Why women should be able to pray in peace

It is wrong to try to prevent women’s services at the Western Wall, argues a British participant

By Sylvia Rothschild, April 22, 2010
Police scuffle with a protester against a Women of the Wall service earlier this year

Police scuffle with a protester against a Women of the Wall service earlier this year

Women of the Wall (WOW) began in December 1988 when a group of 70 Jewish women from all streams of Judaism approached the Kotel with a Torah Scroll to conduct a prayer service. Some wore tallit, others did not. Although even at that service, there was some screaming and cursing from Charedi Jews both male and female, Rabbi Getz (the Kotel administrator of the time) did not stop the service, and was overheard telling a complainer "leave them alone, they are not violating halachah".

For 21 years, the Women of the Wall, who remain an independent group of religious women from across the Jewish spectrum, pray together within halachic confines at the Kotel every Rosh Chodesh. We do this not to be provocative or to make a feminist point to the outside world, but to pray in a place of deep meaning to the Jewish people, the place characterised as the "beating heart" of the Jewish world.

The core of the group resides in Jerusalem, but there are many women around the world who join them whenever they are in Israel. The group embodies religious pluralism in action and is a wonderful model of Israel-diaspora relations. There is much to learn from this group of gentle, spiritually exploratory women.

When I was last in Jerusalem over a Rosh Chodesh in 2009, I joined the WOW. The experience was both exhilarating and appalling, spiritually powerful and immensely saddening. We met in the very early morning at the Kotel, a small group of local women and visitors. Those of us who wear tallit were warned to wear them "differently" - swept over our shoulders like a pashmina rather than worn like a shawl.

We were told to huddle together in a small group, as far away from the men's section as possible and as far away from the actual wall as well. We were to be as small and as inoffensive as could be. So we stood and we prayed: quietly, gently, offering the shacharit service and Hallel psalms. We were watched by a young male guard who seemed a little nonplussed.

It is a tragedy that the kotel has has become a place of violence

And then a woman dressed in Orthodox garb saw us and shrieked. She jumped about us with a piece of ragged fabric, attempting (as far as one could see) to create a sort of mobile mechitzah - but to separate us from whom? All the time, she was shouting "Sheket, sheket", "Be quiet, be quiet" - what will the men think if they can hear a woman's voice?

She was oblivious to the fact that the only raised woman's voice was her own. She created such a fuss that the guard came over, spoke quietly to our shlichat tzibbur (prayer leader) in order to arrange us even closer together, and then left again. He did not speak to the screaming woman.

We finished that part of our service and made our way to the Robinson Arch area, where the archaeological excavations and explanatory signage make the place a museum more than a place of prayer, and yet we prayed. With a Sefer Torah unrolled onto the large flat remains of a stone pillar, making a perfect (if cramped) almemar, we again huddled together on the narrow walkways and stairways to read Torah and finish the morning service.

It was in many ways a strange experience. The only prayer in the Temple that is recorded in the Bible is that of a woman - Hannah, and it is her prayer that provides the template for the choreography of the Amidah.

The Women of the Wall come together 11 times a year to pray together at a place that is uniquely special, the one place where the Shechinah (God's immanent presence in the world) is said never to have left, but to have remained in order to welcome home exiled and persecuted Jews.

We come together to pray on Rosh Chodesh - a day when women are singled out to observe an added measure of holiness as a reward for having distanced themselves from the sin of the golden calf.

The Women of the Wall have deliberately chosen not to go outside the parameters of halachah: there is no feminist point being made, no Reform agenda being followed. Nothing they do is prohibited by halachah, though as time has gone on their activities have gone from being perfectly legal under Israeli law, to become the object of increasingly prohibitive rulings under the secular system.

It is peculiar to me to be made to feel transgressive when no halachic principle is transgressed. It is a tragedy for Judaism that the Kotel has become a place of violence by Jews against Jews, a playing out of sinat chinam - causeless hatred that we know historically leads only to destruction of Jews and Judaism.

The original group is middle-aged now but younger women are joining us - scholarly and religious women, who gently but persistently follow the example of Hannah in that they bring full hearts to a place where the name of God dwells. They bring a determination that Judaism should flourish in her homeland, that religious possibilities should be explored rather than shut down, that the various streams of Judaism are able to work together and pray together as one people, whatever their affiliation and their geographic location.

Attempts to exclude Jews from the Kotel area, besides having no halachic basis, goes against the Declaration of Independence which guarantees "freedom of religion".

The women in Bible were seen as righteous because they did not join in with the making of the golden calf. Surely it is time for the righteousness of a group of women praying together in a holy place and in a holy way to be recognised and rewarded with the opportunity to be safe to do so.

Sylvia Rothschild is a rabbi of Wimbledon (Reform) Synagogue

Last updated: 12:38pm, April 22 2010