A word of advice

Feminists offer guidance to a movement of Christian women trying to gain access to Mount Athos

Women of the Wall 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women of the Wall 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Sometimes when the police arrest Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of the Women of the Wall, for actions that “disturb the customs” of Judaism’s holiest site, she links arms with her fellow female worshipers and sings on the way to the police station.
“The place that my heart holds dear, my feet will bring me near,” they sing the talmudic phrase, voices echoing in the tunnel that leads from the holy stones of the Western Wall towards the closest police station.
A thousand kilometers away, Orthodox Christian women are beginning to find their voices, as they demand access to the holiest site for Orthodox Christians, Mount Athos. They, too, want to come closer to the place their heart holds dear, even though women have been forbidden to enter the area for almost 1,000 years.
According to Orthodox tradition, Jesus gifted Mount Athos to his mother the Virgin Mary, in 49 CE, after she arrived on the shores and the idols crumbled in her presence. The hilly wooded peninsula, located in northern Greece, juts 60 km into the Aegean Sea and houses 20 foreboding monasteries with soaring rock walls built into cliffs.
Today, Mount Athos is home to 1,700 male monks. There are no females. In 1046, Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monamahos issued an official edict, “Chryssobull,” prohibiting all women from entering the peninsula. Since then, not even female animals (except for cats and chickens) step foot on the peninsula.
Politicians and activists are lobbying the European Union and the Greek parliament to lift the ban. The Facebook group “Allow Women to Visit Mount Athos” includes Anna Karamanou, a former chairwoman of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee of the European Parliament. In 2003, she raised the issue of lifting the ban and orchestrated the European Parliament’s official condemnation of ban on women in January 2003.
“Are women dirty?” Karamanou asked the Cypriot daily paper Politis after the condemnation passed.
“The monks ban their own mothers from visiting Mount Athos. Why? Will their mothers defile the place?” “Only the Christian Protestants have recognized women as equals to men,” Karamanou posted recently in the group, which has nearly 350 members.
“Catholic and Orthodox Churches still refuse to recognize that men and women are of equal value and deserve equal respect and equal rights,” she wrote.
Some women have attempted to sneak onto Mount Athos. French writer Maryse Choisy wrote a book, A Month Among Men, published in 1962, about the month she spent on Mount Athos while in disguise as a man before the monks discovered her.
The Greek constitution upholds the ban on women entering Mount Athos, which was ratified in 1926.
The peninsula is also afforded unique sovereignty rights and considered a self-governed part of Greece.
A small but growing movement is trying to change the “Avaton” which literally translates as “entry forbidden.”
Greek Parliament member Litsa Amanatidou Paschalidou, a member of the small Left Coalition Party forcibly entered Mount Athos in 2008 with six other women to protest a land dispute. She told reporters at the time that the women’s entry was a “purely symbolic act,” meant to send a message to the church to “pursue policies which serve the public and not its financial interest.”
But the monks of Mount Athos cling fiercely to their 1,000-year-old tradition of the Avaton, believing the ban on women allows the monks to pursue a more ascetic life while fulfilling the idea of hermitage even more thoroughly.
“All-male monasteries enable the monks to engage in the continuous practice of prayer and repentance that helps purify their souls of worldly desires,” said Seraphim, an Athonian monk.
“[The prohibition] could be abolished if human beings could be as simple as they were before the original sin,” Father Christos Mitsios said in a Greek documentary about the issue. “If this was the case, not even God could enforce an Avaton.”
Not even the most powerful women can break the decree that women are not allowed on Mount Athos.
In 2009, Russia’s then-first lady Svetlana Medvedeva took a trip to Mount Athos but was forced to stay more than 500 meters from the Athos coast. Athonian monks from nearby monasteries Simonospetras and Panteleimon came to bless her on the boat.
ACROSS THE sea in Jerusalem, women have been fighting for equal rights in Orthodoxy at Judaism’s holiest site for the past 24 years. Every month, the Women of the Wall gather for Rosh Hodesh prayers, a religious service every new moon that is traditionally associated with women because of their monthly cycle.
In the beginning, ultra-Orthodox worshipers abused the women, outraged by their request to pray out loud and wear religious artifacts traditionally considered “male” such as tallit or tefillin. The women also had the audacity to try to read from the Torah – traditionally a man’s role.
The violence from the organization’s early days, which sometimes ended in tear gas at Judaism’s holiest site, has mellowed since 2003, when Israel’s Supreme Court found a number of compromises, including a separate area where the women could read from the Torah without gender separation. The court decision decreed that all worshipers must obey “the customs of the place,” but did not specify the customs. Instead, it is the responsibility of the rabbi of the Western Wall, a government-appointed position currently held by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, to determine the customs of the place.
Last month, on February 11, police detained 10 women, including Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman, an eight-months-pregnant rabbinical student, and American comedian Sarah Silverman’s sister and niece. This was the largest number of women detained at a single service in more than two years.
SO HOW did Women of the Wall become an established activist organization with a significant voice at the Western Wall? And what can the Orthodox Christian women learn from their Jewish counterparts? According to Hoffman, there are a few secrets to sustained religious activism: creating a vibrant community, garnering international support and appealing to the sense of outrage over freedom of religion.
“Our group is invincible because we are sisters,” Hoffman said recently in her office in Jerusalem, sitting underneath a shadowbox frame displaying the plastic bag that held her personal effects when she spent a night in prison in October of last year. Police arrested her for praying out loud with a group of American women at the Western Wall. “We are a congregation, a community, and we come from all denominations [levels of observance]. We speak in many voices but we agree on this struggle, and we support each other.”
Hoffman credits their regular schedule of meetings – a public worship service that happens once a month, without fail, for 24 years – that gave them the legitimacy. Because they have a sustained group of involved women, they can’t easily be dismissed as a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon. Over the years, their network has grown to include thousands of women, many of whom are influential leaders in their Jewish communities. The large participation rates means that the group is well-known.
The Women of the Wall group comprises different types of Jewish women, but it has an especially strong following with Anglo women who grew up outside Israel, some of whom live in the country and some of whom are visiting. Some women raised in more egalitarian environments abroad, in North America, England or Australia, chafe at the religious decrees set down by the Orthodox patriarchal society in Jerusalem, said Hoffman. They feel connected to the Western Wall on a deep, spiritual level, but want to worship there as they do at home, including reading from the holy books and praying without gender separation.
So when the WOTW gather and insist on praying in their own manner, they are using prayer as a form of protest, something that strikes a chord deep in the soul of people around the world, regardless of their religion.
“The fact that we use prayer as a subversive act is a kick in the head to anyone,” said Hoffman. “Prayer is seen as following an old text in a way that follows tradition.
It’s the least subversive act one could think of.”
And yet, when someone on the other side of the world hears that a person was not allowed to pray, it stirs something deep inside.
That is exactly the problem that Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, has with the women.
“They are trying to hurt and offend other people’s sensitivities,” he said, sitting in his office with a sweeping view of the Western Wall. “It has become a protest. It got totally out of proportion of prayer. And to protest at the Western Wall, that I do not allow – not in favor of anything and not against anything.”
The international pressure, especially from the American Jewish community, has helped buoy WOTW both financially and spiritually. Major American groups expressing outrage keep the group in the headlines of newspapers both in Israel and abroad. Following a New York Times article about the group in January, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu weighed in on the issue, and assigned Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to explore solutions with WOTW for greater gender equality at the Western Wall.
But Hoffman offers one important lesson to the women fighting for access to Mount Athos. “The most important thing is they have to understand that these people [who do not let them onto Mount Athos] are not speaking in the name of God,” she said. “They’re speaking in the name of the struggle to keep their own power and power structure in place.”
As the women, both Jews and Christians, continue their struggle for equal rights in religions traditionally run by men, the words of the song echo even more clearly off the ancient holy stones in Greece and Jerusalem: “The place that my heart holds dear, my feet will bring me near.”
The authors received a grant from the International Association of Religion Journalists to pursue this story.