It has become a new tradition at Holy Blossom for us to join our Sisterhood to celebrate Rosh Chodesh during our Morning Minyan Service and to show our support for Nashot HaKotel—the Women of the Wall—in Israel.
This past Sunday, we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Kislev in honor of the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the Women of the Wall. How appropriate! The holiday we celebrate in Kislev is Hanukkah–a celebration of the Maccabees’ fight for religious freedom in Eretz Yisrael around 165 B.C.E.—and the Women of the Wall are fighting for religious freedom in Israel today.
Whenever I’m in Israel, I always go to the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh to pray with Women of the Wall. My last visit was in the summer of 2010, when I was there to study at the Hartman Institute for two weeks. Our study theme was Engaging Israel: Jewish Values and the Dilemmas of Nationhood.
Monday morning, July 12, was our tiyyul day at Hartman: an opportunity to go off campus to engage with Israeli society. We could choose among several options: a day with the IDF; with Haredi Jews; with Arab Muslims; with Israeli and Palestinian environmentalists; or an archaeological walking tour of the Old City.
But this July 12 was also Rosh Chodesh Av. I and several other women rabbis at Hartman were very aware of the increasingly hostile demonstrations against Women of the Wall by the men and women of the ultra-Orthodox community and, for that reason, we decided to use our Israel “encounter” day to support Women of the Wall.
At 7:00 that morning, 150 women gathered to pray at the women’s section of the Kotel – the area farthest away from the Wall itself. We wore our talitot as scarves around our necks – because we were not allowed to wear prayer shawls at the Wall; the prayer leader whispered her prayers, as did we – for we were not permitted to pray aloud at the Wall. After we concluded our prayers, Anat Hoffman, co-founder of the Women of the Wall (and director of IRAC – the Israel Religious Action Center), led us towards Robinson’s Arch for the Torah service where we would be allowed to read from a Torah scroll.
As we left the women’s section at the Wall and entered the plaza, one of the police officers “guarding us” tried to grab the Torah scroll that Anat was holding. We kept walking towards Robinson’s Arch, and we sang prayers as we walked. The police blocked our procession, and again one of the officers grabbed Anat’s Torah scroll in an effort to take it away from her. This quickly escalated into a dramatic physical struggle, with Anat gripping the Torah scroll more tightly the harder the police officer tried to rip it from her. My colleagues and I, along with many others, were in shock. Whether or not you find this almost unbelievably offensive, you should see the film footage of this incident – either at the Women of the Wall website or at www.youtube.com. The film clip also captures Anat’s arrest for the “crime” of holding a Torah scroll at the Wall. She was interrogated for 5 hours at the Jerusalem police station before she was released…and she was banned from the Kotel for 30 days.
My Hartman Institute discussions about the viability of religious freedom and pluralism in the Jewish state had suddenly lost all their theoretical attributes and become sickeningly real.
This past Monday, the Women of the Wall were able to pray peacefully, without incident, surrounded by supporters (male and female, from all denominations of Judaism). However, the struggle for equal access to the Kotel is not over. A plan to create a third egalitarian space at the Wall is being discussed, but it is not without controversy and could take several years to implement.
One might ask why the Women of the Wall have chosen the Kotel as their battleground. So many progressive Jews and secular Jews don’t consider the Kotel a particularly spiritual or sacred space. I believe that there are several reasons. One is that the Kotel should be a place for all Jews, and should not be under the exclusive jurisdiction of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. Another is that the struggle for religious freedom at the Kotel is part of a larger struggle for religious freedom, pluralism, and gender equality throughout Israel. Discrimination against women in Israel is increasing at an alarming rate: gender segregation of buses and sidewalks in certain neighborhoods is being legislated; women (including young girls) are being physically assaulted for alleged “immodesty;” the Orthodox want to ban the portrayal of women on billboards and advertisements, and they want to prevent women’s voices from being heard in song in the military and on public airwaves. These issues of religious freedom, pluralism, and gender equality go deep into modern Israeli society.
If you want to learn more about the history of Women of the Wall, the current status of their legal battles, or to offer your support, please go to their website (www.womenofthewall.org.il). For more information about the issues of religious freedom, pluralism, and gender equality in Israel, please go to IRAC’s website at www.irac.org.
No less importantly, you can attend Holy Blossom’s Morning Minyan Service celebrations of Rosh Chodesh: to support our Sisterhood and to stand in solidarity with the courageous efforts of Women of the Wall. On Sunday, as Tere Quiroz chanted from the Torah, all the men, women, and children present stood for the Aliyah. By doing so, we demonstrated and affirmed both our own religious freedom and our support of the Women of the Wall.
Please join us for Rosh Chodesh Tevet which falls on December 3 & 4 (Tuesday and Wednesday) at 7:30 a.m. in the Herman Chapel.
Also of interest is an upcoming event at Holy Blossom: Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) will be speaking on Thursday, December 5, 2013 at 8:00 p.m. on “The Role of Reform Judaism in securing Israel’s democracy and pluralistic future.”