Women's eight-year struggle to pray out loud at "the Wailing Wall" by Phyllis Chesler

 

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1. Jewish women were first ordained as rabbis in 1972, by Reform Jews.  Today, all branches except the Orthodox ordain women as rabbis, and permit them to serve as cantors. In Israel, Orthodox rabbis are the only ones permitted to marry, divorce, or bury Jews, and Orthodox religious courts control all family law. In her brilliant work Jewish Men, Jewish Women (Harper San Francisco, 1995), Aviva Cantor demonstrates that in exile, without land or guns, Torah knowledge became the measure of manhood for Jews. The occasional rabbi's learned daughter aside, women were not allowed to become truly learned lest they further "emasculate" Jewish men.

 

2. A Bat Mitzvah is the female version of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony that marks a Jewish boy's coming of age at 13, in which he is called to read from the Torah during a prayer service. The first Bat Mitzvah was celebrated in 1922. By the 1970s it was common among all but Orthodox Jews. Today, an increasing number of Orthodox girls do have one. They give a learned speech at home, or in the women's section of the synagogue, with only women present and no regular prayer service held. Some boys have a Bar Mitzvah in Israel on the men's side of the Kotel (their mothers cannot easily watch, only listen, from the women's side). Girls, however, are not permitted to have a Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel, not even on the women-only side.

 

3 Among Orthodox Jews, a quorum of ten men, a minyan, is required in order to say certain prayers or have a religious service; women do not count in establishing a minyan. They do count toward a minyan among Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews, though. While an increasing number of Orthodox Jewish women are praying and reading from the Torah together in prayer groups, they often do so behind closed doors. They omit prayers that require a minyan to say.

 

4 According to learned commentary and legend, Lilith was the name of the woman whom God created "in God's image" in the first creation myth in Genesis (see 1:26). Eve was God's second female creation, this time from Adam's rib. Lilith, presumably, was even more uppity than Eve and fled Eden to become a patriarch's nightmare. Rabbis said she tempted Jewish men into nocturnal emissions that resulted in Lilith babies, performed abortions, was responsible for miscarriages and stillbirths, and was a sexually insatiable death-dealer. These stories fit the classic image of the witch that fueled Christian torture and murder of Christian women for three centuries in Europe.

    

 

Once upon a time, in 1948, there was an eight-year-old Jewish girl who loved to study Torah. Her teachers said she was the smartest "boy" in her class, but, because she was a girl and came from an Orthodox family, everyone knew she could never become a rabbi, a cantor, a judge, an interpreter of Jewish law1 -- or celebrate a Bat Mitzvah.2 She couldn't even pray to God out loud as part of a religious quorum.3 No, the little girl wasn't me (at least, not exclusively), and her name wasn't Yentl. Her true name and guiding inspiration was, perhaps, the world's first human teacher: the biblical Eve.

 

Eve was earthy, psychic, intellectual, compassionate. Eve talked to both animals and God/dess, lusted after knowledge -- could almost taste it, shared its fruits with her more sluggish mate, and, as a result, taught us that pain is a lawful consequence of creation. God forbade only Adam, not Eve, to eat of the Tree. Afterward, Adam told God that Eve made him do it; she was an evil influence. Funny: We think of Eve as disobedient, not Adam as a snitch.

 

The sons of Man decided they got thrown out of Paradise because of something a woman said. The rabbis decided that "a woman's voice" (kol isha) was dangerous. It was, henceforth, forbidden. A 5,000-year spell was cast. To this day, Orthodox Jewish men insist that hearing a woman's voice engaged in prayer will interfere with a man's ability to concentrate on his prayers, will sexually distract him. Nocturnal thoughts of this nature are attributed to Eve's even more scandalous precursor, Lilith4 (for whom the first feminist Jewish magazine was named).

 

For generations, "good" Jewish women believed that their own religious ignorance was a virtue. Any woman who thought otherwise, who was again tempted by knowledge or direct, unmediated contact with God, was deemed a crazy witch; her fate: not pleasant. Among Orthodox

women today -- and those subject to Orthodox law -- that requirement of silence remains. They may go to synagogue, seated separately from men, but they may not pray out loud where men can hear them.

 

Well, guys and handmaids: somewhere, east of Eden, the biblical Eve and her predecessor, Lilith, are on the move again and I am privileged to be among them.

 

On December 1, 1988, I was one of 70 Jewish women from Europe, North America, Australia, Asia, South America, and the Middle East who prayed together in Jerusalem, out loud, with a Torah, wearing ritual garments, for the first time in thousands of years, at the Kotel, better known as the Western, or "Wailing," Wall. The Kotel is arguably the spot most sacred or symbolic of all that was lost and longed for in Jewish history: King Solomon's Temple, our own country, an army to protect Jews from being beaten, raped, slaughtered in Christian countries.

 

I opened the Torah that day -- a great honor. We prayed at the Kotel but only on the women's side, behind a high barrier that separates men from women and women from the Torah. On the men's side, dozens, maybe hundreds of Torah scrolls reside. Siddurim -- prayer books -- too. Religious quorums needed for praayer services take place among the men three times a day. On the women's side -- nothing: no Torah, no religious quorums, no group spirit, no solidarity, only single, solitary, eerily silent women, sometimes weeping, sometimes clutching a prayer book, silently mouthing their prayers.

 

      What we did at the Kotel in 1988 was, in a sense, analogous to nuns taking over the Vatican and helping at a mass. What we did was historic, uncustomary, but not forbidden according to Jewish law. The service was disrupted by verbal and threatened physical assaults from Ultra-Orthodox men and women at the site.

 

In March 1989, when the attacks continued during subsequent prayer services, the newly organized Women of the Wall (WOW) petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court for an order to allow women to pray together at the wall, with a Torah and wearing ritual garments, and to protect them from violence. According to Bonna Haberman, visiting scholar at Brandeis, "women shouted, cursed, and pushed at us. [On two occasions] men burst into the women's section...circled, began to tear at us. [Men] hurled metal chairs at us. The police [watching nearby] refused to intervene. On a third occasion, a black wall of men cursing and taunting us blocked our entry... [Men] violently thrashed at the petition. One wild black-coated fellow burst through, hurling a chair at our heads. One woman collapsed under the blow, bleeding from the neck and head and requiring hospital treatment."

 

The court's response in May: a temporary injunction forbidding women to pray aloud. That injunction is still in effect today.

 

That December, the International Committee for the Women of the Wall (ICWOW), established as a support group early on, donated a Torah to the women of Jerusalem and tried to pray with it at the Kotel. Unlike WOW members, the international women were not attacked physically, but we were prevented from praying at the wall. This became the basis for ICWOW's lawsuit filed in 1990 against the government of Israel and the Ministry of Religion.

 

Eight years later, the issue remains unresolved, and women are still forbidden from praying together out loud at the Kotel (see chronology next page). In 1994, the Israeli Supreme Court recommended that a Parliament commission find a way to allow women to exercise our rights at the Kotel in a way that will not lead to violence. After numerous delays, the commission voted in April to banish us from the Kotel. But the group has grown, bringing together religious feminists of all denominations. Jewish visitors from around the world have joined WOW at and near the Kotel in prayer; visitors of many religions have also come to witness in solidarity. For the last six years, Jewish girls have begun to hold their Bat Mitzvah near the Kotel under WOW auspices. Recently a Bat Mitzvah asked some of her friends to donate monies to our cause in lieu of gifts.

 

As attorney Miriam Benson said, "Getting used to reading the Torah in exile, even under WOW auspices, is not good." I agree. Nevertheless, once you've got this kind of energy moving among the people, there's no way of stopping it. How we have been treated in this search, what we've done, has taught me the following lessons:

 

When a woman demands to be treated as a human being, even if she defines her humanity as (only) a "separate but equal" place at her Father's table, whether she's a "good" or a "bad" woman, she is viewed as a brazen revolutionary. We asked for our rights under civil and religious law. When we prayed, other worshippers, both men and women, verbally and physically assaulted us. We asked the Israeli state to protect us so that we could exercise our rights. The state claimed it could not contain the violence against us, and that we ourselves had provoked the violence by "disturbing/offending" the "sensibilities of Jews at worship." Women are not seen as "Jews" or as "worshippers" with "sensibilities."

 

What makes this line of reasoning difficult to swallow is that Israelis have continued to administer time-sharing access to the Cave of the Patriarchs at Hebron, a site holy to both Moslems and Jews, even after Baruch Goldstein shot 29 Moslems at prayer. Authorities could do as well on our behalf at the wall.

 

Many secular and otherwise enlightened people underestimate the psychological importance of organized religion. I am a liberation psychologist, engaged with the world's mental health. Therefore I know how important it is for both women and men, Jews and non-Jews, that women begin to claim sacred ground in spiritually autonomous and authoritative ways.

 

At first, fiercely agnostic Israelis claimed that no Israeli cared about the Kotel, that Israelis had nothing but contempt for organized, Orthodox Judaism. Some secular feminists took me to task for "caring about a symbol of a patriarchal empire." "Who wants a piece of that tainted pie? Without misogyny and homophobia, there would be no Orthodox Judaism. If you absolutely must do' religion, why not found a Goddess grove/embrace Buddhism/open up a soup kitchen?"

 

"But," said I, "when learned religious women are psychologically and physically ready to claim sacred ground, isn't it your responsibility as feminists to assist them?"

 

Meanwhile, the patriarchy mounted a full-fledged attack. In their brief, the Israeli state and its minister of religion called WOW and ICWOW "witches" who are doing "Satan's work," "more like prostitutes than holy women," "misled, tainted by modern secular feminism." Fiercely fundamentalist Israelis did not like what we were doing either. They joined the state in opposing us before the Israeli Supreme Court. If you find yourself opposed (or not strongly supported) by groups on both the far right and the far left, you're probably doing "feminism."

 

It is crucial to fight for territory. In this case, the territory is real as well as psychological and spiritual, and has everything to do with Jewish women's coming-of-age spiritually. (Here, the little girl gets to have her Bat Mitzvah, a little late, but on a really grand scale.)

 

Religious women and men can, paradoxically, also be firebrand feminists. This doesn't mean they're "tolerant" of things they disapprove of; in fact, they're hell-on-wheels toward anyone who flouts their religious authority. I'll never forget how, in the spring of 1989, some WOW supporters surrounded an Israeli official to chew him out about the violence against WOW at the Kotel. They were fierce, a swarm of locusts. They were all over the man, all talking at once. "How dare you hold female life so cheap? We will hold you personally responsible if a single hair on the head of any woman is harmed." Theirs was a passionate and direct interpersonal "hit," almost primitive; few academic or career feminists ever confront men of power in such righteously unladylike ways.

 

Religious women are not always liberal, and do not always practice gender-neutral feminism. Some tend to be essentialists who believe that men and women are different and that women are superior. An example: Once, in the early 1980s, during Shabbos, a Lubavitcher Hasidic woman in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, took me aside and said: "Let the men have their titles and all their public displays of importance. They are not as strong as women are. They need this encouragement. We give birth to life. Our every act is holy. We are always close to God, not just when we pray."

 

Another example: I studied Torah with a group of religious women. I will never forget the intensity and excitement of our studying together -- nor how often these women allowed our Torah study to be interrupted by the needs of others: a husband who needed to be fed, a child or a parent in need of comforting, an employer with an emergency. At first, I was filled with outrage and disdain. In time, I came to understand that religious women viewed themselves as God's hands and hearts on earth. Unlike their male counterparts, nothing -- not even Torah study -- could preempt their mission of service toward others. In time, I came to view my own (patriarchal) need to brook no interruption when I read, wrote, studied, as here to stay, but also heartless.

 

Victory is more humdrum than dramatic. Victory is ours when former slaves, or second-class citizens, engage in ordinary activities and take their right to do so for granted. They live, not die. They attend school, find employment, vote, have an abortion, exercise their right to prayerfully greet their newborn, bury their dead, have a Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel.

 

Not every pioneer will personally benefit from the particular wrong righted, the right won. Not everyone who begins a battle may be able to see it through to the end. The original grassroots activists and named plaintiffs have already been joined by second and third wave warriors. Perhaps others, especially the coming generations, will be the ones to most benefit from our struggle.

 

      

    

 

    See also:

    a. Women at the Kotel: Eight Years and Counting by Phyllis Chesler

 

    LINKS to related material:

    a.. International Committee for Women at the Kotel

    b.. Jewish Online Resources

    c.. Kol Isha - The Voice of Women

    d.. Looking for Lilith and (on a lighter note) the Lilith Shrine

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