Personal Note: I’m Sad.

Image of the Kotel by Antonina Reshef – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

For 28 years, a small group of Jewish women, the Women of the Wall (WoW), have insisted on their right to pray according to their own traditions at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Every month on Rosh Chodesh they showed up at the crack of dawn and tried to hold services. The Kotel is managed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the official Orthodox arm of the government, currently controlled by Haredim.

The official rules at the Kotel, set by this office, were that it was to operate like a Haredi synagogue. Women’s voices were not to be heard, except for loud crying on Tisha B’Av. Men and women have separate areas and there must never be any mixing of the two. Strict dress codes are enforced. All prayer meets Haredi standards, which means that only men can pray aloud, and only men may handle a sefer Torah. The Women of the Wall, challenging these rules and petitioning the Israeli courts for limited exceptions to the rule, were met with 28 years of violence and abuse, yet they persisted.

This past week, the Israeli Government, along with the Reform and Conservative Movements in the United States announced a “breakthrough agreement” in which a separate portion of the Temple Mount area will be set up for egalitarian services and mixed groups for prayer. The “Robinson’s Arch” area is around the corner from the Kotel Plaza.

Talks to bring about this new agreement have been going on secretly for some time. Member of Knesset Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., was interviewed for an article in the Jerusalem Post in which he talked about his reasons for getting involved in the talks. He was deeply concerned about the escalating violence at the Kotel, and worried about the impact of the ongoing dispute on U.S.- Israel relations. As with almost anything else in Israel, nothing was simple.

So why I am not celebrating along with my fellow American Jews?

  1. Regarding the escalation of violence at the Kotel: whatever happened to the rule of law? The Supreme Court of Israel provided guidelines for the situation. Why were those who broke those guidelines and those who resorted to violence not arrested and prosecuted? I am furious that a group of people have been able to get their way (retain control of the historic Kotel) essentially by bullying. What’s the take-away lesson here? Throw enough feces, throw enough furniture, scream enough profanities, and you can have anything you want in the State of Israel?
  2. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem has condemned the agreement, since the new area, unlike the Kotel, is on ground claimed by the Waqf, the Islamic manager of the adjacent mosques. So we are going to make the Haredim less unhappy by stirring up trouble with the Waqf?
  3. Most of all, this new area does not address the intentions of the women who raised the question back in 1988 and who have pursued the issue ever since. They included a number of Orthodox women who do not want to pray in an egalitarian space. Putting them behind a mechitzah at the new spot will just underline their exile from the place they have sacrificed so much to occupy: the historic Kotel. Phyllis Chesler explains their point of view in her blog for the Times of Israel.

So I can’t celebrate this news. Perhaps the people who have negotiated it are much wiser than I and this really is the best course. What I notice, though, are the casualties and what feels to me like a rather casual attitude towards them.

I confess that my personal feelings about the Kotel are pretty cold. It seems to me that it has fostered a lot of sinat chinam [baseless hatred] among Jews since its liberation in 1967. I know that many feel it is the holiest place in Judaism because Jews have prayed there for so many centuries. But it is a wall built by a very nasty man, King Herod, who taxed the life out of Jews to remodel the Temple in a fruitless PR effort and a lot of ego. Moreover, those stones are merely a retaining wall, not a part of the Temple proper.

I supported the Women of the Wall because I thought they had a point: if we were going to claim that the Kotel belonged to all Jews, then dictating to women that they had to be quiet and that they could only pray one way there was not right. If this current arrangement is really the best we can do, it just makes me sad.

 

Yom Yerushalayim

L’Shana haba’a birushalayim!
Next year in Jerusalem!

We had been saying those words for 1,897 years, ever since the Romans smashed our Temple and banished us from the Holy City. In all that time, other people controlled our holiest shrine, other people told us when and how we could pray there or even walk there. Other people desecrated our cemeteries there and built latrines out of our ancestors’ gravestones. And then, in 1967, after a war we didn’t start and didn’t want, suddenly we had access, we were in charge, we had control. It was a miracle.

Stop for a moment and consider that: for 1,897 years, we were denied free access to our holiest shrine. Imagine Catholics shut out of Rome. Imagine Muslims told that they could not visit Mecca. Unthinkable!

I am a liberal Jew who prays for and works for a two-state solution. I donate regularly to Rabbis for Human Rights. But I am also a trust-but-verify Jew who has seen that when Jerusalem was an “international city” Jews had no access to our holy places. I prayed and studied in a rabbinical school building that had slit windows, for when it was built, it looked out upon the Jordanian army, there to keep Jews away from places they longed to visit.

So I hope that you will forgive me if I say that I do not want Jerusalem to be an “international city” with someone else in charge. It may have to be a divided city, divided in complex ways. But in truth it has been a divided city ever since 1948.

May Jerusalem soon come to be again the city of peace, a city where justice pours down like a mighty stream, where all can come and worship as they wish, and none hinder or harm them when they do.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, 
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy! – Psalm 137:5-6

 (Image of the Western Wall licensed under by Marek69 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons)

What is the Kotel?

Photograph,early 1900's,by one of the American...
Photo of the Kotel in the early 1900’s by one of the American Colony Photographers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Kotel” is one of the most famous holy places in the Jewish world.

“Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi” is Hebrew for the “Western Wall,” a retaining wall built by Herod the Great. It is all that is left of the Second Temple, built in 20 BCE (Before the Common Era) and destroyed in 70 CE by the Roman armies of Titus during their sack of Jerusalem.

Among gentiles it has sometimes been known as the “Wailing Wall” but that term has never been in common use among Jews. It got that name from the sound of the prayers of devout Jews who made pilgrimage there during the centuries of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman rule.

Many visitors to the Kotel write prayers on scraps of paper and press the paper into the crevices in the Wall.

Today the Kotel functions as an open-air synagogue. It has been in the news because of controversy over the norms for prayer at the site. For 25 years, the Women of the Wall have pressed for the right to pray aloud, to read aloud from the Torah, and to wear tallitot (prayer shawls) at the Kotel.  Their struggle is ongoing.

 

 

Mar Cheshvan, Indeed!

Anat Hoffman

Update is at the bottom of the page.

I just got word via the Women’s Rabbinic Network that Anat Hoffman was arrested again last night at the Kotel, the Western Wall, when she was there with a group from Women of the Wall and another group from Hadassah. Since I can’t find any more information on Ha’aretz to corroborate the details I’m not going to say more than that.  She’s been arrested, again. I wish I were surprised.

Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. She is also the chair of Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall.  She was elected to the Jerusalem City Council and sat on it for fourteen years. She has been tireless in her efforts to seek fairness and justice for all in Israel.

In the recent past, women have been arrested at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh for wearing a too-traditional tallit, for wearing a tallit in a manner too much like a man, and for similar ridiculousness. If this is a place that belongs to the whole Jewish people, why are women not allowed to pray there? Why must women be silent and meek there? Why is only one expression of Judaism acceptable there?

Some will say that this is an unimportant matter.  Who cares what the haredim do at the Kotel? What about Iran? What about security? What about the Situation with the Palestinians? What about the Arab Spring?

But you see, this is not really an issue about women praying at a wall, or women wearing shawls.  This is really a question of the humanity of women. Women’s images are disappearing from public view in Israel, because one group of Jews sees all women’s images, faces, voices, and presence as immodest.  A group of men spat upon a young Orthodox girl, walking home from school, because her (very modest) clothing did not meet their standards of modesty. As with the Civil Rights Movement in the United Statesbuses have become a battleground: do women have to sit in the back? may they ride at all?

So it is not a trivial matter  that a group of women are insisting on their right to pray at the most famous holy site in the Jewish world. This is not about the Wall. It is not about shawls. It is about women’s right to be visible without molestation or repression.

The facts are not all in regarding this latest arrest. I hope that Anat is all right. She is in my prayers tonight. But not just in my prayers: I am joining other members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network in sending a donation to the Women of the Wall in honor of her, and to help cover the legal expenses of this work.

If you would like to join me (please join me!) you can donate funds to either of these organizations.  Just click on the link, and it will take you to the donations page.

Women of the Wall

Israel Religious Action Center

The month of Cheshvan is sometimes called “Mar”Cheshvan, Bitter Cheshvan, because there are no holidays or rejoicing in it. I am sorry to say that Anat’s arrest and the continuing assaults on women’s rights in Israel make this Cheshvan bitter indeed.  Let us hope that the time is coming when women can again stand at the Wall and pray, as we have done for centuries. Let us hope that some future Cheshvan is sweet.

 

Update:  10:58 pm, PST, Oct 16:   The Women of the Wall report on their facebook page that Anat was still detained at this writing, and they show a photo of her being taken away in handcuffs.  At their regular morning prayer time, two other WoW leaders, Director Lesley Sachs and board member Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, were also arrested.  (Now would be a very good time to “like” their page on facebook, if you use facebook.)