The Walls Came Tumbling Down: How Jewish Feminists Made History

The Walls Came Tumbling Down: How Jewish Feminists Made History

by Phyllis Chesler

“Two things moved me: The experience of seeing secular and assimilated women —who may not otherwise have gone to the kotel—moved to tears. This touched me very deeply. Secondly, there is a yawning gap between a PR. event and a spiritual experience. This had all the earmarks of a media event, cameras and journalists everywhere. What was impressive was that the energies and determination of a group of women maintained it as a religious experience, despite tremendous pressure otherwise. I learned from this that one can carve out a moment of spirituality through an act of will. Rabbi Brin kept reminding us to “stay focused”—and we did. People ask me: Was I afraid? I felt no fear. Perhaps being wrapped in prayer made me unafraid. Perhaps it was the presence of the kotel guards (whom I didn’t see). I also thought that the Haredim were hostile but would not become violent.” Blu Greenberg (Orthodox)

“Somebody asked me what the Torah scroll symbolized to me. It doesn’t symbolize something. It is. The Torah is the heart blood of our tradition, and I have studied it all my life. More than ever as I carried the scroll to the Wall, the Torah became part of me and I part of it. The act of reading from it with a group of women reaffirmed that moment at Sinai when the Torah was given to all of us, women as well as men. Franclne Klagsbrun (Conservative)

“My life as a child of survivors of the Holocaust is a living memory to the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and unknown friends who perished in the camps. Creating a living, breathing, renewed Judiasm to light the darkness is very much part of my commitment in their honor. And so, at the kotel on that sun-perfect morning in Jerusalem, celebrating the Torah as a full and equal member of my faith, felt like we were adding a new shining unbreakable link in the chain of our beautiful old heritage.” Hedy Schlelfer (Orthodox)

It is important that Orthodox women initiated this. They are now realizing that to be exempted does not mean to be excluded for the rest of their lives.. Jewish women, like all women, must come to a new understanding of the community of Israel. To continue to exclude women from their rightful place in an egalitarian society would be a great loss, even greater than the holocaust in terms of the realization of human potential. Women also have to learn to free our individual selves. Women, like Blacks, have left Egypt but are still wandering in the wilderness. Are we going to have to wait until the generation of the wilderness dies until we obtain complete freedom?” Rabbi Helene Ferris (Reform)

“Until our action, going to the Wall always filled me with despair: the uneven separation, the Torah, the signing and dancing on the men’s side—and on the women’s side, a silent presence was allowed. But we, together, serious in our pursuit, brought sacredness back to the Wall, took control away from the ultra Orthodox, declared our space, and gave room for our voices to soar, while the men on their side roared with rage. We made an island of sanity in a volatile place.” E. M. Broner (Conservative)

“The service gave me an overwhelming feeling of my Jewishness and of my connection to my people’s past. It made me angry that ultra-Orthodox men were protesting my right to this experience.” Trudy Mason (Reform)

“When I was on a train, without food, without water and without heat, going to an unknown destination in Poland, I never though I’d live or live to see Israel. Now here I was, praying at the Wall with other women and together with Jews of every denomination.” Marlon Krug (Orthodox)

“The book of Exodus tells us that when the Jews crossed the Sea, waters formed “a wall for them on their right and on their left”. They were surrounded by walls; so too were we. As we stood before the Western Wall, we had on our left a wall separating us from the men. On the other side of that wall stood angry men hurling verbal threats at us. On our right we were faced with a different kind of wall, an invisible one of silence and sullenness, erected against us by other women who stared at us, unwilling or unable to understand what we were doing. At our backs was the wall we had just breached which had remained unchallenged until that moment. That was the Wall barring women from carrying or reading a Torah scroll. For me, walking through that Wall was extremely difficult. . It signified a public declaration that women as well as men have a right to the Torah. Doing this terrified me. It forced me to truly confront the question that had remained hidden in my soul: were we sanctifying God’s name or desecrating it? As I walked with the other women to the kotel with the Torah openly and proudly, I knew the answer. I realized that the Wall that centuries of tradition had built, which divided women from physical contact with the Torah, had fallen quite easily. It was never a solid Wall at all. Breaking it down seemed right. The only Wall that really mattered was the Western Wall which stood before us and seemed to envelop us and shelter us. We stood there together with our Torah. We prayed and felt the presence of God. Rlfka Haut (Orthodox)

“For me the kotel was a very powerful experience. It was amazing that women from all over the map (religiously, geographically, ideologically, philosophically, theologically) could gather together and have a prayer service that was simultaneously a very powerful religious and personal experience and an historical and political statement. I know that some of us didn’t view it as a political statement but personally I thought that it was a very powerful statement politically and historically. Because it was through the modality of prayer—it was a very simple and thereby even more powerful statement. It seems ironic that we women were able to focus on our prayers despite the journalists and despite the Haredi men and women who were yelling at us; it was they, the men in particular, who disrupted their own prayer service, stopped what they were doing in order to try and get us to stop what we were doing. For me, the fact that Rav Getz said that it’s not forbidden, is a tremendous advance for Jewish women. I hope that we can really keep the momentum going.” Deborah Brln (Reconstructlonlst)

“The experience of praying at the kotel, affirming that lama Jew, that the Torah is mine also, that I am part of the covenant that the Torah symbolizes, was very important. Equally important was the feeling or shared community with the women involved. I felt that we were truly KM Yisrael, namely, that we were from all parts of the Jewish community. The women prayed with such devotion and dignity that I was honored to be with them. Their mutual respect made the moment religiously significant.” Norma Baumel Joseph (Orthodox)

“There is always a war somewhere in the Middle East. Then there is peace. But this has literally never happened before. We made history.” Sylvia Nell (Conservative)

“I was one of the readers from the Torah, an honor that will never be surpassed in my life. The portion of the Torah which I helped prepared was from Vaheshav (Genesis/Joseph’s Story); it contained the words “Halom Halamti” (I have dreamt a dream). I never realized that such a dream could be dreamt, much less realized. It was realized because the women decided that it was more important to listen and truly hear one another than to ‘win’. It was not being right which mattered but being whole (shalem). To be whole meant, paradoxically, to compromise, to give up parts—important parts—of our positions, but however difficult that was, it was preferable to the hollow satisfaction of frustrating and hurting one another in the cause of truth. That is Ahavat Shamayim (Love of God) and Ahavat Yisrael (Love of Our People)—and that was what we carried and what carried us to the kotel.” Shulamit Magnus (Reconstructionist)

Israel: The Walls Came Tumbling Down

On December 1,1988, for the first time in history, more than 70 Jewish women, representing Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Secular, Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism, prayed together with a torah at the kotel (the Western or Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem. We came mainly from the United States and Canada but also from Israel, West Germany, Brazil, India, England, New Zealand and Sweden.

The kotel is all that remains of the Temple Mount, perhaps part of King Herodian’s Second Temple or King Solomon’s First Temple. For thousands of years in exile, Jews yearned for the kotel as the symbol of liberation, homeland, sanctity. When Jews ritually intoned: “Next year in Jerusalem”, they meant in King Solomon’s Jerusalem, or in some nation-state where they could live in peace or at least bear arms to defend themselves against Christian and Moslem rape, slaughter and genocide.

In 1948 when Israel became a state, Jews still had no access to the kotel; it belonged to Jordan which chose not to maintain it as a holy site—and, in fact, purposely kept it in a state of disrepair. In 1967, after the Arabs failed in their Six Day War against Israel, Israeli soldiers “took” Arab East Jerusalem. The cry went out: “We have the kotel.” Everyone —from the fiercely secular to the fiercely religious—came to gaze in wonder or to pray.

Almost overnight, ultra-Orthodox rabbis constructed a “mehitzah” (or barrier) to separate the women from the men. For centuries before this, women and men had prayed here together.

The kotel began to resemble an Orthodox synagogue—where the women are effectively in purdah, either at the rear behind heavy curtains, or in upper balconies behind latticed partitions. The women’s section is traditionally much smaller, more crowded than the men’s.

Only (Orthodox) men can read from or sing and dance with the Torah; only (Orthodox) men can pray in groups of 10 known as a “minyan”, etc. No (Orthodox) woman may say Kaddish (the prayer for the dead); she must ask a man to do it for her. (Orthodox) women can and do pray—but not in minyanim, and never in positions of spiritual or ritual authority over men.

On December 1,1988, the ultra-Orthodox men (or Haredim) protested our prayer service with fury and venom. An Orthodox woman first sounded the alarm. “Assur! Assur Sefer Torah Etzel Nashim!” (It’s forbidden! It’s forbidden for women to have the Sefer Torah.) She kept shrieking at us. Then, for more than 15 minutes, the men, on their side, verbally assaulted us with cries of “I protest”, “This is forbidden”, “Pigs”, etc.

The men stopped their prayers; many climbed onto chairs to see over the mehitzah. Several men literally began howling like wild beasts once they saw we had a Torah and/or heard our sweet singing voices. (Orthodox) men are never supposed to be “distracted” or “provoked” by the sound of a woman singing. The chief of Israeli security at the kotel said that the Haredim had alerted the Yeshiva students to “come and get us”. However, the kotel rabbi, Meir Yehuda Getz (who was initially misquoted in the world press) said that “strictly speaking, these women have not violated halacha (religious law); what they have done is not customary and has not been done before. But as a holy site, the kotel is open to both women and men, Jews and non-Jews”.


I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Borough Park, in Brooklyn. I studied Hebrew and Judaism at a Talmud Torah and at a Hebrew High School. In 1948, when I was eight, I joined Hashomer Hatzair (a Socialist-Zionist youth and kibbutz movement). My family tried to persuade me to quite this “narashkeit” (or foolishness). In response, I joined Ain Harod, a movement far to the left of Hashomer— and one that believed that Arabs and Jews should live together on kibbutzim. I have always experienced Arabs, Moslems, Jews and Israelis—both Hagar’s and Sarah’s children—as “family”. This has gotten me into various kinds of “trouble” over the years.

Goaded by anti-semitism on the left and among radical feminists, I began wearing an oversized Jewish star to political rallies. Interestingly, I felt compelled to visit Israel. I went to the kotel as soon as I arrived in Jerusalem. It was midnight, but the area was flooded in grand, soft light—all in all, a spectacle worthy of Cecil B. DeMille.

The women’s “side” of the kotel had no torah and relatively few prayer books. It was utterly, eerily deserted. I prayed quietly and wept: for my father, Leon, who died of a heart attack in 1967 at the age of 54 without ever seeing Israel; for my paternal grandmother (for whom I’m named) who was cut to pieces by Cossack troops when her son (and my father) was an infant; for my maternal grandparents who died in 1946 and 1951.

My secular friends were genuinely surprised that I’d “rushed off” to the kotel; some Israelis contemptuously wanted to know if I was planning to “carry on” like all the other American Jews who romanticized Israel—but only from afar; and who supported the most corrupt and/or right wing forces—instead of living in Israel and transforming it.

In 1973, I began to organize Jewish feminist consciousness-raising groups; I also began talking about anti-semitism and racism among feminists. By 1975, the first Jewish feminist conference was taking place at the McAlpin Hotel in New York.


In the Spring of 1975, I was asked to invite some left and feminist journalists on a media tour of Israel. I left the tour and met with Israeli feminists in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem; then I went to Haifa, that jewel of a city, to lecture at the University.

Afterwards, I was having coffee with American novelist Esther Broner, American born Knessett (Parliament)-member Marcia Freedman and some Israeli feminists—when all at once, we were talking about praying together at the kotel; about “integrating” the kotel by praying on the men’s side; about demonstrating at the kotel as a way of demanding a separation of church and state in Israel. (I even remember lettering one placard in Hebrew that read: “If the rabbis want the kotel, then let them get out of the Knesset”).

We were inspired, a little giddy, but also serious. After all, this was the place of miracles. Anything was possible, including the Messiah: maybe She was with us! But what if the men tried to stone her? Should we arm ourselves with stones—or call on the Israeli Women’s Army to protect us? Better just send out a press release; no one would be crazy enough to have a religious riot on network television! News of our plans traveled quickly. Martin Buber’s granddaughter and an ex”Berrigan” nun who had just converted to Judaism wanted to join us. A group of feminists were coming from the Negev.

At some level, we understood that religious and/or spiritual women would have to want this—or it could not happen. (It could “happen” but would have no real meaning). And the religious women weren’t “ready” to take on the sacred in Judaism. One religious feminist literally went from cafe to cafe to find us—to beg us not to do “this thing”. The religious women didn’t know what they wanted to do at—or about—the mehitzah at the kotel. Others didn’t know whether they wanted to wear a yarmulke (skull cap) and tallit (prayer shawl). Still others didn’t want to address a male Godhead or use misogynist prayers. “We need time to rewrite everything” they said.*

Anti-religious feminists refused to have anything to do with the kotel, the rabbinate, or the mehitzah. In fact, some Israeli feminists said they would feel “bitter” and “letdown” if the “likes of us” took the kotel so seriously. Didn’t we understand how “the Jewish religion, like all patriarchal religions, oppressed women”? “This is the Jewish Vatican State” they said. “The rabbis will destroy the soul of the Jews and-bring about the destruction of the state if we don’t fight them tooth and nail. As a feminist, how can you feel anything but anger towards Judaism as a religion or as the basis for a patriarchal nation-state?”

Marcia, Esther and I went down to Jerusalem, to the kotel, held hands, prayed a little, were glad to be together, sad we were so pathetic, so powerless. And then we went about our feminist business.


I was in Jerusalem again, this time six months pregnant with a son. (The amniocentesis test told me so.) In my book, With Child: A Diary of Motherhood, I wrote this entry: “I’ve just called New York. You’re a boy! It’s late Friday afternoon. A holy quiet has begun in the city. I go to the Western Wall and press my stomach against it. Idly, perversely, I think to go to the men’s side, claiming my rightful presence there. I contain a male child. They’d probably stone me to death.

Hear, O Israel, I am One. Mother and Child. Male and Female. Past and Future. My belly warms the sun-glown stones.”

But I also have this entry about Crete, which I visited on my way to Israel:. “The frescoes (in the palace of Knossos) are extraordinary. Look, child: the graceful bull-leapers are about your size and color—dark maroon, defying gravity. Here, Mothers, I whisper, here is your daughter Phyllis, pregnant in her 37th year. How cool are your breezes, how fair thy dwelling. I linger, I linger among your columns, among your poplars.”

AUGUST, 1980

In 1980, under UN. auspices, I organized an international feminist conference that took place in Oslo, Norway immediately before the UN. Conference on Women in Copenhagen. The anti-semitism and anti-feminism at both meetings, masquerading as anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism was intense, programmed and unbearable. I flew to Israel right afterwards to talk about the resurgence of anti-semitism in the world, and to propose that, unlike the UN., the Israeli Government sponsor a truly feminist conference.

This time when I visited the kotel, the Haredim—righteous, aggressive, maniacal—seemed to belong to Khomeini’s Iran more than to Chagall’s mystical Europe. The Haredim did not look meditative or Jewish-gentle. They looked like closed-minded woman-haters to me.*

While praying, a kerchiefed woman rudely and fiercely interrupted me. She wanted a donation—perhaps for orphan girls or yeshivot (religious schools). “Don’t you see I’m praying?” I asked, annoyed, puzzled. “Give me the money or shut up,” she said. The kotel—long a repository of much Jewish yearning— had lost its considerable charm.

I returned to America and helped organize the first of many panels under the aegis of The National Women’s Studies Association, meeting on anti-semitism among both feminists and anti-feminists.

It took place in Storrs, Connecticut. For a number of reason, I did not visit Israel for eight years; nor did I work strictly within a Jewish feminist movement. (At the heart of my Judaism remains the most intense universalism).

In 1988, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Lily Rivlin, two of my feminist seder-sisters, invited me to participate in a conference on the “Empowerment of Jewish Women” sponsored by the American Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress and the Israel Women’s Network. I’d be speaking on the religion plenary with Canadian Norma Joseph and Israeli Leah Shaktiel, both devoutly Orthodox Jews.

I went to Jerusalem with absolutely no expectations about the kotel.

DECEMBER 1, 1988

The women’s prayer service was inspired by Rifka Haut, an Orthodox Jew, cofounder of the women’s Tefillah (or prayer) Network, and the editor of the forthcoming The King’s Daughters: Women in The Synagogue. Our participation evolved out of a democratic, feminist process—one facilitated with considerable passion and authority by Reconstructionist Rabbi Deborah Brin, hereafter referred to as “Deborah”. As feminists, we were respectful of consensus decision-making. The process might still have failed us had Deborah not been so capable.

As a group, we had decided to protect whoever was carrying the Torah and to leave the kotel immediately if our appointed “lookout”, decided it was too dangerous to remain. The religious women did not want our prayer service to be perceived as a political demonstration; we respected their feelings. Many of us did not want to have our experience of each other distorted by simultaneous interactions with the media. I was convinced that doing so would jeopardize our sisterhood and our spiritual experience. Everyone either agreed with me—or agreed to abide by this decision. Given that we were so-exceedingly articulate a group of women, I was impressed. Impressed? I was thrilled. We were actually serious.

The prayer service was prepared by Rifka Haut together with Orthodox halachic scholar Norma Joseph, Reform Rabbi Helene Ferris, hereafter referred to as “Helene”, and Shulamit Magnus, the Director of the Program in Modern Jewish Civilization at the Reconstructionist. Rabbinical College. Helene obtained a Torah from the Hebrew Union College of Jerusalem. She kept it by her side all night —and, she tells me, slept very little.

Most of us went to bed very late; it was nearly 2:00 a.m. when I left Deborah’s room. I was hot; I was cold; I was hungry; I was nauseated. I’d averaged no more than two hours of sleep each night since I’d left New York seven days before—but here I was, absolutely unable to sleep. I cancelled my wake-up call. Clearly, it was beyond me to go; I’d pushed myself too hard. (Like Jacob, was I actually wrestling with an angel?) 1 was dressed and ready long before the agreed-upon time of 6:50 a.m. (Afterwards, I was elated and energized, not exhausted.)

Francine Klagsbrun, gaunt, ecstatic, carried the Torah through the gates of the Old City of Jerusalem, The walk to the kotel itself took about 12 to 15 minutes. The Torah was placed on a table we had brought for that purpose.

Suddenly, (or so it seemed) the women were wrapped in ritual finery: embroidered caps, Middle-Eastern and colorful; lacy-white or multi-colored prayer shawls, huge and gorgeous. Most of us had simple head coverings or bare heads and everyday clothes.

The service was led—precisely and magnificently—by Deborah, assisted by Reconstructionist Geela Raizl Robinson, who, in a young, sweet voice, led us in song and prayer. Then, in a bold and ringing alto, Deborah led us through the morning service and Torah reading.

Never before had these haunting melodies seemed as much mine, ours, female. Rifka Haut turned to me, and forever blessed me with these words:’ ‘Would you like the honor of opening the Torah for us?” Which I proceeded to do. Blu Greenberg (Orthodox) had the first aliyah. The Torah was then read by Helene, Shulamit Magnus and Marion Krug (Orthodox).

Even when women do exactly the same thing as men, e.g. function as spiritual authorities, it has a different meaning, exerts a different influence in the world. Some feminists want to “feminize” or “matriarchize” patriarchal religion; others want to render it gender-neutral; still others want to resurrect pagan goddess worship, feminist style: i.e. with lots of anarchist “small-is-beautiful”, ecological and animal-rights consciousness. All have the commonality of a sophisticated understanding of our human need for communitas, spirituality, and rituals in ways that are removed from organized religion.

Deborah truly led us. And we needed her to do so. The men continued to roar and howl. Deborah kept telling us to “focus” and somehow we did. I’ll admit it, we also began to hurry our service a little. Deborah led us in K ad dish. (For halachic reasons, this was separated from the rest of the service). Once the Kaddish was over, we began the long walk back to the gates of the Old City. We sang: “oseh shalom” (May God who makes peace in the realms above cover us with peace) and then “siman tov U’mazal tov” which is sung at all Jewish celebrations.

On the bus, Deborah asked how to say “right on!” in Hebrew; we cheered, applauded, wept, laughed, talked, and exchanged names. By mid-afternoon, I actually suggested to Deborah and Helene that we return to the kotel to daven (or pray) Ma’ariv (the evening service).

What did this prayer service mean? It was an absolute triumph of our human, female spirit over male tyranny. Women, including very traditional women, walked into battle unafraid and took what rightfully belongs to us: our freedom, our sacredness, each other—with such joy, and so calmly, that it was a privilege to be among them.

Thirteen years ago we dreamt this dream of women praying together at the kotel. This clearly was our collective bat mitzvah [female rite of passage]. It was profoundly moving and exhilarating to be with other women, united, loving and absolutely unafraid of partriarchal violence. We all felt such sweet longing to be at the kotel together that it mattered more than anything else.

In order to pray together, each woman sacrificed an important principle. Women who vowed never to pray behind a mehitzah did so; those who do not recognize women rabbis were led in prayer by women rabbis; agnostics and Goddess worshippers joined us and were moved to tears by the bravery and sisterhood of the women. It was an inspired show of unity both as feminists and as Jews.

Phyllis Chester, Ph.D., radical feminist and psychotherapist, Is author of Women and Madness, Mothers on Trial and most recently Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M. She Is well-known as a lecturer on women’s legal rights and emotional health and Is a longtime hands-on activist and organizer for feminist causes. She recently returned from Jerusalem where she was one of the Jewish feminists to make history at the Wall.

• On this 1988 trip to Israel, I was told that for the last five years, Islamic fundamentalism has also been gaining in strength on the West Bank—perhaps funded by Saudi Arabia; definitely “allowed” by the Israeli authorities.

• On December 1, 1988 we addressed our prayers to our Foremothers as well as our Forefathers.

• Since 1976, we have conducted a feminist Passover Seder in New York. The Seder Mothers are: Esther Broner, Phyllis Chesler, Edith Issac-Rose, Bea Kreloff, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Lily Rivlin. We have used E. M. Broner’s Haggadah; Lily Rivlin directed a film about us; and, in 1986, Michelle Landsberg joined us as a Seder-Mother.

• I was committed to a series of speeches in Haifa and Tel Aviv and to a tour of the Battered Women’s Shelter and Rape Crisis Center in Haifa—all brilliantly organized by Dahlia Saxe and Iris Markovitch. I was also committed to a feminist conference and demonstration against the Occupation, planned for December 2, 1988, and organized by Shani, Israeli Women Against the Occupation. The conference and demonstration drew at least 400 Israeli Jewish, Israeli Arab, and Palestinian feminists from Nazareth, Bethlehem, Haifa, Acco, Gaza, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Caesarea, etc. Some of the leaders of this extraordinary venture were Nabila Espanioly, Lil Mo’ed, Judy Blank, Rahel Ostrovitz, Marcia Freedman, etc. As it happened, Leah Shaktiel was deeply involved in the feminist peace conference and Norma Joseph turned out to be an important participant at the kotel.