On sacred dreams and civil space

Twenty-eight years ago, I read these same verses, with a group of some 70 women from Israel and all corners of the Jewish Diaspora, at the Western Wall.

December 13, 2016 20:51
Priestly Blessing at The Western Wall

Priestly Blessing at The Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

This past Shabbat, I read part of the weekly Torah portion, Vayetze, in shul here in Jerusalem. The verses spoke of Jacob’s dream, of the ladder rising from earth to heaven and angels ascending and descending it; of God’s revelation to Jacob as the One known by his father and grandfather, who was now establishing a bond with Jacob, promising him, as he set out in exile, that he would be protected there and return in peace, whole.

Twenty-eight years ago, I read these same verses, with a group of some 70 women from Israel and all corners of the Jewish Diaspora, at the Western Wall. It was the first women’s group prayer at the Wall. I read the Torah right up at the stones. It was one of the highlights of my life.

Part of what made the day extraordinary was that our group was composed of a most diverse group of Jewish women, who all resonated to the proposal, made by the Orthodox Talmud scholar Rivka Haut, that all that was needed to participate was solidarity as Jewish women and a desire to pray together in this sacred Jewish space. Denominational labels, differences in belief and observance, were irrelevant. The “who is a Jew” controversy was in full swing in 1988, with vitriolic denunciations polluting the communal air of Jewry in the US and Israel. In reality, this was a cat-fight among movements not about who was a Jew but about who was a rabbi. Sinat hinam, gratuitous hatred, which we are taught is what was responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple, of which the Western Wall is a remnant, was rampant.

We women would have none of that. As I wrote at the time, we were interested in being whole; being “right” was someone else’s game. Frankly, a men’s game. What we got for not pressing our differences, which were as substantial among us as among any group of Jews, but rather enacting our solidarity as Jewish women, was an extraordinary spiritual experience that none of us would have gotten had we stood on our divisions.

These goals: group prayer of diverse, independent Jewish women at the Western Wall, with tallit, tefillin and Torah reading – that is, the same options that Jewish men have had there since 1967 – move us still. This is what is behind our upcoming Supreme Court case, to be heard shortly, on December 28, 2016, to enforce Jewish women’s already-recognized right to read Torah at the Wall.

All but one of the founding members of our group continue to support these goals, insisting that they remain compelling and necessary, and that we will subsume them to no other goals nor allow them to be co-opted or appropriated in the service of any movements.

We were founded of, by and for Jewish women, and that remains who and what we are about.

It grieves us deeply to see what has been made of this.

Shocking misogyny has emanated from rabbinic and state offices; were such statements made about male Jews they would rightly be termed Jew-hatred. There has been violence and detentions for putting on a tallit – I experienced both. That disgrace ended in 2013, with the historic ruling of Judge Moshe Sobel, based on our Supreme Court ruling of 2003, which upheld not only the legality of what we were doing but declared our custom “minhag hamakom,” local custom at the Wall. There are several groups who hold women’s prayer services at the Kotel.

Ours has done so regularly, including with Torah reading, with barely a reaction from other worshipers. This shows clearly that conflict about this is engineered.

But we need to ferret in a Torah scroll because the rabbinic administrator of the Western Wall issued a fiat against bringing Torah scrolls in from the outside. This might seem reasonable, if strange (why bar people with their own scroll from using it?), since some 200 scrolls are kept at the site. But this administrator denies women access to any of them; his neutral-sounding fiat is specifically discriminatory against women. This, and his arrogation of power altogether, is what we are suing to overturn.

Officially, the Western Wall is not now a synagogue, it is a “national holy site.” True, its haredi (ultra-Orthodox) administrators have made it feel like a haredi synagogue, driving untold numbers of Jews away from it – and if the deal negotiated by the government with the Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall should ever be implemented, it would indeed become officially a haredi synagogue, from which women’s prayer would be barred on pain of arrest. In that case, all the struggle Jewish women have waged and the accomplishments of 28 years would be undone. How ironic and tragic, should this anything-but-progressive- deal pass, that precisely that which women’s prayer services at the Wall was founded to express – overarching Jewish solidarity and the irrelevance of denominational lines, disputes, and power struggles – would be crushed there, with dueling sites established (the Western Wall, haredi; Robinson’s Arch, for the movements), for enactment of precisely the cat-fights we rejected in 1988.

It would award the national holy site of the Jewish people, site of millennia of longing and yearning of a people, to one segment of our people to administer as its private preserve. The Western Wall’s administrator announced that women’s prayer services – the only non-haredi practice ever successfully established there – would be the first custom barred. His haredi “cred” would be demonstrated at the expense of the rights of Jewish women.

Not to be outdone in the contest to enforce coercive, reactionary Judaism in public space and assert haredi cred, the Shas Party has just introduced legislation that would make the entire Western Wall area a haredi fief, with imprisonment and high fines for women’s prayer or mixed-gender prayer even at Robinson’s Arch, where it has been practiced for years. Sectoral dueling, sinat hinam, roar back in full force.

Here is what is at stake for any for whom women’s or indeed, any prayer at the Wall may not seem a compelling issue: the inexorable press of the official rabbinic establishment in Israel to expand its sphere of control and move into more areas of public space and life. If that establishment can take the national holy site of the Jewish people and claim it for itself, it will be vastly empowered (including financially), and emboldened. Good for civil society in Israel, or the Jewish people altogether? We and our attorney, renowned constitutional rights lawyer Susan Weiss, think not. At stake is any semblance of rational, tolerant society and of public space as such.

As we approach Hanukka, in these short days of cold and little light, we are reminded of the original goals and dream that moved us that day, 28 years ago: wholeness, inclusion, mutual respect and accommodation.

Something to pray and live by.

See you in Court on December 28.

The author is a professor of Jewish history, teaching at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. She is active with Original Women of the Wall and a plaintiff in the upcoming Supreme Court case to enforce women’s right to Torah reading at the Western Wall.

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