The liberation of the Western Wall

The haredim understand that the struggle of Women of the Wall is not just about what a few women wear when they pray at the Kotel.

Women of the Wall protest (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women of the Wall protest
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Our 12-year-old daughter Devorah celebrated her bat mitzva on Friday in front of a crowd of thousands, with police protection and global news coverage.
In the wake of last month’s ruling by Jerusalem District Judge Moshe Sobel that the Women of the Wall are allowed to pray at the women’s section of the Kotel according to their custom, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, generally considered the spiritual leader of the non-hassidic haredi world, gave his blessing to bringing busloads of haredi girls to protest this month’s Rosh Hodesh service.
As a result, instead of the usual crowd of a few hundred supporters of Women of the Wall and a dozen heckling haredi men, the Western Wall plaza was filled with thousands of haredi girls. The 500 or so supporters of Women of the Wall weren’t even able to make it into the women’s section – instead they prayed in the plaza, with a “mehitza” formed by the police.
I’m glad we had such a huge crowd. As it says in Proverbs 14:28, “In the multitude of the people is the king’s glory.” We certainly had a multitude, but it’s too bad that most of that multitude wasn’t actually there to pray, but to stop others from praying.
For a change, no women were arrested for the supposed “crimes” of wearing a tallit or saying the Shema prayer aloud.
The only people arrested were those who were truly disturbing the peace – men throwing chairs, stones, and water bottles, and spitting and cursing at the women who were there to pray.
Despite the attempts at violence, the police did a good job of crowd control and protecting the women and their supporters.
I was glad for the police protection.
The haredi men looked like they would have caused real physical harm to people without it, evidenced when they injured two police officers. Their forcefulness in confronting the police suggests they would make excellent soldiers if that energy could be channeled in more productive directions when they’re drafted.
And that’s related to the reason why there was such a strong haredi turnout this month. The haredim are feeling under attack these days.
With the government threatening to reduce the handouts many of them live on, threatening to force them to serve their country, threatening to force their children to learn secular subjects if they want subsidies for their yeshivot, the haredim feel the non-haredi public is attacking their “lifestyle” – and for good reason.
The haredim understand that the struggle of Women of the Wall is not just about what a few women wear when they pray at the Kotel. This is a struggle for the future of Israel. Will we be a real democracy – the only thriving one in the Middle East? Or will we be a backward theocracy, ruled by rabbis who preach ignorance of everything that’s made us the “Start Up Nation” and – like the Taliban – seek to exclude women from the public sphere? Many of the bused-in haredi girls didn’t even know why they were there – they showed up because their rabbis told them to.
Afterward, three of them came up to a friend of mine and told her, “we actually support what you are doing.” Those girls didn’t see monsters – they saw women and girls, like themselves, their mothers, and their grandmothers, raising their voices in joyful prayer and song.
They saw women who refused to be marginalized, who refused to be silenced. And they saw the men of their community scream curses in that holy place and throw stones at little girls who were praying with their mothers.
It was clear to at least some of the haredi girls that it wasn’t the Women of the Wall who were “defiling” the Kotel. And they’ll go back to their homes and their schools and tell their sisters, and their mothers, and their grandmothers what they saw.
And just as the winds of change are blowing against the haredim – in the courts, in the Knesset, and in non-haredi society – by exposing their daughters to the Women of the Wall the haredim stirred a breeze that can blow away the cobwebs of minhag (custom) enshrined as Halacha that cloud their daughters’ view of the “other” world – a world that beckons like a liberation.