Women Breaching Walls: Women of the Wall
On November 4th, on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the first day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, a special anniversary will be taking place in Israel: the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall, a pluralist women’s prayer group that meets each Rosh Chodesh to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a remnant of the Temple.
Kislev, with its remembrance of the victorious struggle of the Maccabees, who succeeded in capturing the Temple from the Assyrian-Greek occupiers, who had desecrated it, and rededicated it to Jewish worship in 164 BCE is a fitting month for celebration – and the remnant Temple wall, a fitting location. But the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall is unlikely to be the joyous moment it should be. If previous experiences over the past 25 years of women praying at the Western wall are anything to go by, the first day of the month of Kislev will be a day of courage and struggle, as women, each woman clothed in a tallit, attempt to pray and read from the Seifer Torah, the scroll, in the face of verbal abuse and violent assaults from Orthodox male worshippers. As on previous occasions, there are bound to be arrests – not arrests of the hecklers and protesters, but arrests of the women, who dare to claim the right to be Jewish women on their own terms and not on the terms of a tradition that silences their voices, excludes their presence, and banishes them to the private domain.
Following the leadership of Anat Hoffman, the Director of IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Centre, a progressive project that works for justice and equality in Israel, Women of the Wall includes women from all denominations. The Israeli progressive movement has chosen to work in solidarity with orthodox Jewish women and is also determined to challenge ultra-orthodoxy’s exclusive control of public space in Israel. In my view, it is our responsibility to challenge the hegemony of the ultra-orthodox in all contexts – in Israel and the diaspora. The struggle is as much about the equality of all the different forms of Jewish life as it is about gender equality.
It is appropriate that we should support the cause of religious pluralism in Israel. It is also important that we do not feel complacent about the issue of gender equality just because we seem to have secured equality within Liberal Judaism. There is still much work to be done in British society to ensure that young women today and in the future, enjoy equal opportunities, and are not forced to choose between motherhood and a career, or to try to combine both, full-time, at the expense of their health, their well-being and their personal relationships, without men doing their fair share of child-care and housework. And when we examine the underside of Britain, or look beyond these shores to other parts of the world, our responsibility to support the struggle of gender equality becomes even more imperative, as we think of women and girls subjected to segregation, exclusion, enslavement, sexual and physical abuse – and in some cases, murder. Until all people, regardless of gender, have equal rights and equal responsibilities in both the private and public domains of life, both in Britain and across the globe, in all societies and cultures, we cannot speak of gender equality. And so on November 4th – on Rosh Chodesh Kislev – google ‘Women of the Wall’, and use every form of social media at your disposal, to express your support for their struggle – and let us all make a commitment to support women challenging oppression and persecution in every place.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah