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Am Israel (Cross-Post)

This post is cross-posted from the Israel Religious Action Center blog.

By Beth (Elisheva Hannah) Frank-Backman

Several years ago when I used to join WOW for Rosh Hodesh prayers, my fellow liberal Jews used to ask me, but “why pray at the wall? I don’t see the point of praying there. Let them have their wall if it means so much. We know better that God is not restricted to a place.”

I never had an answer to that question then, but after the recent tallit arrest, I think I do. Divided though we may be in practice and even sometimes belief, we are still Am Israel – one people. Just as God is One despite all appearances to the contrary, so we too are one.

What saddens me most about the arrest is the way some of our fellow Jews try to explain away the fact that the women at that prayer service, were, of all things, praying. In our tradition the gates of heaven are always open to heartfelt prayers: “Since the time of the destruction, all the gates of heaven are closed except the gate of tears” (Berachot 32b). The model of prayer taught to both men and women alike is a woman – Hannah. There is no getting around the profound connection between woman and prayer within Judaism.

So in order to justify their behavior those who support the arrest and prohibitions against women praying with tallit must tell themselves and others that the Women of the Wall were not really praying. Reading through the comments to the Jerusalem Post article, I see many such excuses: they were being political; they wear tallitot as a fashion statement; they are ignorant; they can’t really mean it. But it isn’t just the rabble that gather around the comments of on line news that say this. Even the esteemed Ovadiah Yosef, discounts the sincerity of the women’s prayers at the wall: “These are deviants who serve equality, not Heaven. They must be condemned and warned of.”

Doubting the sincerity of a woman’s prayers is nothing new. Eli himself had similar things to say about Hannah, accusing her of being drunk, when in fact she was pouring out her heart to God. But Eli merely rebuked Hannah. When she explained herself he listened with compassion and told her “Go in peace and may the God of Israel grant your petition”.

The same cannot be said of the guardians of the Wall or Ovadiah Yosef. They do not listen with compassion. Nor do they have halakhah on their side. There is no universally accepted issur against women wearing tallit to aid their prayer, or for that matter, reading Torah. The inability to listen with compassion therefore must come from something deeper and far more concerning: a hardening of the heart of one Jew against another.

A hardening of the heart. The Temple fell because of baseless hatred. The Temple fell because we hardened our hearts against one another and failed to hear each others prayers.

Each Yom Kippur we are told that “prayer, teshuvah, and tzedakah” will avert the decree. There is no more appropriate place for women to pray, tallit and all, than at the Wall. There, of all places, is the battle ground of baseless hatred, the mark of what divided and nearly destroyed us as a people. It is there we need to heal the breach. It is there we need to come to acceptance that there are many ways to pray and serve God, Torah, and Israel. It is there, we need to pray until those who scoff like Eli, can hear the prayer of all women, however strange, as prayer. Like the prayers of Hannah, the prayers of the Women of the Wall are the longing of women to take their part in an act of creation and healing, hand in hand with God. Even if Eli isn’t listening, God is.

Beth (Elisheva Hannah) Frank-Backman has lived in Jerusalem since 1996.