Once more, with feeling and conviction: Women and the Wall

Why women? Why the Kotel? For those of us who are Orthodox, women’s prayer is the only option for full participation, including Torah reading and service leading.

Women on the Wall 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women on the Wall 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
For over 25 years, the Women of the Wall have been Jewish women from all walks of Jewish life and streams of religious orientation, who join together as women for prayer at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem.
We are independent and unaffiliated with any movement or organization.
We welcome all Jewish women in inclusive, pluralistic, joyous celebration at the Kotel.
Why women? Why the Kotel? For those of us who are Orthodox, women’s prayer is the only option for full participation, including Torah reading and service leading.
For those of us with egalitarian options, women’s prayer is a precious opportunity for women’s expression.
For all of us, women’s prayer is a space in which we – all of us, women and men, girls and boys – see Judaism in female form, and hear it in female voice.
Whatever the historic changes in women’s status and options in Jewish religious life in the last decades – women rabbis, cantors, Talmud scholars – Judaism is a thousandsof- years-old, androcentric tradition.
Open any sacred text and see women’s Otherness.
It will take centuries if not millennia of interpretation and life to transform this reality and make of this sacred tradition one that fully envelops and reflects all Jews, women as well as men.
In the meantime, the need for female space and expression is urgent and ongoing.
Girls and women – but boys and men, too – need to see Judaism in female image; hear it in female voice. Come to any women’s prayer, see and experience that powerful reality for yourself. What we do empowers Jewish women as Jews and enriches Jewish life.
In our prayer, we enact Jewish pluralism and solidarity in a religious context, for religious expression.
For us, these are not just ideals but actions on the ground – on holy ground: Judaism’s holy site, the Kotel.
Our prayer practice is inclusive of all practices of our diverse membership.
Ours is a most precious model of ahavat yisrael, love of other Jews, in all our diversity, our common goals and mutual respect rising above denominational differences.
This is a great rarity in Jewish life and should not just be preserved but made a model.
This is who we are. Who we have been. And who we remain. Nothing of this has changed, nor should it, nor will it.
The right of Jewish women to full religious expression at the Kotel – to the same options that Jewish men have had since 1967, which are: group or silent, individual prayer; reading from a Torah scroll; donning a tallit (prayer shawl); laying tefillin (phylacteries), has been recognized by Supreme Court decision in 2003, and the sweeping Sobel decision of April, 2013.
The legal aspects of Jewish women’s religious rights at the Kotel are settled. We won this case.
That is why it is so perplexing that, in October 2013, a group bearing our historic name made a decision to change fundamental direction and goals. It would not be about and for women, and it would not be at the Kotel, but at Robinson’s Arch, an archeological site nearby.
The movement that began in December, 1988, with the first women’s prayer, with Torah reading, at the Kotel, would now be subsumed under the goals of the Reform and Conservative movements, which accepted this alternate site and began negotiations with the Israeli government over terms and conditions to make it available for mixed, egalitarian prayer, in their custom.
The agreement to negotiate this arrangement was predicated on several understandings: The Kotel would be officially under control of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) establishment – a status it does not now have – and that establishment would be authorized to run it as a haredi site.
Any prayer practice the haredi establishment does not tolerate, including women’s group prayer – us – would be banned. Any who would not accept police “invitation” to move to Robinson’s Arch would be arrested.
The same establishment responsible for years of incitement against us – hate-filled statements; organizing bussing of their supporters to crowd us out of the Kotel – people who blew whistles in our faces, shouting through bullhorns to drown out our prayer – actions the regulations of the holy site forbid but which this establishment allowed, against us; people who threw water, eggs, dirty diapers, and rocks at us while screaming curses and obscenities; the same establishment that, for months, ordered the police charged with keeping order at the Kotel to detain us and bar women so detained from returning to the Kotel for weeks at a time – this same establishment is now to be rewarded with official, permanent control of the Kotel, and the power to ban us from it.
This part of the deal for Robinson’s Arch is not trumpeted, or even mentioned, by supporters of the deal, but it is an intrinsic and inseparable part of it.
We reject this. We remain committed to the glorious goal of having Jewish women’s full religious expression flourish at the Kotel.
There are many flaws in the process by which the decision was taken to change the fundamental purpose of the group – whose mission statement binds the group legally under its status as a tax-exempt organization under Israeli law to pursue women’s prayer, at the Kotel.
The group’s founders and ongoing, active members and supporters were not informed that this fundamental shift was being considered. Our consent was never asked, nor given.
We made our opposition to this move known from the instant we heard of it. We communicated this to those making it, and we have communicated it publicly, through social media, through on line and print media, including our Facebook page, and to the Government of Israel, in registered letters, signed by all the founders of the Women of the Wall, and current activists and supporters.
We have been joined by Kolech, the Orthodox women’s organization in Israel, and by members of the Orthodox community in Israel, the US and Canada, as well as by members of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, including rabbis, who have signed letters to this effect.
We warmly support the right of Jews who wish to make a new prayer site at Robinson’s Arch, or anywhere else.
While we think it would be a terrible, short-sighted mistake to cede the Kotel, the historic holy site of the Jewish people, to any segment of Jewry to run as its private preserve, with the right to exclude other Jews, if Conservative and Reform Jews wish the deal, outlined above, for themselves, we wish them well.
What we reject is the right of anyone, in those movements, in the haredi establishment or in the Government of Israel to trample our legally recognized rights as Jewish women to full, religious expression at the Kotel.
Religious coercion is not what we normally associate with those movements, with “progressive” Judaism in general – or with feminism.
But that is an intrinsic part of this deal and those negotiating it are party to that.
Efforts to dismiss our position as that of a “few” individuals is a knowing distortion among many being asserted, amid patronizing, paternalistic mischaracterizations.
Basic principles are not negotiable.
Upholding them is about integrity, vision and fundamental commitments.
Jews know this well. We have done it for thousands of years, which is why we are still around.
We are about fresh, new visions of and for Judaism and for Jews, women and men, and respect for historic legal pronouncements that recognize the religious rights of Jewish women. These must be enacted fully on the ground, becoming the base for holy, new possibilities for the Jewish people in Jewish sacred space – for true wholeness – shelemut – literally, “integrity.”
To this path, we are committed, and on it, we proceed.
The author, a founding member of the Women of the Wall, is Professor of Jewish Studies at Oberlin College and author of four books. Her son is serving in an elite commando unit in the IDF.