|Nobody was arrested today...Rosh Chodesh Av with Women of the Wall||24 July, 2012|
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On Friday morning 7/20, I joined the Women of the Wall (WOW) for Rosh Chodesh Av at the Western Wall, aka the Kotel. Once a month, on the first day of the Jewish month, WOW holds a Rosh Chodesh service for which they’ve written a special siddur. Yes, the WOW gathering at the Kotel is a regular, monthly morning service for Rosh Chodesh, but it is also a statement by WOW that women deserve the freedom to assemble, pray, and conduct ritual at the Kotel. More about this in a moment.
On the way: Even at 6:00 am, the sun is beginning to heat the air and burn off the purple morning fog; the month of Av is opening with a scorcher. I meet four women near Pardes Institute to share an early morning taxi. Soon, we are snaking through the streets of the Old City to arrive at the entrance to the Kotel. The cab driver is adept at dodging, stopping short, and finding an opening, as the foot and vehicle traffic mounts. We pass a cadre of uniformed men and women, walking in the street with automatic rifles. Near them, a few men holding talit bags and a pair of women in long skirts walk the narrow stone sidewalk, apparently toward the Kotel. The sun bounces hard off the bright stone. Shops are still shuttered on commerce-empty streets. In an hour or two, they’ll be teeming with tourists and with local shoppers getting ready for Shabbat. We alight from the cab, pass through the security check at the women’s entrance, and step onto the Kotel plaza.
At the Kotel: Seems like I just left, even though it was fully two years ago when I stood here last. The plaza is surrounded on three sides by buildings and the Western Wall, a holy cul-de-sac. The east wall of the plaza is the Kotel, the most sacred site in Judaism, already humming with morning prayers. We walk down the stone ramp to the back of the women’s section and find the WOW group. Farther ahead, women face the wall, standing or sitting in chairs, some with foreheads and hands pressed against the massive stones. Supplication hangs in the air, laden with hope and lifted with praise. This place feels like no other. There is a hush on the women’s side of words whispered. Reminds me of the soft rush of angels’ wings, like the “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh”(Holy, Holy, Holy) of the Kedushah (a particular prayer in the liturgy). In contrast, the men’s side radiates audible devotion: singing and calling out of prayers, chanting of Torah and Haftarah, outpouring of hymns, anthems, and nigguns (wordless songs).
Now, we come to the heart of the matter: The State of Israel treats the Western Wall as an Orthodox synagogue, and particularly, one with ultra-Orthodox customs. So, the voices of women are not supposed to be heard aloud so that they do not distract men from their prayers. Women are not allowed to read Torah at the wall or even to carry one onto the plaza. No bat mitzvah has ever been held at the Western Wall. Women are forbidden to wear a talit (prayer shawl) “male-style”, that is, draped around the shoulders but instead are required to wear them “scarf-style”, wrapped around the neck. Also, women are not permitted to lay tefilin, wrap the leather ritual objects containing prayers. Are you mad yet? Or puzzled? The State of Israel prevents women of egalitarian Orthodox groups and nonOrthodox women of Masorti (Conservative), Reconstructionist, and Reform denominations from worshiping at the Western Wall according to their respective customary practices.
So, what happens on Rosh Chodesh—a holiday whose observance includes a morning Torah reading—at a women’s service at the wall? Since 1988, when WOW held its first women’s service at the then-gender-segregated-Kotel (the Kotel was neither continously nor formally segregated by gender during the past two centuries), WOW has pursued religious freedom for women through the courts, despite physical and verbal attacks from the religious right, government stalling, and police harassment at the wall. You can read the details of this history at http://womenofthewall.org.il/about/history/. Even last month at Rosh Chodesh Tamuz, one woman was detained by the police for wearing a talit “improperly”. Currently, WOW has agreed to an uneasy compromise with the authorities: the service begins at the Kotel, and when it’s time to read Torah, migrates to Robinson’s Arch, a remnant of an arch, attached to the Western Wall, that lies outside both the Kotel and plaza and within an archeological museum and dig site.
So, we begin our service. An Orthodox woman at the Kotel argues vigorously with a policeman about the presence of women leading a service at the Kotel. The officer orders her up the ramp to end the confrontation. The police address at least one woman about the configuration of her talit. We pray. It’s hot, the sun tops the wall, and sweat streams. Supportive men stand on the plaza just behind us, outside the barrier that separates the plaza from the holy space near the wall. Nobody is detained.
Now it’s time to read Torah. We walk, about 100 of us—men, women, an Israeli teenage youth group, and small children (from Israel and other countries) singing songs of prayer—from the Kotel plaza to Robinson’s Arch, about 5 minutes distant. The Torah, carried in an unmarked, forest-green, don’t–beat-me-up-because-I-am-a-woman-carrying-a-Torah duffle bag, meets us outside the plaza, and we continue to the Arch to finish the service.
After the service: We gather in the museum courtyard under the shade of a tree to hear a D’var Torah (teaching) and enjoy a brief oneg (a celebratory gathering with blessings, singing and refreshments); after all, it’s a work or school day for some and everyone has to get going.
I share a cab back to my neighborhood with one of the organizers, someone who has been working with WOW since 1988. She is buoyed by the attendance, but professes fatigue and frustration. It’s a steep, uphill climb to gain freedoms and recognition, and WOW needs inspired participants to join its ranks and continue the cause.
I have deep respect for the Women of the Wall. They are engaging with the State of Israel to further pluralism. I hope they will bring positive change in our time.