From: Blanche Nonken
Subject: "You don't have to be Christian to enjoy Intolerance"
HADASSAH MAGAZINE, AUGUST/SEPT. 1990
OVER THE WALL
By Barbara Sofer
At 7 o'clock on the cool winter morning of December 9, 1988, 26 women walked
together to the women's section of the Kotel (the Western Wall). One of them
was carrying a Torah scroll. Several others were wearing colorful woven
prayer shawls. Two women gently lifted the Torah onto the wide table which
usually holds frayed psalters. They opened their prayer books and began to
recite the morning prayers "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your
tabernacles, O Israel." Dozens of men in long black coats and round black
hats pushed through the barrier that normally bars passage from the men's into
the women's section. They grabbed the prayer shawls and knocked a woman to
the ground. A young woman, eight months pregnant, lifted the Torah scrool and
walked quickly to the Dung Gate.
Thus 21 years after paratroopers reclamed the Wall for Israel, the first
skirmish in the latest "Battle of the Wall" began. That early morning scuffle
has escalated into a landmark case to be decided this year by Israel's High
Court of Justice. Four women, representatives of the group popularly known as
Women of the Wall, have petitioned the court to protect their religious
freedom and allow them to pray as they see fit at Judaism's holiest site.
They have also called on the state to defend the religious freedom promised in
Israel's Declaration of Independence.
"We are all well-educated Jewish women, experienced with prayer and
conscious of our Jewish identity," says Bonna Haberman, the woman who carried
the Torah scroll that morning. A soft-spoken mother of three and teacher of
Jewish studies, Haberman grew up in Ottawa where she participated in women's
prayer groups. "We didn't see what we were doing as radical. There are so
many women's prayer groups in the world."
"I have nothing against the women," argues the rabbi of the Kotel, Meir
Yehuda Getz. "But here we are commited to maintaining the local tradition -
and we've never had women's prayer groups."
From a Western perspective this controversy might look like an uncomplicated
case of freedom of religion. But in Israel religion and state are not neatly
separated and the holy places - Jewish, Christian and Muslim - are
administered by state-appointed religious authorities who, lik Getz, generally
see their role as protecting tradition and the sensibilities of the more
observant. (In Orthodox Judaism, women and men do not have identical roles,
rights and responsibilities.) While some Orthodox groups have accepted
readings from the Torah within women's prayer groups, most congregations have
But the bitterness of the conflict goes beyond an intellectual and halakhic
discussion. It reflects the clash of dramatically contrasting world views.
Mostly North American-born women, the Women of the Wall see their action not
only as the fulfillment of personal spiritual needs but as a sacred cause.
"We need to make changes," says Haberman. "The stereotype of a Jew is a man in
a black coat praying. Women are Jews too, and they need to be recognized in
the fabric of public life."
Opposition to their prayer, the women assert, is based not on religious
grounds but on men's fear of having their turf eroded. "Women have always
been able to weep vocally at the Wall - why can't they pray and celebrate
there too?" asks Shulamit Magnes, director of the modern Jewish civilization
program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.
On the other hand their antagonists - the ultrareligious community of
Jerusalem - see these women as mocking Jewish tradition. In newspaper
articles and on wall posters the claim the women are interlopers importing
foreign notions to defile the purity of Judaism; they accuse them of being
The Kotel is the only surviving remnant of the Western Wall of the courtyard
of the Second Temple built by the Jews returning from Babylon; constructed
about 2400, it was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans. Since that time the
Kotel has been a pilgrimage site for Jews, except during the periods when they
have been denied access.
The years from 1948 to 1967, when East Jerusalem was ruled by Jordan, was
one of those periods. When Israel conquered the Old City in the Six-Day War
the flow of worshipers resumed and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, together
with the chief rabbis of Israel, appointed a rabbi to oversee prayers at the
Wall. Following the tradition in Orthodox synagogues a mehitza (screen-like
partition) was installed to separate men and women. Torah scrolls, prohibited
under the British Mandate, were installed on the men's side. Any minyan
(gathering of 10 men) has access to the scrolls. Women can either listen to
the men's services or pray quietly by themselves.
In addition to serving as an outdoors synagogue, the Kotel remains a symbol
of national independance. An estimated 3 million people visit there each
year. Many come to pray; others come for military swearing-in ceremonies,
public candlelighting and lively bnei mitzvah (plural of bar mitzvah)
The seeds of the battle for the Kotel were sown at the first international
Jewish feminists conference on "The Empowerment of Jewish Women" - held in
Jerusalem November 28th to December 1, 1988, and sponsored by the American
Jewish Congress, the Israel Women's Network and the World Jewish Congress.
Rivka Haut, an Orthodox woman from New York, suggested that participants join
for a women's prayer service at the Wall.
Such a service way not have been an anomaly in North America, where many
women's prayer groups have been organized over the last decade, even among the
Orthodox. In Israel, however, such groups are rare. While in the last decade
Israeli women activists pressed successfully for vastly expanded Torah-study
opportunities, they did not pursue the establishment of a network of prayer
groups. Haut's suggestion generated both excitement and controversy. The
Orthodox women did not want to alter their usual morning prayers. Other women
felt ideologically committed not to pray where men and women are divided by a
barrier. Haut suggested that if Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and
Reconstructionist women could bury their differences and join in prayer they
could achieve a great religious experience and a sense of unity.
"She was right," says Magnes. "I was one of those with strong reservations
about submitting to the restrictions of a halachic women's prayer service.
But I think I would probably speak for us all in saying that it permanently
changed our lives."
Getz says the day the women at the conference held a prayer service at the
Wall changed his life too, but not in the same way. He had recieved an
anonymous phone call the night before warning him "that feminist women will
come to the Kotel to overturn the fence that separates the women's and men's
"I didn't believe it, but in any case I notified the police to increase its
forces the following morning," he recalls. "When the women arrived with the
Torah it immediately incited the feelings of the men and women who were
praying. I didn't prevent their entrance. I calmed down the angry feelings
with the reminder that from a halakhic point of view, there was no prohibition
except national custom... I like people who come to the Kotel to enjoy. I
didn't want to spoil their event."
Although there were tense moments, that prayer service went off withoug
incident. "I thought this was a one-time happening and would disappear from
the face of the earth," remarks Getz.
Gets found he was wrong. A group of women carrying a Torah scroll appeared
Traditionally, the celebration of the new moon has always been a half-holiday
for women because of their refusal to participate in the worship of the golden
calf after the Exodus. For that reason Rosh Hodesh (the first day of every
lunar month) was often the choice of women's prayer groups in the diaspora
(the Jewish community outside of Israel). Rosh Hodesh Tevet also coincides
each year with Hanukka.
"I felt there could be no more appropriate way to celebrate Hanukka, the
holiday of the rededication of the Temple," says Haberman. "I didn't expect
us to be greeted with open arms, but I couldn't have predicted the violence
that would ensue."
But there was worse in the months to come. In response to the December 9
violence the Women of the Wall decided to pray at the Wall each Friday and
"That was a very heavy commitment for those of us with jobs and families,"
Haberman adds. "We felt the Torah belonged to us as women too and that we'd
keep going to the Kotel until our presence was accepted."
Eager to avoid further outbreaks, the women reached an agreement woth the
Ministry of Religious Affairs in which they would refrain from wearing prayer
shawls and bringing a Torah scroll in return for protection at the site.
Nonetheless, over the course of the year they were often physically and
verbally abused while they prayed. One woman was hit over the head with a
chair. When the police blocked attacks from the men's section, other women
shouted abuse, bit and pushed the women as they tried to pray. In one
incident the police used tear gas to break up the violence and the women
petitioned the Supreme Court to protect their rights. In another the Ministry
of Religious Affairs had the Women of the Wall removed by women guards because
they refused to leave the area on their own.
The women charged publicly that the police and the state were remiss in not
protecting them. They've insisted that the authorities lack sympathy for hem,
hoping the extreme violence will drive them out.
Getz denies this. He maintains that a quiet solution could have been
arrived at if the women had not summoned politicians and announced their
intentions in the newspapers.
"We have a way of handling issues quietly at the Kotel, and they caused
themselves problems by forcing a confrontation," says Getz. "In 22 years at
the Kotel we never had to use tear gas to quiet crowds before this problem
Zevulun Orlev, the director general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs,
accused the women of being provocative, claiming the violence was a result of
"their own demonstrativeness." "I learned quickly that they didn't want to
pray, but that they wanted a media event," he says.
Haberman, Jerusalem councilman Anat Hoffman, archeologist Judith Green and
Jewish educator Gila Robinson brought suit against Getz, the Minister of
Religious affairs, the Chief Rabbinate, the local police chief and the
Jerusalem police chief.
While the case is pending, a temporary injunction has been issued ordering
the women to conform to "local custom." That means no prayer shawls, no Torah
scrolls, and - as a new restriction was articulated - no singing.
Getz has warned that the prohibition against a man hearing a woman's voice
in song (based on the idea that a woman's voice is sensual) would be
On a typical Rosh Hodesh today anywhere from 10 to 70 women gather at the
Kotel to pray. After their morning prayers the Women of the Wall retire to a
The Torah scroll is opened. Four women are called up to make the blessings
and one or two women chant the Torah reading for Rosh Hodesh.
Haberman believes that she and the other Women of the Wall have already had
an impact. "Women often join in to pray with us," she notes. "Even our women
antagonists now nod hello and seem to accept us better."
"We've been through some pretty awful times," says Green. "But if we've
opened up the space for other women, it was all worth it."
Although the Women of the Wall have received little support from Israel's
religious community, Jewish women and numerous organizations in the diaspora
have issued statements of support. Branches of the International Committee
for the Women of the Wall have been set up in New York, Washington, Boston,
Berkeley, Chicago, Montreal and Stockholm. The International Committee raised
funds to buy the women their own Torah scroll. (For information about the
committee write to Women of the Wall, 1356 Coney Island Ave, Suite 130,
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11230.)
Representative of sentiment abroad is Ann F. Lewis, who chairs the
commission on women's equality of the American Jewish Congress. "American
women are saying this situation is outrageous," she says. "It never occurred
to them that they might be denied their rights at the Kotel."
Sue Mizrahi, a national vice president of Hadassah - which has urged the
Israeli government to protect the rights of women to conduct religious
ceremonies at the Western Wall - was a delegate to the 1988 conference. "We
came seeking spirituality and sisterhood," she recalls, "and we found both."
But we learned, too, what it feels like to be in physical danger in a holy
But in a lengthy report defending the state from the petition's charges the
Ministry of Justice did not agree that women's rights are being violated.
"The practice of the petitioners stands in absolute contrast to the accepted
halachic decisions on acceptable prayer ritual in synagogues, and
particularly at the Kotel," wrote Nili Arad in summing up the Justice
Ministry's case. "As a result of that, the sensibilities of those who came to
pray at the Kotel were offended. Whenever they came to the Kotel public order
It will be up to the High court to decide if, as Haberman claims, "Rabbi
Getz has gone way beyond his empowerment as a religious official" or if he has
acted within his authority. And in this country with its unique blend of
religion and state, the judges will have to determine what must yield when
freedom and tradition collide.
--- Maximus-CBCS v1.02
* Origin: Blanche's Blue Bell Bombshell BBS (1:273/715.3)