Claiming Sacred Ground

Claiming Sacred Ground

by Phyllis Chesler

Women’s eight-year struggle to pray out loud at “the Wailing Wall”

1 Jewish women were first ordained as rabbis in 1972,
by Reform Jews. Today, all branches except the
Orthodox ordain women as rabbis, and permit them to
serve as cantors. In Israel, Orthodox rabbis are the only
ones permitted to marry, divorce, or bury Jews, and
Orthodox religious courts control all family law. In her
brilliant work Jewish Men, Jewish Women (Harper San
Francisco, 1995), Aviva Cantor demonstrates that in exile,
without land or guns, Torah knowledge became the
measure of manhood for Jews. The occasional rabbi’s
learned daughter aside, women were not allowed to
become truly learned lest they further “emasculate”
Jewish men.

2 A Bat Mitzvah is the female version of the Bar Mitzvah
ceremony that marks a Jewish boy’s coming of age at 13,
in which he is called to read from the Torah during a
prayer service. The first Bat Mitzvah was celebrated in 1922.
By the 1970s it was common among all but Orthodox Jews.
Today, an increasing number of Orthodox girls do have one.
They give a learned speech at home, or in the women’s
section of the synagogue, with only women present and
no regular prayer service held. Some boys have a Bar
Mitzvah in Israel on the men’s side of the Kotel (their
mothers cannot easily watch, only listen, from the women’s
side). Girls, however, are not permitted to have a Bat Mitzvah
at the Kotel, not even on the women-only side.

3 Among Orthodox Jews, a quorum of ten men, a minyan,
is required in order to say certain prayers or have a
religious service; women do not count in establishing a minyan.
They do count toward a minyan among Reform,
Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews, though. While an
increasing number of Orthodox Jewish women are praying and
reading from the Torah together in prayer groups, they often
do so behind closed doors. They omit prayers that require
a minyan to say.

4 According to learned commentary and legend, Lilith
was the name of the woman whom God created
“in God’s image” in the first creation myth in Genesis (see 1:26).
Eve was God’s second female creation, this time from Adam’s rib.
Lilith, presumably, was even more uppity than Eve and fled Eden
to become a patriarch’s nightmare. Rabbis said she tempted
Jewish men into nocturnal emissions that resulted in Lilith babies,
performed abortions, was responsible for miscarriages and
stillbirths, and was a sexually insatiable death-dealer. These
stories fit the classic image of the witch that fueled Christian
torture and murder of Christian women for three centuries
in Europe.

Once upon a time, in 1948, there was an eight-year-old Jewish girl who loved to study Torah. Her teachers said she was the smartest “boy” in her class, but, because she was a girl and came from an Orthodox family, everyone knew she could never become a rabbi, a cantor, a judge, an interpreter of Jewish law — or celebrate a Bat Mitzvah. She couldn’t even pray to God out loud as part of a religious quorum.

No, the little girl wasn’t me (at least, not exclusively), and her name wasn’t Yentl. Her true name and guiding inspiration was, perhaps, the world’s first human teacher: the biblical Eve.

Eve was earthy, psychic, intellectual, compassionate. Eve talked to both animals and God/dess, lusted after knowledge — could almost taste it, shared its fruits with her more sluggish mate, and, as a result, taught us that pain is a lawful consequence of creation. God forbade only Adam, not Eve, to eat of the Tree. Afterward, Adam told God that Eve made him do it; she was an evil influence. Funny: We think of Eve as disobedient, not Adam as a snitch.

The sons of Man decided they got thrown out of Paradise because of something a woman said. The rabbis decided that “a woman’s voice” (kol isha) was dangerous. It was, henceforth, forbidden. A 5,000-year spell was cast. To this day, Orthodox Jewish men insist that hearing a woman’s voice engaged in prayer will interfere with a man’s ability to concentrate on his prayers, will sexually distract him. Nocturnal thoughts of this nature are attributed to Eve’s even more scandalous precursor, Lilith (for whom the first feminist Jewish magazine was named).

For generations, “good” Jewish women believed that their own religious ignorance was a virtue. Any woman who thought otherwise, who was again tempted by knowledge or direct, unmediated contact with God, was deemed a crazy witch; her fate: not pleasant. Among Orthodox women today — and those subject to Orthodox law — that requirement of silence remains. They may go to synagogue, seated separately from men, but they may not pray out loud where men can hear them.

Well, guys and handmaids: somewhere, east of Eden, the biblical Eve and her predecessor, Lilith, are on the move again and I am privileged to be among them.

On December 1, 1988, I was one of 70 Jewish women from Europe, North America, Australia, Asia, South America, and the Middle East who prayed together in Jerusalem, out loud, with a Torah, wearing ritual garments, for the first time in thousands of years, at the Kotel, better known as the Western, or “Wailing,” Wall. The Kotel is arguably the spot most sacred or symbolic of all that was lost and longed for in Jewish history: King Solomon’s Temple, our own country, an army to protect Jews from being beaten, raped, slaughtered in Christian and Islamic countries.

I opened the Torah that day — a great honor. We prayed at the Kotel but only on the women’s side, behind a high barrier that separates men from women and women from the Torah. On the men’s side, dozens, maybe hundreds of Torah scrolls reside. Siddurim — prayer books — too. Religious quorums needed for prayer services take place among the men three times a day. On the women’s side — nothing: no Torah, no religious quorums, no group spirit, no solidarity, only single, solitary, eerily silent women, sometimes weeping, sometimes clutching a prayer book, silently mouthing their prayers.

What we did at the Kotel in 1988 was, in a sense, analogous to nuns taking over the Vatican and helping at a mass. What we did was historic, uncustomary, but not forbidden according to Jewish law. The service was disrupted by verbal and threatened physical assaults from some ultra-Orthodox men and women at the site.

In March 1989, when the attacks continued during subsequent prayer services, the newly organized Women of the Wall (WOW) petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court for an order to allow women to pray together at the wall, with a Torah and wearing ritual garments, and to protect them from violence. According to Bonna Haberman, visiting scholar at Brandeis, “women shouted, cursed, and pushed at us. [On two occasions] men burst into the women’s section…circled, began to tear at us. [Men] hurled metal chairs at us. The police [watching nearby] refused to intervene. On a third occasion, a black wall of men cursing and taunting us blocked our entry… [Men] violently thrashed at the petition. One wild black-coated fellow burst through, hurling a chair at our heads. One woman collapsed under the blow, bleeding from the neck and head and requiring hospital treatment.”

The court’s response in May: a temporary injunction forbidding women to pray aloud. That injunction is still in effect today.

That December, the International Committee for the Women of the Wall (ICWOW), established as a support group early on, donated a Torah to the women of Jerusalem and tried to pray with it at the Kotel. Unlike WOW members, the international women were not attacked physically, but we were prevented from praying at the wall. This became the basis for ICWOW’s lawsuit filed in 1990 against the government of Israel and the Ministry of Religion.

Eight years later, the issue remains unresolved, and women are still forbidden from praying together out loud at the Kotel (see chronology next page). In 1994, the Israeli Supreme Court recommended that a Parliament commission find a way to allow women to exercise our rights at the Kotel in a way that will not lead to violence. After numerous delays, the commission voted in April to banish us from the Kotel. But the group has grown, bringing together religious feminists of all denominations. Jewish visitors from around the world have joined WOW at and near the Kotel in prayer; visitors of many religions have also come to witness in solidarity. For the last six years, Jewish girls have begun to hold their Bat Mitzvah near the Kotel under WOW auspices. Recently a Bat Mitzvah asked some of her friends to donate monies to our cause in lieu of gifts.

As attorney Miriam Benson said, “Getting used to reading the Torah in exile, even under WOW auspices, is not good.” I agree. Nevertheless, once you’ve got this kind of energy moving among the people, there’s no way of stopping it. How we have been treated in this search, what we’ve done, has taught me the following lessons:

When a woman demands to be treated as a human being, even if she defines her humanity as (only) a “separate but equal” place at her Father’s table, whether she’s a “good” or a “bad” woman, she is viewed as a brazen revolutionary. We asked for our rights under civil and religious law. When we prayed, other worshippers, both men and women, verbally and physically assaulted us. We asked the Israeli state to protect us so that we could exercise our rights. The state claimed it could not contain the violence against us, and that we ourselves had provoked the violence by “disturbing/offending” the “sensibilities of Jews at worship.” Women are not seen as “Jews” or as “worshippers” with “sensibilities.”

What makes this line of reasoning difficult to swallow is that Israelis have continued to administer time-sharing access to the Cave of the Patriarchs at Hebron, a site holy to both Moslems and Jews, even after Baruch Goldstein shot 29 Moslems at prayer. Authorities could do as well on our behalf at the wall.

Many secular and otherwise enlightened people underestimate the psychological importance of organized religion. I am a liberation psychologist, engaged with the world’s mental health. Therefore I know how important it is for both women and men, Jews and non-Jews, that women begin to claim sacred ground in spiritually autonomous and authoritative ways.

At first, fiercely agnostic Israelis claimed that no Israeli cared about the Kotel, that Israelis had nothing but contempt for organized, Orthodox Judaism. Some secular feminists took me to task for “caring about a symbol of a patriarchal empire.” “Who wants a piece of that tainted pie? Without misogyny and homophobia, there would be no Orthodox Judaism. If you absolutely must ‘do’ religion, why not found a Goddess grove/embrace Buddhism/open up a soup kitchen?”

“But,” said I, “when learned religious women are psychologically and physically ready to claim sacred ground, isn’t it your responsibility as feminists to assist them?”

Meanwhile, the patriarchy mounted a full-fledged attack. In their brief, the Israeli state and its minister of religion called WOW and ICWOW “witches” who are doing “Satan’s work,” “more like prostitutes than holy women,” “misled, tainted by modern secular feminism.” Fiercely fundamentalist Israelis did not like what we were doing either. They joined the state in opposing us before the Israeli Supreme Court. If you find yourself opposed (or not strongly supported) by groups on both the far right and the far left, you’re probably doing “feminism.”

It is crucial to fight for territory. In this case, the territory is real as well as psychological and spiritual, and has everything to do with Jewish women’s coming-of-age spiritually. (Here, the little girl gets to have her Bat Mitzvah, a little late, but on a really grand scale.)

Religious women and men can, paradoxically, also be firebrand feminists. This doesn’t mean they’re “tolerant” of things they disapprove of; in fact, they’re hell-on-wheels toward anyone who flouts their religious authority. I’ll never forget how, in the spring of 1989, some WOW supporters surrounded an Israeli official to chew him out about the violence against WOW at the Kotel. They were fierce, a swarm of locusts. They were all over the man, all talking at once. “How dare you hold female life so cheap? We will hold you personally responsible if a single hair on the head of any woman is harmed.” Theirs was a passionate and direct interpersonal “hit,” almost primitive; few academic or career feminists ever confront men of power in such righteously unladylike ways.

Religious feminists are not all alike; they differ widely, on both theological and political issues. While most religious feminists are wives and mothers, an increasing number are also physicians, academics, stockbrokers, lawyers, writers, politicians, businesswomen.

Religious women are not always liberal, and do not always practice gender-neutral feminism. Some tend to be essentialists who believe that men and women are different and that women are superior. An example: Once, in the early 1980s, during Shabbos, a Lubavitcher Hasidic woman in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, took me aside and said: “Let the men have their titles and all their public displays of importance. They are not as strong as women are. They need this encouragement. We give birth to life. Our every act is holy. We are always close to God, not just when we pray.”

Another example: I studied Torah with a group of religious women. I will never forget the intensity and excitement of our studying together — nor how often these women allowed our Torah study to be interrupted by the needs of others: a husband who needed to be fed, a child or a parent in need of comforting, an employer with an emergency. At first, I was filled with outrage and disdain. In time, I came to understand that religious women viewed themselves as God’s hands and hearts on earth. Unlike their male counterparts, nothing — not even Torah study — could preempt their mission of service toward others. In time, I came to view my own (patriarchal) need to brook no interruption when I read, wrote, studied, as here to stay, but also heartless.

Feminists can work together even when we deeply disagree, and are “different” from one another — as long as we respect and value one another for those very differences, and remember to acknowledge each woman’s accomplishments on our behalf. Women, feminists included, have such a long history of acrimonious, broad-side-of-the-tongue dealings with one another that a little civility, generosity, appreciation, goes a long way. Women are inspired and encouraged by it. Both liberal and radical feminists have supported us. Three and a half million Jews, of both genders, all denominations, and truly varied political opinions have donated money and written to the government commission on behalf of women’s right to pray at the Kotel. We may not win this struggle quickly, but in a sense we have already “won”: by forging a uniquely pluralist alliance.

Grand vision, coupled to human, imperfect action, is everything. If we wait for the exact right moment to do the most “politically correct” action with the most “politically correct” people, it will never happen. Without women who are willing to put their bodies, skills, time on the line for what they believe is right, there would be no lawsuit, no grassroots struggle.

The women with whom I’ve served are all utterly amazing: learned, principled, tough, dedicated. In alphabetical order, the old guard: attorney Miriam Benson, Jessie Bonn, Rabbi Helene Ferris, Shula Gehlfuss, Bonna Haberman, Anat Hoffman, Dr. Norma Joseph, Dr. Shulamith Magnus, Vanessa Ochs. The new guard: Chaia Beckerman, Rabbi Sharon Cohen-Anisfeld, Haviva Krassner-Davidson, Betsy Cohen-Kallus, Rabbi Gail Labowitz, attorney Frances Raday, attorney Stefanie Raker, Lilly Rivlin, attorney Laura Shaw-Frank.

Victory is more humdrum than dramatic. Victory is ours when former slaves, or second-class citizens, engage in ordinary activities and take their right to do so for granted. They live, not die. They attend school, find employment, vote, have an abortion, exercise their right to prayerfully greet their newborn, bury their dead, have a Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel.

Not every pioneer will personally benefit from the particular wrong righted, the right won. Not everyone who begins a battle may be able to see it through to the end. The original grassroots activists and named plaintiffs have already been joined by second- and third-wave warriors. Perhaps others, especially the coming generations, will be the ones to most benefit from our struggle.

On March 6, 1996, while all Israel reeled from the four terrorist bomb attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, WOW went to the Kotel to read the story of how Esther saved the Jews of Persia. They dedicated their reading to Sara Duker, the young Jewish American woman who was killed in one of the suicide bombings and who had been planning to join WOW at the Kotel for this Purim reading. No one said: “Oh, it’s the wrong time; there are more important things to worry about.” No one wavered, hesitated, had the slightest doubt about the importance of what they were doing or worried about what others might think. For women, this is often the first and most important battle to win. It is an object lesson, a model, for all disenfranchised “others” about claiming ground — one that extends beyond Jewish women, beyond the Kotel, to women of all faiths — or no faith.

I am not religious. I do not pray three times a day. yet because I am ill and often home I check my Kotel e-mail religiously: at least three times a day.

I am not religious, but I love to study Torah. I light up when I pray. I have a really good time among religious Jews, among religious non-Jews too, though. I am as strong a revolutionary feminist as I ever was. But this year, for the first time, my very orthodox mother came to spend Passover with me.

Inevitably, the action claims you, shapes you, hammers you into a reckoning with origin and destiny.

Editor-at-large PHYLLIS CHESLER is the author of eight books, including Women and Madness (Harcourt Brace).