Eighteen years ago my younger daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with the Women of the Wall. The Thursday morning Torah reading, held in the space near the Wall known as Robinson’s Arch, followed the soft-spoken women-only morning prayer service held at the Wall itself. Some prayed in a tallit, and one young woman was garbed like a male yeshiva student: black pants, white shirt, cropped hair under a black kippah, sidelocks. We elicited a few sidelong glances from others praying individually on our side of the mechitza that divides the Western Wall plaza by gender. But there was no overt hostility, and certainly no legal action against us “nonconforming” females.
Things have gotten worse. Today, a bat mitzvah celebration like that might put us all at risk. Jerusalem police are enforcing stringent rulings limiting women’s full participation in prayer at the Wall, and the rules against mixed-gender prayer still hold. Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, was recently handcuffed and arrested for praying with a tallit at the Wall. Bonna Devora Haberman, a founder of Women of the Wall, was forbidden — by the police — from carrying her tallit and tefillin into the women’s section.
It has been a rough few years. Municipal transit has forced women to the back of the bus in ultra-religious neighborhoods, where advertising posters showing women’s faces have painted over by “modesty” patrols. This is a refinement of the usual haredi harassment of women and girls for their choice of clothing. If these extreme acts didn’t represent such a confiscation of women’s rights we could appreciate their nutty, comic-opera quality. But this is no joke, no parody, no exaggeration. We’ve got the makings here of a war on women.
The most recent news from Israel came to me while I was mulling over the differences between two books focused on women creating ritual in Jerusalem. A Weave of Women is Esther Broner’s 1978 novel about a small group of women facing birth, death, illness, abuse, misogyny, healing. Fast forward to the similar themes in One Hundred Philistine Foreskins, the new novel by Tova Reich due out early in 2013. While Broner’s small cadre of women trying to bring feminism into Judaism is often under attack, Reich, 35 years later, can create a powerful, learned woman with the resources to attract many hundreds of followers. Ima Temima is the beacon for an all-female School for Prophets; she’s a fearless and charismatic healer who attracts even ultra-Orthodox (male) rabbis for a blessing, a learned judgment or a sermon (which they hear from a men’s balcony).
You might imagine that the idea of a woman in power in Jerusalem — a woman viewed by some as the Messiah — represents a huge change from the political helplessness of the smart and spiritual women in Broner’s novel. But while Tova Reich’s protagonist cites with sarcasm and wit the myriad references to women in Jewish sacred texts as mere “vessels,” she nonetheless bears a child by a patriarchal, polygamous cult leader who demands all attention be lavished upon him whenever one of his wives gives birth; he screams out in the throes of his “childbirth” — stealing from the birthing mother the primacy of her role even in that quintessentially female experience. Reminders of a woman’s chronic struggle against an essential powerlessness are present on almost every page.
So how are real-life women sustained in our struggle for equal access and equal value in Judaism, all these years after Broner’s novel and Lilith’s launch? When will we, like the Children of Israel crossing the desert from slavery to freedom, reach new political terrain? What will it take to get us there?
Some change takes place incrementally, slowly, like the ordination of women as rabbis. And some change takes place after a visionary enunciates a manifesto for making things better in original ways, though you know that innovative ideas aren’t scarce. It’s the ability to stay connected, to sustain the energy required to make promising ideas into long-term realities that’s hard. There’s push-back, resistance; people in power do not give it up easily. Moving from the dream to the reality requires hard work and focus. Stunningly, though, change can also come speedily after circumstances become utterly intolerable. The lives lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 spurred desperately needed occupational safety laws. The massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut is forcing legislators to address gun control. One ca