“Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site”

Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site
edited by Phyllis Chester and Rivka Haut, Jewish Lights, $34.95

Attendees at an international conference in Jerusalem approached the Kotel (Western Wall) with a Torah scroll one December morning in 1988 to hold a women’s prayer service. The abuse and violence that followed have brought to the forefront issues of women’s equality within Judaism.

Women of the Wall includes analysis and reminiscences from dozens of women who were there, and many who still continue to pray together each Rosh Hodesh (new moon) in Jerusalem. Here we have a comprehensive history of this vital but marginalized group of women. This anthology provides insight into the workings of the Israeli Supreme Court (which has still not granted women their full rights to pray as they wish), the rabbinate, and the minds of secular and religious Jews in Israel and America.

Israel has no separation of “church” and state; thus Orthodox rabbinic councils hold real political power. The women have sparked hostile reactions because their presence at the Wall, wearing tallitot and carrying a Torah scroll, forces a confrontation with the discrimination inherent in traditional Jewish practice. Reform and Conservative Judaism have long fought for an equal footing in Israel, where most Jews define themselves as either dati (Orthodox) or hiloni (secular). While in actual observance many Israelis may fall somewhere between the two, identification with liberal denominations has not yet caught on, and “Reformim” are identified with Americans. Women of the Wall provides an understanding of how religion is viewed in Israel, and why most Israelis cannot understand the desire of women to pray aloud, in a group, while wearing a tallit. According to most Israelis, these are things that Orthodox men do, and if the women are Orthodox, why do they not observe Orthodox traditions and pray silently and alone? If the women are Reform, why do they wish to pray at the Wall, a largely Orthodox enclave, and in an Orthodox fashion? The concept of transforming Judaism itself poses a threat to many in the religious establishment, and is deemed irrelevant by those outside of it.

In her essay, Rivka Haut, a founding member of the group, summarizes: “We merely sought to establish that the prayers of women are equally important and desirable before God as are the prayers of men.” The Women of the Wall pray as a halakhic group, which means that they follow Orthodox practice in their manner of worship. The objections of the ruling rabbis are not that these women are violating Jewish law, but Jewish custom. And it is exactly the custom of exclusion and discrimination that the women wish to change. The women return, month after month, determined to continue the struggle.

Rebecca Schwartz is editor of All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet and the Women of Exodus (2001). She holds an MA in Jewish History and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.