The political is personal, too

By LINDA AVITAN
June 27, 2019 22:28
3 minute read.
A note left in the cracks of the Western Wall; a few worshippers braved the cold to pray there.

A note left in the cracks of the Western Wall; a few worshippers braved the cold to pray there.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

‘The personal is political” is a powerful principle attributed to leaders of the second-wave feminist movement, pointing to the charged intersection of private interests with their meanings and interpretations in the public sphere. This also has significant implications for understanding movements for social change. But I want for a moment to reflect on the inverse of this statement: the political is personal, too.

After years of participating in Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Hodesh (New Moon) prayer services at the Western Wall, I have grown accustomed to – and exasperated from – the question: “Why do you have to make prayer so political?” The most mundane acts performed in the face of the objection are deemed “political” by virtue of their opposition. Such is precisely the case with WOW’s bullies, who distort an otherwise neutral, even holy act, into one labeled impure or disruptive, simply because it clashes with their own sensibilities. If only they knew what my tefillin mean to me; the deeply personal value these leather straps and black boxes they criticize as political props hold in my heart.

During the shiva mourning period for my beloved father, we held prayer services each day, including men and women, according to Conservative/egalitarian custom. As we gathered together, my brother said in passing, “Linda, if you lay tefillin, now’s a good time to put them on,” merely indicating the start of the service. I had never wrapped tefillin yet at that point in my life, and it sparked my thinking as I opened my siddur (prayer book). During the shiva, I began to think about my father’s tefillin and felt deeply saddened at the prospect of them sitting in a drawer, forever collecting dust.

The Talmud grapples seriously with the status of “objects of holiness,” items which through their use in sacred acts attain a new level of value and demand appropriate treatment as such. I thought of this concept and how indeed my father’s precious tefillin were an “object of holiness,” imbued with a lifetime’s worth of hopes, intentions and lingering prayers. Inspired and called to duty, I wrapped the straps around my arm and head, reciting the blessings my father, too, had spoken with love.

Each time I take part in this act, I reconnect with my late father and the rich tradition he shared with me. While I am still learning to feel completely “at home” wearing my tefillin, I want to feel free and safe relating to them as  being rightfully mine, too. This past Rosh Hodesh Adar II, Women of the Wall held a special prayer service at the Kotel in honor of the organization’s 30th anniversary. The event, attended by hundreds of women from Israel and abroad, was disrupted by organized groups of extremist opposition, primarily ultra-Orthodox students. Eventually, the violence escalated so severely that WOW had to evacuate and complete our prayer service at the Ezrat Israel (Robinson’s Arch) section of the Western Wall.

As we made the frightening journey to the refuge, numerous cameras flashed in my face as cruel laughter erupted in my direction. I tried to hide behind my siddur, blocking my face from the photographers’ and onlookers’ glares. As they mocked my tefillin, taunting me, I felt violated.

When I am in prayer, I am surrounded by a safe, sacred space. My tallit and tefillin envelop me, and the words of the verses bring me back to a place that feels like home. And here, the bullying protesters had taken my “object of holiness,” my gateway to my father’s legacy, and made it the object of their vicious jokes and photo opportunities. They had made the personal political.

My tefillin, my tallit and my prayers belong to me and are off limits to the world. Just as my intentions in prayer are between my heart and God, my customs in prayer are not a spectacle to be exploited by others, nor do they demand others’ affirmation or approval. No matter how others may choose to politicize this act, I am choosing to reclaim my personal connection to my tefillin.

The writer was raised in the Conservative movement and has been active in the Masorti Movement since making aliyah in 1982. She is a board member of Adath Shalom-Emanuel Community in Rehovot, who works with children and families as an MSW, both in a public, Welfare Ministry framework as well as privately. She joined Women of the Wall in 2010.


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