Rabbi Karen Citrin
Nov. 15, 2013
Does everyone know what this is? It is a Torah mantle, the protective and decorative covering for our sacred Torah scroll. But just holding it like this, it looks like something is missing. It feels empty. Can you imagine how you would have felt if we had walked around during the hakafah with only the Torah mantle? Can you imagine a service with just a Torah mantle and no Torah? Can you imagine Cantor Kari or Jenn Lorch or me not being able to chant from the Torah? Can you imagine a girl not allowed to be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah?
On Monday morning, November 4, just a few weeks ago on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, a sea of women and girls held up empty Torah mantles like this high in the air at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Nearly one thousand people gathered there to celebrate the 25year struggle of Women of the Wall. Hundreds of women filled the women’s section and men lined up in the plaza area behind them in support.
In a remarkable display of changes the group has experienced this year, the Women of the Wall held a peaceful prayer service under police protection at the Wall to mark this 25th anniversary. For those less familiar with the group, Women of Wall began on an early morning in 1988, when a group of women gathered at the historic Kotel, the ancient site of the Jewish people considered to be the only remaining wall of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, to pray aloud together, an act prohibited by the religious authority of the Orthodox rabbinate. Over the years, the women’s prayer group has met monthly to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month. At the holiest place in the Jewish tradition, our sisters have been met with insults, curses, stones and chairs throne at them, tear gas, and personal injury to multiple members of the group. In recent years, a handful of women have been arrested, detained and interrogated by police, for wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl at the Kotel.
Yet, this international group of women has grown and has engaged in a legendary grassroots and legal struggle to win the right to pray out loud as a group, to wear ritual garb such as a tallit, and to read from the Torah scroll at the Western Wall.
I have joined Women of the Wall in prayer at the Kotel many times during my various visits to Israel. If you look closely, you can spot me in the documentary movie that was made about Women of the Wall, called “Praying in Her Voice.” The experience of being part of this historic group is deeply engraved in my memory. We stood in the early hours of the morning, a minyan, sometimes small in number, sometimes large, always strong in voice and spirit, made up of multiple generations of women of diverse denominations and Jewish backgrounds. As protestors would shout and yell at us, we would move closer together into a tight circle, protecting each other and blending our voices into one. For the Torah service we would move to Robinson’s Arch, an area adjacent to the Kotel that was established by Israel’s Supreme Court, defining women’s and men’s prayer experience as separate, but not equal. I remember being moved by the group’s perseverance and inspired by the close bonds of sisterhood.
Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall and Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israeli Reform Movement’s social justice wing, said, “Our souls yearn to pray, in peace, in the sacred place, to read form our holy Torah, together with other Jewish women… Simply put, our goal is to obtain the freedom to pray on the women’s side of the mechitza (divider). At a minimum, we want to be allowed to pray at the Wall for one hour each month, free of injury and fear. This should not be a provocative request. That some are provoked does not make us provocative. We have been waking up early to pray every Rosh Chodesh, once a month, for over twenty years – this is no fad, no political act. It is done for the sake of prayer… We are pushing the envelope. History is made of moments like this.”
Indeed, history continues to be made. Last April, Women of the Wall achieved a significant victory, when a Jerusalem district court ruled that the group’s practices of praying out loud and wearing prayer shawls did not violate the Wall’s regulations. And since then, the police are protecting women rather than arresting them.
So, I have been especially excited to hear reports from colleagues and friends who were present at the Kotel this past Rosh Chodesh. We also heard last Shabbat from our scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Aaron Panken, who flew from Israel to Tulsa, about how moved he was standing as a supporter on the men’s side. There was relative calm and little harassment from those who are threatened by the women’s prayer group. The only exception was the blaring loud speaker amplifying the men’s prayer with the clear but unsuccessful attempt to drown out the unamplified women’s voices. The police were there to keep the women safe. Many women wore a tallit.
But one moment in particular was especially poignant for my colleague and mentor, Rabbi Laura Geller. Rabbi Geller shared the following account in her blog… “The moment was when I stood on a chair to hold up an empty Torah mantle. The Rabbi of the Kotel will not permit Women of the Wall to use one of the 100 Torah scrolls that he controls. But we, the Women of the Wall, are not allowed to bring in our own Torah scroll because of new regulations that say, ‘A Torah scroll may not be brought into the Kotel plaza… An exception can be made if the Rabbi of the Kotel issues a special permit… A permit will not be given if there is reason to believe the activity will not comply with local custom.’ A bit of a catch 22. And there’s more: ‘Security personnel may ban the entrance of a Torah scroll that was not authorized by the Rabbi of the Kotel. If a Torah scroll has been brought to the Kotel plaza or the upper plaza, the police will make sure it is removed from the area.’ We are so much closer to the radiance of new light. But we are not there yet.”
Following the service at the Wall, leaders of the group met with members of the Knesset to remind them why all this matters. It matters because the Kotel belongs to the entire Jewish people, not just a select group. For many Jews, it is a symbol of the Jewish people. Natan Sharansky, the Chairperson of the Jewish Agency, has recently been charged to come up with a compromise plan that would make the Kotel accessible to all Jews for public prayer. The compromise would be a third, equal section of the Wall. In Hoffman’s word, “The idea for this space is revolutionary. It would allow every Jew, man and woman, to pray, celebrate and hold religious ceremonies at the Western Wall.” The hope is to design a separate but equal space at the Kotel that accurately reflects the diversity of the people of Israel and also welcomes Jewish people from all over the world.
Women of the Wall have accepted the compromise, as has the Reform and Conservative Movements, but there is still much left to be resolved. The 25 year struggle continues, with clear vision and with hope. Stay tuned…
In the meantime, let us celebrate our gift of Torah, the fountain of wisdom and teachings of our people, and our ability and freedom to study, learn, and spread its message into the world. Let us continue to work toward religious equality and freedom for all. And let us hold our Torah high, for all to see, and touch, and hear.
I will conclude with the prayer written by the Women of the Wall: “May it be your will, Our God and God of our mothers and fathers, to bless this prayer group and all who pray within it… And for our sisters, and all Your people Israel: let us merit to see their joy and hear their voices raised before You in song and praise. May no woman or girl of Your people Israel or anywhere else in the world be silenced. God of Justice, let us merit justice and the restoration of Your world… As it is written, for Zion’s sake I will not be still and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be silent, until her righteousness comes forth like great light and her salvation like a torch aflame. Amen.”