Women at the Western Wall

By Sophie Rae

This summer, I spent 5 weeks in Israel with the Bronfman Youth Fellowship, studying and traveling with 25 other Jewish American teenagers. I learned about many aspects of Judaism and Israeli society and politics, from Jewish philosophy to the African refugees in South Tel Aviv. One topic that was especially interesting to me was the issue of gender inequality in Israel, an issue that pervades many aspects of Israeli society and takes many different forms. While Israel is primarily a secular country, Jewish practice is overseen by the Ministry of Religious Services, which is currently controlled by Ultra-Orthodox (also called Haredim), rabbis. The fast-growing Haredi population makes up approximately 10% of Jews in Israel and typically do not accept the more progressive forms of Judaism that are more common in America, like Reform and Conservative Judaism.

I first became aware of gender inequality in Israel when we visited the Western Wall (Kotel) in the Old City of Jerusalem—the last remnant of the 2nd Temple. Arguably the most sacred Jewish site in the world, the Wall has been a site for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries. Today, the Wall is controlled by the Ultra-Orthodox.

Since 1967, there have been two sections, one for women and one for men. It is common practice in Orthodox places of prayer to have separate sections for women and men with a divider called a mehitza. But at the Wall, unlike at many more progressive Orthodox prayer sites, the women’s section is significantly smaller than the men’s section. While men praying at the Wall have plenty of room on either side of them, many women have to wait about five minutes to find a space at the Wall. When I asked a Haredi rabbi why the women’s side was smaller, he said it was because women go to the Wall less. But from the picture below and from my experience there, it was fairly obvious that there were just as many women as men there, maybe more.

Perhaps more problematic than the size of the women’s section, are the restrictions placed on women praying at the Wall. Reflecting Orthodox practice (which legally dictates what is permitted at the Wall) women are neither allowed to read from Torah, nor are they allowed to wear a prayer shawl (talit). They are also not allowed to pray aloud as a group (though the police have never arrested them for this). Unfortunately, these limitations do not acknowledge that many Jewish women who come to pray at the Wall come from other Jewish traditions in which women reading Torah or wearing prayer shawls is accepted. An organization called Women of the Wall, which began in 1989, is working to make the Wall more egalitarian by, according to their mission statement, “achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” The organization holds monthly prayer services on the women’s side at the Wall; unfortunately, these women often incur very negative and threatening reactions from others at the Wall. When I went with my group to a Women of the Wall service, for example, a man shouted over the mehitza that the women praying in the service were worse than the Amalekites, a biblical enemy of the Jews– that they were the people that Jews were obligated to kill.

The threat that these women face is not limited to angry voices from other side of the fence; often, women who take part in these prayer services are arrested for wearing prayer shawls or singing too loudly. According to Vanessa Ochs, one of the directors of the International Committee for Women of the Wall, “The police are there to keep the women safe by keeping an eye on those who choose to cry out hatefully as the women pray. But the police are also the ones who decide if and when the women will be harassed and arrested.”

Just two weeks ago, four women were arrested at the Wall for wearing prayer shawls at a Women of the Wall service. Having attended a Women of the Wall service myself, I was very troubled by this news. The women who pray at the Wall are not disrupting anyone—standing at the back of the women’s section of the Wall, they sing quietly and respectfully, their voices drowned out by the singing of the men on the other side. They take their prayer shawls off when the police ask them to. They no longer read from the Torah. All they are doing is what is asked of them by their religion: to pray. The Wall is considered to be the holiest site for Jews and is thought of as a place to connect to the history of the Jewish people and to God. But in this place, women are silenced. As I stood at the Wall, watching a woman tie her talit into a scarf at a policeman’s request, I wondered how a place so unequal could ever be truly holy. How a person could ever really feel the presence of God in a place that discriminates against half the people in the world. Now, back at home in Brooklyn, I still don’t have an answer.


6 Comments on “Women at the Western Wall”

  1. Great article! I’m so jealous that you got to daven (pray) with WOW, it’s on my bucket list of things to do.

  2. […] Grrrl Beat: Women at the Western Wall […]

    • Majalia says:

      I will not mind my own when I read shit about how women should be in the eyes of soeitcy when a lot of is involves behaving in ways women don’t want to behave. Screw what women want to do, let’s pressure them to do what we, soeitcy, think they *should* do in the name of the nature of femininity. Right?Well, no. I am suggesting that since what women want to do is incompatible with the survival of Western civilization, we should pressure them to do what is necessary in the name of preserving civilization and preventing a decline into poverty and barbarism.For example, in Papua New Guinea, the authorities put tremendous pressure on women to stop them from doing what they wanted to do, which was eating their dead and feeding the most tasty bits to young children, because it was giving them kuru. Do you think they should have simply let all those women do what they wanted to do?If not, then why would you support letting women destroy Western civilization? Would you change your mind if I could prove to you that letting women do what they want would destroy Western civilization?I don’t think what we are seeing is a classic “marriage strike” by men. I see it more as women postponing marriage past their most marriageable years and finding that marrying later in life is exceptionally difficult. I tend to agree. I think natural hypergamy combined with the push for education/career over husband/children is the chief problem. The Family 2.0 laws tend to multiply that effect, but aren’t the primary cause.

  3. […] pray together in the women’s section of the Wall (see my article on women at the Western Wall here). Hoffman was arrested for “disturbing the peace” and “endangering the public […]

    • Nsikan says:

      yup, this was pretty hoirifrc. it hurt to read. after i posted the article on FB, someone remarked: Holy crap! I thought that I might have accidentally wandered to the Fox News website or something The part that really surprises me is the fact that in the blog following the article nobody (save a couple intelligent people) is criticizing the piece! i thought the comment was well put, as i’m not sure what bothers me more: the article or the stupid responses that follow. in any case, as someone involved in education and the academy, it only motivates me to up the anti on women’s issues in the classroom.i’m glad to see that you’ve written on it.

  4. emmawolf says:

    “How a person could ever really feel the presence of God in a place that discriminates against half the people in the world”

    Just half? You’re a little optimistic.

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