In honor of the new Jewish month of Kislev, I joined my mom at Women of the Wall this morning. Women of the Wall is an organization that has existed for more than twenty years and meets monthly on Rosh Hodesh, the start of each Jewish month. Traditionally, Rosh Hodesh has been a time for women to gather to celebrate their womanhood around the lunar cycle (Hello Red Tent). WOW was founded in reaction to the present reality of the Western Wall in Jerusalem — the women’s section is significantly smaller than the men’s and there is not a place for women to sing or read the Torah out loud, unlike the men’s side. At their monthly meetings, WOW members and various guests gather in the back of the women’s section and pray in a huddle. Women will put on their tallitot, their prayer shawls, and a few even dare to wear kippot.
I’ve been to WOW before. It’s always a moving experience for me. I do not feel spiritually or religiously connected to the Wall because I see it as a symbol of how the conservative right dominates religion and politics in Israel; when I’m with WOW, though, I see my presence as part of a continued struggle that fights for egalitarianism in Jewish, Israeli society. I have every right to be a fully participatory member of the Jewish community. Usually, WOW does the beginning of morning prayers, called shaharit, and the special Rosh Hodesh prayers, called Hallel, at the Wall, and then the group moves to another area at the Southern Wall to read Torah and finish up. This is because by the time we reach Hallel, we have usually caused a commotion. Other women will start yelling at us to be quiet, how what we’re doing is disrespectful, and that we’re bothering the men on the other side. Today, though, things were different.
We prayed Hallel and no one had said anything. There weren’t any old ladies who were telling us to quiet down; no police officers had come by to tell us to move. It was the loudest I had ever heard this group of women. We finished hallel with barely a talking-to and then we reached the Torah service. Given that no one was paying us any attention, there was a quick conversation amongst the board members: should we dare to read the Torah here? After a few minutes, they all agreed to it.
As we unrolled the Torah, the people who patrol the Wall area came over and started to bother us. It’s still unclear to me who they are exactly — they go by the name “Guards of the Western Wall.” Are they appointed by the state or have they taken this ‘holy’ duty upon themselves? Because they were being so aggressive and we were doing something that is considered provocative, we decided to move as we had originally planned to the Southern Wall. At that point, another so-called security guard came up and started harassing one of the members, Nofrat Frenkel. He asked why she was wearing a tallit, to which she responded, “It’s a mitzvah. Where’s yours?” I guess that was the wrong thing to say because at that point, he asked for her identification. He started to walk away with it, so she followed him (still holding the Torah, by the way), and we followed her – about forty women running behind this pseudo-police officer. Nofrat was subsequently taken in for questioning and then arrested. She was held for about two hours in the jail in the Old City. We waited outside, singing and calling every potential connection to news reporters that we had. When she triumphantly emerged, she was shaking. Needless to say, the event was beyond upsetting. I found myself missing the simple yelling of days of yore. My mom and I had to spend a few hours engaging in some good old retail therapy to feel better.
It was the first time that a woman had ever been arrested for wearing a tallit. What does it mean when a Jewish state doesn’t let Jews practice their religion in the way that they want to? (Also, since I’m sure someone will bring it up — I’m well aware that there are a plethora of issues in Israel regarding civil rights, but this post is not about that.) If Israel is in theory a democratic society, how does the restriction of religious practice fit into that? Women — and everyone — should have the right to practice any sort of religion in any way that they want. Women of the Wall is not about equal rights because the founders consider themselves to be Orthodox Jews; it is, however, about equal access. As a woman, I want the right to step forward and claim that I have a religious space at the Western Wall, too. Right now, sadly, I’m not sure that I can even do that.