Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel

Jul 12

This week I participated in the Rosh Chodesh (new month) Women of the Wall [WOTW – womenofthewall.org.il] service at the Kotel (Western Wall).   You might find my observations and thoughts of interest. 

[Introduction: If you are familiar with the background of this subject, feel free to skip this and the next indented paragraph.  The Kotel is a small portion of the retaining wall built by King Herod that supported the precincts of the Second Temple.  The wall and adjacent plaza are under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Jewish establishment, which has designated it a synagogue.  As such, in accordance with Orthodox practice (and their view of tradition), there is strict gender segregation and prohibitions against women wearing “men’s clothing” (e.g. standard tallit and tefillin), as well as reading from the Torah. 

A group of Reform and Conservative Jewish women called “Women of the Wall” has been holding monthly Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel for 26 years.  In recent years, it has “pushed the envelope” in advocating for equal rights for women at the Kotel as part of a larger campaign to lessen Orthodox control over Jewish practice in Israel, generally, including marriage, divorce and burial.   WOTW members have been threatened, harassed, arrested, and reportedly abused while in police detention.  Recently, the group won its biggest victory to-date when a judge ruled that the police cannot arrest the women from praying according to their customs.  Orthodox women have responded by forming their own counter group, “Women for the Wall” ]WFTW[ – womenforthewall.org.  WFTW protests what they consider WOTW’s attempt to violate centuries of tradition, infringement upon traditionally-observant women’s rights to pray in accordance with that tradition, and what they regard as politically motivated and provocative activism.] 

What I Saw

I had read newspaper accounts that (1) the Orthodox had arranged to bus in 7,000 school girls who would flood the women’s section at the Kotel and prevent WOTW from holding their service there, (2) WOTW planned to read from the Torah; which they reportedly had not done for a decade, and (3) Orthodox leadership had received written threats of violence if they did not relent in their opposition to WOTW.   I expected a “riotous” scene – I hoped not literally, although this seemed a distinct possibility!

Those wishing to attend the service in support of WOTW and be transported by bus were asked to register at WOTW’s Facebook site.  Evidently, this was requested or required by the police, although WOTW also needed to know how many buses to charter.   I arrived at the designated meeting point in a central Jerusalem location shortly after 6am.  There were perhaps 40 people, a police car with two or three police, and one large bus.  Over the next 20 minutes, the crowd swelled to 150-200 and many more buses and 10-passenger vans – and more police -- arrived. 

Anat Hoffman, leader of WOTW, circulated and passed out WOTW Rosh Chodesh siddurim (prayer books).   We all boarded the buses and we departed under police escort for the Dung Gate entrance to the Old City (closest to the Kotel).  I imagined that it would take quite a long time for our large group to get through the airport-style security, but in fact we (most of us with backpacks) were simply ushered through without any inspection.   

The police had set up a barricaded (low metal dividers) area on the Plaza near the Dung Gate, away from the Kotel.  (According to WFTW’s website, this placement was due to its success in filling the women’s area at the Kotel with Orthodox girls).  Due to the location and the fencing connected with bridge access to the Temple Mount, I couldn’t see into the women’s section of the Kotel. 

Police lined the barricade, and on the other side were mostly young Orthodox men.  I was actually surprised at how few there were relative to our group; there were perhaps 50-75 of them, although many others observed from some distance away, along the back of and above the plaza.     

As the service started, the close-in small group of Orthodox men would raise their voices in protest/alternative prayers whenever the volume of our group’s singing increased.   There seemed to be some kind of minor scuffling at points in the first row with a few of the men, but I never saw the police actually touch any of them (I could have missed it, as much was going on at the same time).  

The small group also shouted insults at our group and shouted/gestured emphatically at the police officers along the barricade.   It was difficult to hear in any case, as there was no amplification and lots of background noise.   As I mentioned, I could not see into the women’s section at the Kotel at all, and we were prevented by the barricade from approaching the rest of the plaza.  I could just see into the front of the men’s section of the Kotel, and this was a sea of tallit with a portable ark up against the Kotel itself.

As the service progressed, more and more Orthodox arrived and the level of hostility/protest increased. (Even so, and contrary to the impression given by many media reports and film clips, the large majority of Orthodox Jews present in the Plaza and at the Kotel did NOT participate in the disruptive tactics of the vocal minority.  As is often the case, the media focuses on conflict and sensation, and selective attention/editing give a skewed impression of the overall event).  One Orthodox woman stood right at the barricade and incessantly blew a very loud whistle in an attempt to negate our prayers.  I could and did move away from her, but I felt sorry for the police close to her who could not.  

Although, as I mentioned, I had read that a woman’s Torah service at the Kotel would be held, in fact no Torah was in evidence (I’ve heard that since the Kotel plaza is officially a synagogue, and the Orthodox control it, no Torahs (other than the ones already on site or that they may permit) can be brought.  Instead, the Rosh Chodesh Torah portion was read from a Chumash (book).  And, a girl became Bat Mitzvah!  

While all this was occurring, some people were singing/praying, some were chatting with each other, many – including many journalists/reporters -- were taking pictures, and some were even giving film and/or audio interviews!   From comments I heard, many of the participants were American visitors who had elected to come to see/support/participate WOTW as part of their visit.  One group had arrived in Israel earlier in the morning from a tour of Poland.  A number of American rabbis, in Jerusalem for a rabbinic seminar, were also present.  

It was a chaotic scene and difficult to concentrate on prayers, especially with the chants, whistles, and epithets.   Just below and adjacent to us, hundreds (but not thousands) of Orthodox junior-high age girls were interestedly observing, but they didn’t say anything and didn’t show any particular emotion.  What they thought of men and women standing together singing and prayer, with both wearing tallisim and a few women wearing tefillin, I don’t know. 

After about an hour, the service concluded with Anat Hoffman leading us in a rousing singing of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem.  Just as we sang the last word – Yerushalyim – a raw egg launched from the other side of the barricade landed not two feet from me.   We all left through the Dung Gate and boarded city buses, which took us back to the collection site.

Reflections

I expected to, and did, experience a range of emotions and sentiments at this combined religious service/social and political protest.   

It was exciting to participate in this event, and moving to be praying with a mixed gender group “at” the Kotel (even though, as described above, we were actually on the Plaza “around the corner” from the Kotel and not allowed to approach the Kotel).  But it was also sad to experience the opposition and the conflict.  And, in a way, it was bewildering that G-d fearing Jews were actually trying to disrupt prayers to G-d at this most holy site!  

The fact that I was participating with WOTW demonstrates my primary sympathies.  I value liberty, equality, and egalitarianism.  And yet, I also acknowledge that upholding Jewish tradition and law (albeit not without incremental change to reflect changing societal values and historical circumstances) is also very important.   I want my wife, daughters, and all other women to be able to pray and read Torah – together with men – if they choose.  Indeed, evidently, when the Second Temple stood, men and women could pray together in the “women’s section.”  

But I also acknowledge that men and women who wish to continue the tradition and halacha of praying only with their own gender should likewise be able to choose this option.  (As an aside, I enjoyed praying in a men-only morning minyan while in Tiberias; praying along with women would have been enjoyable too, but a different experience).  Forcing them to abandon Jewish tradition by mandating strict egalitarianism at the Kotel isn’t progressive; it’s an alternative form of “orthodoxy!”  This is why establishing a separate mixed-prayer area at Robinson's Arch, as proposed by Nathan Sharanksy, seems like a good idea, although the Arabs are extremely suspicious of, and oppose, any physical changes to the Kotel area.   My understanding is that whereas both WOTW and the rabbinic establishment had cautiously endorsed this idea, WOTW has lessened or even withdrawn its support for a separate mixed-gender prayer area in the wake of the court ruling protecting their form of prayer.   

Moreover, mutual respect for Jews with different customs is, pointedly, essential at this site.  The Kotel is not only an outdoor synagogue; it is a powerful national symbol and gathering place for the entire worldwide Jewish people, the majority of whom are not Orthodox.   Conflict here between Jews contributed greatly to previous catastrophes for the Jewish people.  The assassination of the Babylonian-appointed governor precipitated the Babylonian exile.  The Hasmonean (Maccabbean) revolt was a brutal civil war between Jews, as well as resistance against non-Jewish oppression.  And the burning of food supplies by rival Jewish factions greatly aided the Roman siege, leading to a 2,000 year exile.   

We must learn from these and other horrible conflicts among Jews to respect  each other's views, especially those held by a very large segment of the local population who believe that they are preserving Torah.   We should not insist that our view is the only moral and correct one -- but neither should they!  

It’s also quite evident that the Ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem correctly see their world and their influence as being challenged on many fronts.  For the first time in many years, they are not part of the government.   Their yeshiva funding and housing stipends are being cut.   The increased teaching of secular subjects in schools is being mandated.  Young haredi men will soon be subject to the draft or face imprisonment.  The state is beginning to fund some non-Orthodox rabbis.  So, some Orthodox “push-back” at the Kotel is understandable as a reaction, in part, to many other concurrent pressures.  

We in the non-Orthodox world should be sensitive to these pressures upon our fellow Jews even as we support and encourage slow and incremental change to our tradition … which is itself our tradition. 

May your Shabbat be blessed and peaceful!   

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  • Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel

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