Women of the Wall

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Rabbi Maurice, May/June 2010

In December 1988, a group of Jewish women prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Calling themselves Women of the Wall (WOW), they gathered at the women’s section of the Wall, took out a Torah scroll, and chanted from it.

As Dr. Phyllis Chesler described it, “The participants came from Israel, the United States, Europe, South America, and Australia; represented every religious denomination of Jewry … and every political persuasion… Some of us donned tallesim (prayer shawls) and head coverings, many of us did not. We were radiant, overwhelmed, humbled, united.”

Many in the ultra-Orthodox community have objections to women chanting from the Torah, and over the 22 years that WOW have come to the Wall to worship and chant Torah, people have cursed at them and thrown trash and even chairs at them. Today, former Jerusalem City Councilwoman, Anat Hoffman, heads WOW, and the group continues to express its love of Torah at monthly Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) celebrations, with prayer and Torah readings, at the Wall.

Today in Israel there is a conflict raging between ultra-Orthodox groups on the one side, and a coalition of non-Orthodox religious Jews and secular Jews on the other. The ultra-Orthodox groups have been seeking to expand their control over more aspects of ordinary Israelis’ lives. For example, Jerusalem city busses in certain areas now have gender-segregated seating, despite Israeli laws forbidding the practice. Conversions to Judaism by Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and other rabbis are still not performed in Israel, nor can any of those rabbis perform weddings that are state recognized. More than half in my rabbinic graduating class were women, yet in Israel none of them would be allowed to officiate at a Jewish funeral.

And yet, Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that Israel “will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience” for all its citizens. The more Israel allows a narrow segment of the spectrum of Jewish religious expression to dominate and define what constitutes “official” or “legitimate” Judaism, the more young American Jews will find Israel to be out of touch with their own Jewish modes of expression. Israel needs strong support from the Jewish Diaspora, and Diaspora Jews are overwhelmingly identified with non-Orthodox movements. Alienating them is a mistake.

Please join me in supporting Israeli groups that advocate for Israel to honor its Declaration of Independence and properly recognize all the movements of Judaism as equals. One such group, Hiddush, is online at hiddush.org. You can also support the courageous Women of the Wall by visiting the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) at irac.org. As we approach Shavuot, celebrating the giving of Torah, let us stand with those Israelis who stand for the freedom to express their Judaism − their love of Torah − in an atmosphere of pluralism and mutual respect among the Jewish movements. Let us stand with the Women of the Wall.

Rabbi Maurice