by Phyllis Chesler
Nearly 25 years ago, I was blessed with the privilege of being part of the first-ever woman’s prayer service at the Western Wall (the Kotel). We prayed out loud, with a Torah; many women were religiously learned, some were rabbis, many wore their prayer shawls. This was the first time in history that women had “liberated” the Wall. We broke a psychological sound barrier. The date was December 1, 1988. The woman whose idea this was, Rivka Haut, turned to me and asked me to open the Torah for the women to read from, which fatefully wedded me to this struggle for women’s religious, civil, and legal rights in the Holy Land. At the time, I was also the Editor at Large for On The Issues magazine and both Merle Hoffman and myself worked very hard and lovingly on the first major piece to come out about what had happened, who was there, and what it meant for us all. It appeared in these pages in 1989. Subsequent pieces appeared in the 1990s.
Back in America, I co-founded the International Committee for Women of the Wall(WOW), but that was only because women in Israel continued to pray at the Kotel .They were met with both profound verbal and physical violence, both from men and from other women. At the time, many feminists did not understand that the right not to be coerced by religious fundamentalism includes the right to practice religion if a woman wants to do so and in a manner of her choosing.
WOW brought a lawsuit in the Israeli Supreme Court in which we received three separate decisions. The last decision was issued by a nine judge panel. Four judges voted for our right to pray, four voted against us, and the fifth and decisive vote was cast by President Aharon Barak, a jurist who was known for his radically humanitarian decisions on behalf of Arab and Palestinian rights. Barak’s court said women could pray at Robinson’s Arch, a distance away, a place which is essentially an archeological site, that is not accessible for a large number or worshippers, or for strollers, walkers, and wheelchairs. This government did not provide prayer books or Torah scrolls (or any shelter from the elements) as they do for the male worshippers at the Kotel proper.
What WOW has asked for is completely within Orthodox Jewish guidelines. WOW has been the only Jewish group that has managed to adjust prayer styles so that women of every Jewish denomination can pray together. In the original, long-lasting lawsuit, WOW asked to pray once a month, for an hour, eleven times a year. Contrary to myth, WOW did not count itself as a minyan (a prayer quorum), nor did it change or “feminize” the liturgy or invite men to join them.
As Jews, if WOW leaders were attacked and arrested in any country on earth, it would be a clear-cut case of anti-Semitism and the denial of religious freedom. In Israel, women are now being forced to obey extremist (“haredi”) views of what women are allowed to do at a public holy site. While this situation is outrageous, we must also note the neighborhood in which Israel exists. If Muslim feminists tried to pray independently, visibly, prominently, without a male leader in a mosque, in a woman-only service, they would not only be arrested, they might also be separated from their heads! This is not to excuse the misogynists in Israel who should not behave in barbaric ways. I doubt the Vatican would take kindly to nuns officiating at their own Mass. These are parallels to what WOW is doing.
Now, public opinion may be shifting both in Israel and in America and for many reasons. Fearing a loss of control, the Rabbinate and their Kotel administrator, Shmuel Rabinowitz, has reacted with a series of contemptible arrests of our leaders, including one particularly heinous jailing of Anat Hoffman, the leader of the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement and a woman who prayed with us on December 1, 1988, so long ago. In response, WOW has sued the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The Jewish Agency condemned Hoffman’s mistreatment, and PM Netanyahu ordered Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, to find a compromise that satisfies everyone He will need the wisdom of Solomon to do it. And I hope and pray that he has it.
Dr. Phyllis Chesler is a feminist activist and the co-author of Women of the Wall. Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site (Jewish Lights). She is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies and has a website: www.phyllis-chesler.com