JERUSALEM – This morning, a woman was arrested at Judaism’s most holy site, the Western Wall, for carrying a Torah scroll. While I have been doing some work for her organization, Women of the Wall, nothing could have prepared me for the outrage I felt watching several policemen tackle a group of women raising their voices together in prayer, and the admiration I experienced witnessing these women’s bravery.
For twenty-two years, Women of the Wall have met at the beginning of every Hebrew month, Rosh Chodesh, to pray together at the Kotel. Women of the Wall is a group of Israeli and Jewish women from around the world who seek the right for Jewish women to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall. Currently, such action is forbidden under Israeli law, which singles out women: “No ceremony shall be held in the Wall’s women’s section. That includes reading from a Torah, blowing the ram’s horn, wearing prayer shawls or phylacteries. Violators shall be imprisoned for seven years.”
Every month, their actions provoke an outcry from the Ultra-Orthodox community, who today screamed, “God sent Obama to take away Jerusalem,” “these women are responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews,” and because of them, “the Jews would lose Jerusalem to the Arabs.” The women sang through the chorus of accusations and screams, and complied with police monitoring of their prayer shawls and noise level. The yelling and aggressive police activity was only to be expected.
As the group left, though, chairperson Anat Hoffman pulled out the group’s Torah scroll to lead a procession of supporters to Robinson’s Arch, where police forcefully grabbed the Torah. I stood amid violent pushing as women around me fell to the ground, until the forceful struggle ended with Anat in a police car, where she was taken to the police station and interrogated for five hours before being released and banned from the Kotel for thirty days.
This blatant inequality is the result of an eleven-year Supreme Court case, which dismisses women’s ability to pray as they wish at the Wall. This is not even to mention the fact that the women’s section of the wall was reduced from 18 to 12 meters, and the men’s section covers 48 meters. As the women celebrate the coming month of Av in the Hebrew calender, along with the men who point menacing fingers at their song from the men’s section of the Kotel, they reflect on its message of unwarranted hate, and pray for its departure from the wall as a step to ending the internal strife within Judaism and Israel.
The issues revealed today at the Kotel are representative of several in Israel. The gender inequality in religion, which prevents a woman from filing a divorce without her husband’s consent, forces her to the back of the synagogue, and emphasizes woman’s value in her ability to bear as many children as possible, continues to create controversy and divide the nation. Tension between religious and secular populations in Israel is also a major issue, which affects everything from modesty requirements, to the army, to praying at Judaism’s most holy site, and raises questions on the bounds of religion’s role in democracy.
These are issues that must be addressed. Women of the Wall is taking a seldom-trodden path by reforming women’s rights within religion, as many view feminism and the patriarchal structure of religion as incompatible. In the small overlap between the two, this group’s unyielding song is creating a precedent I hope women around the world will follow.