D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Women of the Wall
Last March I was fortunate to be able to attend a historic event in Jerusalem -- the 30th anniversary of Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall, or WOW is an organization that has for the past 30 years been fighting for the rights of women when it comes to praying and reading Torah at the Western Wall. If you follow the news in Israel you may have over these past 30 years seen news stories about ultra-orthodox men for example spitting on the women, throwing chairs at them or stories of police arresting some of the women for carrying a Torah or reading from the Torah. Although I myself have followed some of these news stories over the years this was the first time I had ever attended a Women of the Wall event in person.
WOW began as a response to a service held at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on the last day of an international feminist conference back in 1988. The service conducted according to halakha, went smoothly until it came time for the Torah reading at which point ultra-Orthodox men and women greeted the WOW women with spitting, cursing, and physical violence.
WOW formed soon after with the creation of a women's prayer group that would meet once a month on Rosh Chodesh morning to pray and read Torah in the Women's section at the Kotel-- at the Western Wall. Soon after, laws were enacted that forbid women from wrapping themselves in a prayer shawl and reading from a Torah scroll. But it wasn't until 2009 that a woman was actually arrested for those acts.
Over the years, Women of the Wall has had many successes, although the arrests have continued. Reading Torah without harassment in the Women’s section is still not possible, and this is the primary focus of WOW's struggle today.
The celebration of the 30th anniversary began with a program the night before the service. Among the honored guests were the three paratroopers from the iconic photograph you've all seen -- a photograph taken during the Six Day War when the Israeli army captured the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. I will never forget the words one of them spoke that evening - We won over the Jordanian Army, but we didn’t liberate the Kotel. The Kotel is still in captivity, held by the extreme-right Orthodox under the protection of [Israel’s] Chief Rabbinate and government. In other words, the soldiers in 1967 may have liberated the Kotel from its Jordanian rulers, but today the Wall is still a captive, but this time of the ruling Orthodox rabbis in Israel.
That evening Chaya and I were also given an opportunity to participate in a somewhat illicit act. We were each given a mantle, a Torah cover to carry into the Kotel the next morning. I was also given a piece of the Atzei Chaim a piece of the wood roller from one of the Torahs that would be smuggled into the Kotel Plaza the next morning. While it is illegal for the women to carry a Torah into the plaza, it is not illegal to bring in Torah covers. Not really sure about the Etz Chaim, but I did carry it in my pocket, hidden from the guards as I went through security.
The next morning, we all convened at the Women's section of the Western Wall for our 7am service. This wasn't just any old Rosh Chodesh. It was Rosh Chodesh Adar, the month in which we celebrate Purim. In Adar of course our joy increases. Unfortunately, there was no increased joy that morning.
Since I was asked to lead part of the Hallel service Chaya, her daughter Kayla who was spending a year in Israel and I arrived well in advance of the 7am start time so I could be as close to the action as possible -- near the makeshift amud (podium) that is set up each month for this service. This was even more critical for me since WOW had been turned down in their request for a sound system. I needed to be as close to the front as possible so I could hear what was going on and I would know when it was time for me to lead my small part of the service.
While each month it is understood that the women will be at the very least harassed by Haredi men and women, this month was a little bit unusual. The event was well publicized and the publicity claimed 1000 women would be attending the event. When the Haredi got wind of this they took 10,000 young girls out of school and bused them to the Wall. We guessed they were either trying to make a point or they were scared. The Israeli elections were held one month after this event and there was at that time a fear among the Haredi that Netanyahu, one of their big supporters, would be voted out. With the election of a more liberal government their days of controlling the Wall would most likely be over. They were scared and so they went out of their way to disrupt our service.
While the service began in earnest, by the time we got to Hallel, not long before the Torah service, most of those 10,000 Haredi girls had joined us in the plaza. Their job was to stop our service by pushing us; verbally assaulting us; and in some cases getting a bit more physical with us. The intensity of these tactics got worse as the service went on mostly because more and more girls filled the plaza and it became difficult for us to move and carry on anything resembling a normal prayer service.
Being right in front of the amud, my job, not one I was asked to do but one I found necessary to do because of where I was standing, was to prevent the girls from toppling over the amud. As the mass of Haredi girls pushed behind me, and a few older participants in our service pushed back and protected me and the amud, the force of their pushing did eventually get to where I was standing. Fortunately, I was able to prevent the amud from toppling over although there was one scary moment when all seemed lost.
At this point it became impossible to carry on with the service on the plaza and the police just in the nick of time came to escort us to our originally designated area where we read Torah. In my humble opinion, if the police had not arrived when they did, someone could have easily been killed. But I don’t give the police credit. Some months they don’t show up at all.
What Chaya, Kayla, and I witnessed that morning was a hivdil, a separation; a divide between those tenacious women who just want to pray in the way they should have a right to do in an Israeli democracy, and those who believe they have no such right. When God designated the separation of the holy from the profane this is not what God had in mind. What God had in mind was b’tzelem Elohim – the creation of all human beings in God’s image – all of us equally holy.
I came home from Israel emotionally scarred and visibly angry but I also came home with the belief that we were all a part of history that Rosh Chodesh morning, and a belief that the fight for women’s rights at the Kotel had turned a corner. Only time will tell and although the elections held back in April did not make a dent in moving forward, the elections held more recently offer a very slight glimmer of promise.
My sermons during this High Holy Day season are in part dedicated to the fight for women’s rights at the Wall. Each of the topics I have chosen to speak about, is in some fashion connected to Women of the Wall.
Tomorrow morning, I will to talk about hope. After thirty years, the Women of the Wall have not given up the fight for equality and rights at the Kotel. Their unrelenting belief that one day women will have equal rights at the Wall is nothing short of remarkable.
On Kol Nidre I am going to talk about democracy. Israel is a democracy. The government often likes to tout how Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. But in a democracy the “rule of law” protects the rights of citizens, maintains order, and limits the power of government. All citizens are equal under the law and no one can be discriminated against on the basis of their race, religion, ethnic group, or gender—except at the Kotel?
On YK morning I will talk about antisemitism. I have to admit this is the most distressing connection I am making to my trip to Israel. It pains me deeply to make this connection. It pains me to say out loud to all of you that on that day I experienced antisemitism not from White Supremacists or radical Muslims, but from other Jews. But that is not nearly as painful as watching those three paratroopers who made it possible for the Haredi men and women to be at the Kotel; and to be in charge of the Kotel – it pained me deeply to watch how they were harassed in the men’s section that morning.
We read in the Zichronot portion of the Musaf service:
Blessed is the person who does not forget You, the one who draws strength from You; for those who seek You will never stumble, and those who trust in You will never be shamed.
And I can’t help but think: Cursed is the person who does forget You, the one who uses the strength drawn from You to harm others; who causes others to stumble and who shames those who seek to be closer to You in their own unique way.
Tomorrow morning, we will continue with—Hope.
L’Shana Tova u’metukah