Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Day 110: the Kotel

This is not the post I intended to write today.

I planned to write about the tiyul I went on to the Negev last week. I planned to write about my volunteer experience singing at Beit Reuven yesterday. I planned to write about how things are going in classes, and the trip I have planned to Bethlehem this weekend.

And then something happened. I woke up early this morning to attend a Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel, run by a group of women who call themselves Women of the Wall, and everything changed.

Women of the Wall is a woman's prayer group that meets at the Kotel once a month for Rosh Chodesh services. Ostensibly they are just a prayer group, however in reality they're something much larger than that - they are a group of women working for women to have the right to hold organized prayer services at the Western Wall. They've been fighting this fight for twenty years, and in that time, they have been granted almost nothing - they are allowed to gather for one hour a month at the Kotel, however they are not allowed to wear tallitot or to hold a sefer Torah, let alone read a sefer Torah - for this, they must relocate to Robinson's Arch, a nearby plaza.

The group chooses not to identify itself as a minyan, instead identifying as a woman's prayer group - a choice that is well within their right to make, but one that I find degrading in the same way that I find praying with a mechitza degrading - being told that my presence and intention to pray isn't enough to make me count as a part of a minyan is incredibly frustrating. Logistically, what this means is that there are certain prayers that we could not recite this morning - like the Barchu, and more importantly to me, the Kaddish. I think it undermines most of what they're fighting for - if we don't think that we have a right to count ourselves as a minyan, than what are we doing here?

Let me make one thing clear right now - I appreciate the work that Women of the Wall is doing. I understand that as an outsider coming from a different society and culture, where I have never had to worry about being arrested for my religious practices that it is unfair of me to hold Women of the Wall to my standards of prayer. What they have achieved is amazing - to go from being beaten and abused by police every month to receiving at least some level of governmental recognition and protection is amazing.

However. As I stood at the Kotel this morning, the frustration began to rise. It started when I arrived - "Put your tallit on under your jacket," I was told, "so you don't get arrested." Inside my jacket? At the "holiest" place in Jerusalem, I am not allowed to wrap myself in a sacred garment to make my prayer even holier? This is something I will never understand about Israel (like the fact that it is illegal to immerse in a mikveh in Israel if you're not married - why on earth would you make it more difficult for people to have a sacred experience?).

It continued as we began to pray - we huddled together in a group at the back of the women's section of the Kotel, being as unobtrusive as possible. At times I could barely hear the service that was being conducted. I prayed quietly along with the group, but inside my heart was shouting out the words of the shema - "hear, o Israel," a prayer that is meant to be joyfully declared, not mumbled under one's breath.

No one spoke to us. No one shouted at us, or threw rocks at us, or gave us dirty looks (at least that I saw) - all things that I had come prepared to deal with. We were ignored. And so, as it came time to read Torah, we had a quick conversation - "It's quiet today. Can we just read here?" Anat Hoffman, director of the Israeli Religious Action Center, and member of the board of Women of the Wall, took a quick poll of other board members, and consensus was quickly reached. I began to feel excitement building among the group - an energy that I felt was lacking up to that point suddenly began to hum through the assembled women. "We have a new Torah!" Anat declared, "that was given to us by the Women of Reform Judaism at the Biennial in Toronto. It only weighs four kilos!"

Nofrat, a fourth-year medical student in Beer Sheva, who wakes up every month at 4am to get to Jerusalem in time for the service, was to read. She wrapped herself in her tallit (outside of her jacket), and we began the Torah service. And then everything started to go haywire. At first, there was just one police officer - a woman who looked Ethiopian to me, but might not have been. She loudly and abruptly asked us what we were doing, and demanded that we return the table we were using for the Torah. She disappeared, and we gathered two smaller stands and joined them together to use as a makeshift table. We began the Torah service again - Nofrat carried the Torah around our group in a hakafah, and then placed it on our new table in preparation for the reading. And then the men appeared - three or four male officers demanding to know what we were doing. Things escalated rather quickly - one of the men began moving the tables we were using, so quickly that Nofrat barely had time to gather up the Torah before it fell to the ground.

Another officer appeared, this one in body armor. He demanded to see Nofrat's i.d., and then proceeded to escort her away from the wall. "Follow the Torah," Anat commanded us, and so we followed as quickly as we could. Nofrat didn't even have time to gather her jacket or her bag - we carried her things with us, in hopes that she would be released quickly.

At first, we were informed that she had been detained but not arrested, and that we would have to wait to see what happened. Anat asked the group to stay and sing in support of Nofrat - we stood for nearly an hour, singing Hebrew songs and talking with each other - the group consisted of ten Pardes students, 15 women from Bnai Jeshurun in New York, and a group of teenage participants in Netzer, as well as several Israeli women. Finally, we recieved news - Nofrat had been officially arrested, and was being charged as a criminal with wearing a tallit and holding a sefer Torah at the Kotel. What world do we live in where this is a criminal charge?

We followed Nofrat as she was moved to the closest police station, where we were informed that she was being investigated on criminal charges. "Investigated?" we said, "what investigation? Why haven't they questioned any of us? We were all there." Anat called a lawyer, and by 9:30, Nofrat had been let go. We joyfully sang "btzeit Yisrael m'mitzrayim" (when Israel came out of Egypt) as she walked out of the police station - she's still being charged, and who knows what will happen to her.

I feel so many things about what happened this morning that I don't even know where to start. I am angry. I am hurt. I am energized. I am worried.

The Kotel is a place I have a lot of difficulty connecting to. It bothers me because as Jews we are told not to pray to idols, and I think in some ways the Wall has turned into an idol. I dislike the misogyny practiced there. I appreciate the holiness of the place because of the quantity of prayer that has happened there, but I don't think that holiness is inherent in the structure of the wall. And yet, I am angry that I am not allowed to pray there. I am angry that I watched someone get arrested for daring to hold a Torah - not even to read it, simply to hold it in her arms. I am hurt that the country I am supposed to consider my own land doesn't recognize my right to practice my Judaism the way that I choose. I am energized - before Nofrat was arrested, I had decided in my head not to return to Women of the Wall. Now, however, I think I owe it to her to be there - because if she is willing to be arrested for this cause, then how can I ask any less of myself? And I am worried, because I do not know what will happen to her. I don't know her, but I feel connected to her, and I think in some ways the future of Women of the Wall is now tied to her future.

I know the situation is complex, and I haven't addressed all of those complexities here. Maybe next week, when I've had more time to think about it and process what happened, I'll be able to do a better analysis of what happened today. For now, I'm going to take a shower, drink some tea, and eat my lunch.

If you want another look at the situation, several articles have been written today:

"The rav stated the women cause a chilul Hashem, and a chilul to the Kosel, comparing them to Korach and his followers."

"Rabbi Ovadia also said about the groups' custom to pray at the Western Wall that "there are stupid women who come to the Western Wall, put on a tallit (prayer shawl), and pray," and added that they should be condemned."

"This is a prayer meant to bring strife and disagreement," he said on Army Radio. "Even if it is allowed according to Jewish law, the Kotel should remain out of disputes."


  1. I so remember this experience, and your post made me go back and read what I wrote all over again:

    In retrospect, the main thing I learned from the experience was that, at the end of the day, these were mostly orthodox religious women who just wanted to practice their religion how they wanted, and I, on the other hand, thought of myself as participating in a protest.

    The other very, very important thing I took away was that the Women of the Wall, and Nofrat in this case, are not arrested for wearing a tallit and praying at the Kotel. There are hundreds of people wearing tallitot and praying at the Kotel. She was arrested for being a woman.

  2. I definitely remember reading your story of going to Women of the Wall - it's sad how little has changed since then.

  3. Hi, Naomi. Thank you for your thoughts and words. Do you mind if I share this post with some friends?

    -Zahara (Pardes alum!)

  4. Zahara - you can definitely share it with friends - I think it's important that people hear about what happened. If I may ask, how did you find this post?

  5. Another Pardes alum sent it to me, and I'm not sure how she found it? Thank you.

  6. Hi Naomi,

    Would it be OK to link to your post and quote from a short section?

    Religion and State in Israel
    @religion_state on Twitter


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