Today I read an article that made me think about the religious struggle of women in modern Judaism. The article, published in Forward, was written by Anat Hoffman who is the director of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the chair of Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall is an organization that promotes and encourages women to pray at the Kotel.
Her article deals with Jewish women’s desire to freely pray at the Kotel. The Kotel is popularly known as the Western Wall and as the Wailing Wall. The word “Kotel” is a Hebrew word meaning “Wall.” The Western Wall is one of the most important Jewish religious sites in Israel because it was part of the Temple complex. For this reason, the Kotel has become for Jews, a place for prayer and for reading the Torah.
Although women can pray at the Kotel, men and women cannot pray together. When people come to pray, there is a men’s and women’s section at the Wall. Women of the Wall has been gathering at the Kotel to pray every Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the month, since 1988. However, Women of the Wall have encountered strong opposition from ultra-Orthodox Jews who pray at the Western Wall.
Recently, an Israeli woman was arrested for wearing her prayer shawl visibly in the women’s section of the Kotel. When the case came to court, Women of the Wall agreed that they would wear their prayer shawls under their coats and not read from the Torah in the area of the Kotel. Hoffman’s article deals with women’s struggle to pray at the Kotel. The following is an excerpt from the article:
One recent afternoon, while I was riding on a gender-segregated bus in Jerusalem, an Orthodox woman told me she didn’t mind sitting in back and out of sight, because it helped the men “keep cleanliness of the eyes.” Her reasoning was familiar to me; it followed a logic similar to the rationale behind a men-only path at the Western Wall that was cleared just two years ago so that men would not have to look upon women as they make their way to the Kotel to pray. It’s no coincidence that Jerusalem’s first gender-segregated buses were for routes going to and from the Wall.
If you want a quick lesson on the growing gender segregation and discrimination in Israel, I suggest taking a look at the policies in place at the Western Wall, which are being constantly revised to deny women equal access at this sacred space. Things have changed tremendously in my 21 years of going to pray with Women of the Wall every Rosh Hodesh.
Women of the Wall is sometimes accused of protesting against the “status quo” at the Western Wall. In fact, there is no status quo at the Wall — things change all the time. Men and women used to enter the Western Wall plaza together through the Jewish Quarter’s Dung Gate; in 1994, separate, gender-segregated entrances were created. Within the past decade, women soldiers were still allowed to sing the national anthem during ceremonies at the Wall — now they are instructed to be content with mouthing the words.
Simply put, our goal is to obtain the freedom to pray and to do everything that is halachically permitted for women on the women’s side of the mechitza. This includes reciting prayers together that do not require a minyan, and, yes, most of all, it includes reading from the Torah. (Though it has been many years since we have been able to read from the Torah in the women’s section at the Wall.) At a minimum, we want to be allowed to pray at the Wall for one hour each month, free of injury and fear. This should not be a provocative request.
You can read the article in its entirety here
Hoffman concludes her article by saying the Women of the Wall are inspired by the words of Mordecai to Esther. Mordecai told Esther not to keep silent at a time when the Jewish people faced a mortal danger at the hands of Haman. As a result, Esther and Mordecai were able to unite the people as they prayed in support of Esther. Hoffman writes: “The antidote to silence is action; we are now turning to the whole Jewish world, men and women alike, to help us reclaim the Wall for all Jews.”
May the Women of the Wall find in the Kotel a place where they can pray, read the Torah, and sing their praises to God without the fear of violence and retaliation from those who want to segregate women for fear that the presence of women desecrates sacred places.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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