One of my greatest regrets about my summer in Jerusalem, some five years ago now, is that I did not manage to join Women of the Wall to pray together at the Kotel (the Western Wall) on Rosh Chodesh. I'd had every intention of doing so, but when new moon rolled around I was sick with a truly miserable summer cold, and feeling wretched in the particular way one feels when one is ill and far away from home. I've thought of that often in recent months as news about Women of the Wall has been percolating through my various networks to reach me here in the States.
I support Women of the Wall in a deep and heartfelt way. Women of the Wall's mission "is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall." Of course, here in the States, across the liberal movements of Judaism, the freedoms to wear tallit, to be counted in a minyan, and to read from the Torah out loud are taken for granted. There's a strange and often painful irony in the fact that these freedoms are so difficult to pursue in Israel, which is supposed to be a spiritual home for all of us.
One of the best essays I've read on this is On the Ritual Fringes by Rabbi Kari Hofmaister Tuling in the Marginalia Review of Books. Rabbi Tuling touches on a lot of important things: the history of women wearing tallit, the disconnects between Israeli perspectives and American ones, the history of the Orthodox religious monopoly in Israel, and -- of course -- Women of the Wall. Here's an excerpt:
Though traditionalists might discount women’s prayer—or they might view the tallit-wearing as a political stunt—the deeper reality is that prayerful feminism may be found across the spectrum: in the all-female Torah study groups among orthodox women and in the alternate God-language in the Reconstructionist prayer book. It is in fact a heart-felt prayer service that the women are conducting each month at the Wall.
Second, it ignores the broader context: this conflict is not simply about the status of the Western Wall. Rather, at stake here is a series of larger questions regarding the role of women in Judaism and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
Israel and the Diaspora often talk past each other, not recognizing the gulf in their thinking. It is not uncommon, for example, for Israelis to assume that the liberal forms of Judaism are on their way to oblivion, about to disappear in a generation due to intermarriage and assimilation. And, according to this line of thinking, this kind of activist feminism is merely a fad. So, the argument goes, why should Israel accommodate them?
Whereas many American Jews, living as they do in a country where the liberal streams are so clearly visible and established, are simply appalled: why is Israel arresting Jews for engaging in what amounts to normative Jewish practice?
You can read her whole essay here at the Marginalia Review of Books, and I recommend it -- it's both well-written and cogently-argued.
One of the interesting things for me about Women of the Wall is that what they're asking for -- the right of women to daven in tallit, and to pray aloud (not hushing their voices for fear of inadvertantly arousing the men in the men's section), and to read from Torah, at what is commonly considered to be Judaism's holiest site -- is actually substantially less than what I myself would most prefer. I grew up praying exclusively in mixed-gender environments, where men and women sit together, sing together, and pray together. (And my first substantive experience of praying behind a mechitza, a curtain or barrier separating the genders, was actually quite emotionally painful for me -- see Prayer at Panim, 2007.)
In more recent years I've learned to live with separate seating when necessary, and I've even experienced some separate-seating davenen which really uplifted me (see A morning at the Leader Minyan, 2008.) Still, egalitarianism runs deep in me, and I don't generally think that "separate but equal" counts as equality. What I most yearn for at the Kotel would be a space where people of all genders can pray together, aloud, wearing the ritual garments we love, connecting with God in joyful prayer and song. This is more or less what Natan Sharansky has proposed in his plan to make the Kotel a tripartite space: one space for men's prayer, one space for women's prayer, and one space for egalitarian / mixed-gender prayer.
But I'm conscious that it's in part thanks to WoW's efforts to daven at the Wall all these years that we're now able to even begin to conceptualize compromises like the one that Sharansky suggests. Beyond that: I respect the fact that Women of the Wall is truly transdenominational, including not only women who come from egalitarian contexts (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal) but also women who come from Orthodox contexts and would not be comfortable davening alongside men. I value the incusivity of their decision to seek the ability to daven wholly at the Kotel as women among women, and I recognize that if they were to pursue the aim of davening in an egalitarian / mixed-gender way, they would no longer be a welcome home for their Orthodox members.
In my ideal world, the Kotel would include both a place for single-gender women's prayer (singing aloud, wearing tallit and tefillin, reading from Torah) and a place for egalitarian mixed-gender prayer. (Oh, and a place for single-gender men's prayer, too. Though my memories of the Kotel, particularly on Shabbat, are that it's already mostly a space for single-gender men's prayer -- I distinctly remember showing up on Shabbat and finding that the mechitza had been moved and the women's section was 1/3 of the space and the men's section took up 2/3 of the available wall. I'm not sure Orthodox men in Israel need me to protect their rights to continue praying as they already do! I just don't want them to impose their modes of prayer on me.) And -- this should go without saying -- no one would ever harass or assault anyone for praying at the Kotel in their own way.
Of course, in my ideal world, kindness and compromise would win out over exclusion and strong-arm tactics; Jews of all flavors would be free to practice our traditions no matter where in the world we live; and Jerusalem would be a city of the purest justice and compassion and peace. May that day come speedily and soon. Meanwhile: kol hakavod ("all the honor") to Women of the Wall for being role models not only in creating a transdenominational prayer community, but also in simply praying the way their hearts guide them to pray.
A beautiful prayer for Women of the Wall.
Rabbis for Women of the Wall. "We invite cantors, professionals, lay leaders and every Jew to join us in signing" a statement in support of WoW.
My own post Morning prayer at the Western Wall...almost, 2008.