Women at the Western WallPosted: September 9, 2012
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.