The first time I davened at the Kotel, I was 16 and with a group of girls from my teen tour. Our leaders brought us to the last vestige of the Temple, the remaining western wall. The boys and men funneled down the path to the men’s side to do their thing and we were left to our own devices.
We walked down to the wall on the women’s side, where we stood in front of the ancient stones. Some stuffed prayers and requests into the spaces between the rocks; others touched the wall, moved by their presence before it. Having withstood the march of time, cycles of destruction, occupation and exile, the wall for many Jews seems to cry out in a way few other things do that we are still here.
One girl, whom I’ll call Rina, took charge, and began leading prayers from her siddur. A few of us gathered around and began following the service along with her. Just as we were getting into it, an older woman shushed us. She shushed us more loudly than we were praying. I don’t think we understood at first that this was directed at us — after all, we were only praying. So we continued. The shushing persisted, however, and other women joined, complaining that we were disturbing the men. Since we weren’t near the mechitzah, the barrier perpendicular to the Kotel that divides the men from the women, we were confused. Well, certainly I was.
No one had prepared us for this. Although our group comprised members with a variety of Jewish practice, we got along. Rina, for that matter, belonged to the most traditional of Dallas’ synagogues at that time, one where there was seating for men, women and families. During the six-week trip meant to foster continued love of Israel in we diaspora teenagers, we davened each day, boys and girls together.
At the Kotel, I think our group of girls finally gave up and simply prayed silently. I don’t recall how the others reacted, but I remember feeling a little cheated. We had come all this way to visit what had always been billed as the holiest site of the Jewish people. But apparently it was holier for some than for others.
I am pulled back to the memory because the Kotel, prayer and women have taken such a prominent place in the fight for religious pluralism in Israel in recent months. In many ways, nothing has changed since I was 16. In so many ways, things have gotten worse if you are a woman seeking to connect with Jewish practice in this way.
Women of the Wall, who have been praying together at the Kotel each month on Rosh Chodesh for more than two decades, has tried to carve out space for women’s practice. They have been harassed repeatedly by haredi Jews (literally meaning those who tremble before God), who object to women wearing tallit, tefillin, praying aloud, and reading from the Torah.
Women of the Wall’s members have been arrested, with local police upholding a ruling that they are in violation of local custom. The haredi hurl insults, dirty diapers and chairs. I’ve always found it ironic that Palestinians throwing rocks at Jews at the Kotel would be engaging in an act of terror, but Jewish men throwing chairs at Jewish women praying there are not.
At the heart of the issue is what constitutes local custom. In a country that upholds the idea that all people with a quarter Jewish blood can claim a right of return, why is it only the most stringently Orthodox who get to define that custom?
In the past, the topic seems to bear only passing interest for Israelis. The Kotel for them was ceded long ago to the ultra-Orthodox. But for diaspora Jews, particularly American Jews whose numbers still skew toward those who accept pluralistic practices, it feels as if there is no place at the Kotel that reflects who they are. The holiest site, the one we conjure in our heads of Israel — one mingling a tourist’s fantasy of modernity meeting antiquity — ends up feeling like destiny denied when you are standing at its base being shushed. There is a men’s section and a women’s section; and in the women’s section, what the Orthodox men want rules.
The arrests of Women of the Wall members in recent months, in particular that of leader Anat Hoffman, played out badly overseas, particularly in the press in the United States. Combined with news of gender segregated sidewalks in haredi neighborhoods and on some bus lines, it made Israel, which prides itself on its singular status as a legitimate democracy in the Middle East, look more in line with its neighbors — who bundle their women under veils, hinder their mobility, and operate under a sort of “better not seen and not heard” rubric for their female populations — than it would like.
For those of us who pray in egalitarian settings, this was great news. I began to imagine a visit to Israel where I could read the Torah at the Kotel, or attend a bar or bat mitzvah there, with men and women praying together. But I realized that it was also an imperfect solution. For those Orthodox women who do wear tallit, who do leyn from the Torah, it simply wouldn’t work. While they may not be many in numbers, they, too, have a right to pray with dignity, without being harassed, yet separate from the men. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could just go pray as they like in an all-women’s service on the women’s side without someone lobbing insults or projectiles at them?
Still, it was progress, and for the first time in a long time it seemed that something could be worked out. Then the Jerusalem District Court ruled in April that Women of the Wall could worship, as they liked, undeterred. They were not in violation of any local custom and should not be arrested, as they have been in the past. This past Friday, on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, they gathered. Greeting them at the Kotel were hundreds of haredi women crowding the space closest to the wall. Men heckled from their side. All had been urged there by prominent rabbis wanting them to stop the prayers of Women of the Wall. Someone threw a chair and three men were arrested. No members of the group of praying women were arrested.
It was a spectacle, for sure. The haredi blame it on Women of the Wall. Apparently they simply cannot and should not be held accountable for their lack of control when faced with such female audacity.
Israel is the most Jewish place in the world, yet it has been described by a member of the Knesset as, “the only democracy where Jews do not have freedom of religion.” In the founding days of the state, many concessions and controls were given to the religious. With wounds of World War II so fresh in everyone’s mind, there was a sense of granting respect to religious survivors — coupled with the feeling that yeshiva Judaism, decimated by the war, would soon fade away.
The impact of this decision today is felt beyond the Kotel, in such areas as immigration, conversion and marriage as well as in the exemptions the religious receive from military service. With the centrist Atid party ascending to power in the last election, however, Israel’s haredi are feeling threatened. What is happening at the Western Wall is not only a very real and emotionally pitched battle over specific religious practice, but also is a symbol of change, and with it the challenge to authority, slipping power and encroaching modernity.
We recently celebrated Yom Yerushalayim, the day that marks the reunification of Jerusalem’s eastern and western sections during the 1967 Six-Day War. When a friend visited shortly after that miraculous event, she said there was no mechitzah and men and women prayed how they wished at that time.
A united Jerusalem — and a united Kotel —was there for all Jews, even if half of them had two X chromosomes.