious life in every manner of expression will come, and those distanced from it; not least, those repelled by the degrading manner in which women are treated at the Kotel, made sex objects of male disdain and control, and lack of control; silenced, herded into an ever shrinking, distanced space, told to be onlookers while men practice Judaism; denied access to Torah scrolls on no basis in rabbinic or civil law but purely through the arbitrary and corrupt exercise of illicit power; denied for so long the sacred wrappings of Jewish prayer; demonized (“blasphemy”) and attacked physically for the same acts which, when performed by Jews who are men, are called “mitzva.”
So, these actions, absolutely, are about women in Judaism.
But they are also about the very nature of civil society in Israel for all, men as well as women, religious, secular and all in between. It is these larger implications it is crucial for people to grasp.
As Susan Weiss, director of the Center for Women’s Justice, which is bringing these suits notes, the focus in the cases is the ability of women to read Torah at the Kotel but the larger context is the ever-expanding, illicit reach of the official rabbinical establishment in Israel into civil life and civil space. The current brouhaha about women’s Hanukka candle-lighting at the Kotel is a case in point.
The rabbinical administrator of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz (there is no such office as “rabbi of the kotel” – the Kotel is not a synagogue, and Rabbi Rabinowitz is not mara de’atra there), has refused to allow women to participate in the public ceremony of lighting Hanukka lights. Susan Weiss has been protesting this refusal for several years, which protest finally, this year, has gotten the attention of the attorney general’s office.
In response, Rabbi Rabinowitz instituted a clever maneuver, a mind game: he has removed the public ceremony from the Kotel, Jewish sacred space, and scheduled it at a site in the Jewish quarter in the Old City, at which he insists he will allow women – and men whose Jewishness he does not regard highly – to light the lights, perhaps even voice the blessings, if the sound of that would not be too much for his sensitive male ears to tolerate. Two lighting ceremonies for men only will take place at the Kotel and in the Kotel tunnels.
Please note the rabbanut- expansion here: Rabbi Rabinowitz has no authority, no role, outside of the Kotel precincts. And yet he is maneuvering to expand his reach to the Jewish Quarter, and the state seems to be allowing itself to be led by this manipulation, its latest statement lauding the great “compromise” the rabbi has put forth.
Like Rabinowitz’s “Torah directive,” which bars anyone from bringing a Torah scroll to the Wall while he simultaneously bars women from using any of the hundreds of Torah scrolls on the men’s side, this Hanukka maneuver is a clever “gotcha,” a mind-game, a game of dreidl.
The question is whether the State of Israel, and the rest of society, will consent to be “played,” twisted, spun. Not given Hanukka gelt, but made Hanukka freier.
The correct response of the state and all invited to participate in Rabbi Rabinowitz’s farce in the Jewish Quarter is, borrowing from Purim, a resolute “No!” and a resolute insistence that the Kotel is Jewish sacred space, belonging to the entire Jewish people, not to any segment of it to run as its preserve, according to its women-hating rules which express equally contempt for all who are not in the image of the establishment tasked with administering the site. The official ceremony must be at the Kotel and must include women actively and equally. Collusion with genevat daat – deception, fraud, manipulation – is collusion in the spinning of a web in which civil society in Israel as a whole will be caught and choked.
So as we sit down to light lights in the darkness and have fun with dreidls, let us not allow us, ourselves, to be spun.
As for us behind these suits and for all they imply for Jewish society in Israel:
We go forth with love for the Torah; love for Israel, people and state; with resolve, determination and confidence.
And with gratitude for the high privilege of being Jewish women in this generation.
The writer is professor of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She lives in Jerusalem where she teaches at the Rothberg School of Hebrew University and in Tel Aviv University. She is a founder of women’s prayer at the Kotel.