Learning about A Land Called Paradise
Ten minutes with Reb Zalman

Pluralism, prayer, and Women of the Wall

I'd like to signal-boost an article that's been going around my corner of the blogosphere, about Anat Hoffman of the Israel Religious Action Center and נשות הכותל / Women of the Wall. The article is called called Fighting for Religious Freedom. Here's a taste:

"Take a diet from the conflict for just one year," Hoffman appealed in a speech at my synagogue this weekend. "All I ask is for one year stop worrying about the conflict and worry instead about Israel's soul."

You've probably never heard of Hoffman, but you should. She's the quick-witted, smooth-talking head of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, and also Women of the Wall, a 22-year-old organization that prays each month at the Western Wall. In both positions, Hoffman has had to fight the religious extremist control of all things Jewish in Israel. Last summer, Hoffman was even arrested for carrying a Torah at the Wall, and she faces a year in jail if the attorney general decides to press charges.

"There's no word in Hebrew for pluralism," Hoffman says. "The word for 'integrity' is only a couple years old and 'accountability' has only been around for nine months. These are signs that the basic tenets of democracy and civil rights haven’t made Aliyah to Israel yet."

(The whole article is well worth reading -- I commend it to you.) Back in the summer of 2008 when I was living in Jerusalem, I had an experience of weekday morning prayer -- not exactly at the Kotel (Western Wall), but at an adjacent archaeological area called Robinson's Arch.

Me in tallit and tefillin at Robinson's Arch, 2008.

I wrote a post about my experience: Morning Prayer at the Western Wall...Almost. Robinson's Arch is where Women of the Wall have historically had to relocate in order to read from Torah and lay tefillin -- which is not a compromise which makes them happy. Many of them don't feel that Robinson's Arch is "the real thing," and they feel as though they've been relegated to an out-of-the-way area to protect the delicate sensibilities of those who are offended by the sight of women praying in the way that many liberal Jewish women choose to do. (As indeed they have.)

I can't blame them for their ire. Davening at Robinson's Arch was lovely -- there's nothing like a heartfelt shacharit service held outdoors in the cool of a summer morning in a beautiful place! But it's not the Kotel. And while I continue to have complicated feelings about the extent to which the physical site of the Kotel is often venerated, I also continue to feel that as long as the Kotel is considered one of Judaism's holiest sites, women like me ought to be able to pray there as is our usual practice. And God knows we shouldn't have to fear being pelted with rocks, chairs, dirty diapers, or nasty invective.

For more on Women of the Wall, a few links: The Women of the Wall, Twenty Years On - Feminists challenge the Israeli ultra-Orthodox by Phyllis Chesler (with whom I disagree on many things, but whose personal Women of the Wall story is very moving); and Rosh Hodesh Adar II: The Saddest Month, by Emily Shapiro Katz, which tells a very recent story about the Women of the Wall being cursed and hassled as they prayed.

I want to give tremendous kavod (honor) to the Women of the Wall. As sad as I am that religious pluralism as I know it here in the Diaspora doesn't yet exist in Israel (at least at the Kotel, and in terms of how the state-sponsored brand of Orthodoxy institutionally relates to other denominations) I am deeply moved by the women who particpate in that monthly prayer gathering despite all of the obstacles placed in their way, and by the men I know who support them with rhetoric and with presence alike. Healing, transforming, and renewing Judaism in Israel is not the work to which I feel most called, but I honor my friends and colleagues who are doing that work every New Moon -- and every day in a million tiny ways.

I didn't daven with Women of the Wall when I was living in Jerusalem. Each time Rosh Chodesh (new moon) rolled around I had a good excuse: I was overwhelmed with work, I was sick with a nasty summer cold, whatever. In retrospect, that's one of my greatest regrets. I wish I had gone to pray with them when I was nearby, back in my pre-mama life when travel (and missing a little bit of sleep) were so much easier than they are now! But though I missed that chance to stand with Women of the Wall in person, I stand with them from afar. And I hope that whenever I return, it's over a Rosh Chodesh so I can add my presence to theirs.