נשות הכותל (Neshot Hakotel)- Women of the Wall
This is a movement that began in 1988. It started on December 1,1988, when a group of seventy multi-denominational women met to pray (daven) at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. They brought a Sefer Torah with them, as there were not ANY Torahs available in the women's section. Because it is considered by more religious/traditional Jews that women should not carry or read from the Torah especially at such a place as the Western Wall, there was immediate backlash. Men from the other side of the mechitzah (wall separating men and women) cursed, yelled, and threatened the women (which to note is not Torah behavior).
However at that time, the Kotel administrator, Rabbi Yehuda Gertz, allowed the service to continue and said that the women were not violated any part of Halakhah (Jewish law). For the last twenty years, these women have fought to be able to read Torah, wear prayer shawls and even tefillin (prayer boxes usually worn by men) at the Western Wall. They have been gaining notoriety especially in the States and other Western countries. There is even a half hour film about the topic, which the clip above is taken from called 'Praying in Her Own Voice'. I recommend seeing the whole movie.
For those unfamiliar with why women cannot pray at the Western Wall with a Torah, you need some background. Within some sects of Judaism, it is not believed to be permissible for women to touch/carry/study Torah. They also have to sit separately from men and cannot receive aliyot (mitzvah where one is called up to bless the Torah). This would mostly be within the Orthodox and Chassidic (ultra-Orthodox) camps. Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative Judaism generally allow women to read from the Torah openly and accept aliyot. Within those sects, women can also sit together with men and go up on the bimah (alter) with men as well. Again, the belief on women and their place and practice differs depending on the degree of religiosity and the sect of Judaism that you speak with.
However, from my standpoint, a woman who wants to daven, especially at a place like the Kotel should be able to do so while carrying a Torah and wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) or tefillin (prayer boxes). I ask the question, why would a woman want to pray there in the first place? To serve Hashem (G-d) of course. So, to deepen a woman's prayer and her connection to Hashem, wouldn't having a Torah make sense? It's not like these women are going to the Kotel naked or they are doing something overtly blasphemous like cussing and playing loud death metal. These women are going to the Kotel to pray, to be Jews. That's all. Nothing taboo or mysterious. So, by blocking them from praying and expressing their devotion to G-d, one is sinning, right? Isn't it a sin, within Judaism to prevent a person from praying and showing devotion to the Almighty? I'd say so.
Futheremore, there is NO specific stipulation in the Torah or traditional rabbinic sources saying that women cannot carry/read from the Torah or wear a tallis/tefillin. In fact, the daughter of Rashi (A Jewish Biblical philosopher/scholar) apparently used to wear tefillin while she prayed. This is similar to how there is no specific stipulation that women (or even men) should cover their hair, or at least wear a wig. There is a part in the Torah a woman, who is accused of adultery, called a 'Sotah' has her hair 'uncovered' by the priest (rabbis weren't in fashion yet). It isn't quite known whether the passage from Numbers is meant to be directly interpreted or not. In fact, the Mishnah (Torah commentary) says that a woman's hair covering has more to do with the laws of the Jewish community, as it was grounds for divorce, rather than dating back to Moses and being an actual 'sin'. The whole idea of women's modesty (clothes and behavior) has to do with 'tzinut' (humility/modesty) which is why the signs in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel ask women not to wear 'immodest' clothes (pictured below). One could also say that just because something isn't in the Torah, doesn't mean it isn't followed or practiced. Take for instance, take the laws of kashrut (kosher). It says in the Torah that a kid should not be boiled in its mother's milk.
*Women and Head Covering
So, Jews who observe the laws of kashrut, or who keep kosher, do not eat milk with meat. This goes further to mean that milk and meat shouldn't be on the same table at the same meal and that separate plates and silverware are to be used for each. The Torah doesn't specify the degree of practice, and one could even say that chicken is not included int he stipulation of being separate from dairy. However, Jews keep count chicken as meat. Jewish law and text cannot be taken in a vacuum but there are also many instances where fences are created around fences, meaning laws are extended beyond how they were probably originally meant to be followed.
I am not trying to say throw out all the rules of Judaism. I respect and love the Torah and the laws/rules of my religion. However, Israel is in a major hot spot right now. It is surrounded by contentious neighbors like Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria. Hamas and Hezbolah want Israel to be demolished and don't give a rat's tail what happens to the Jews. So, do we need even more animosity and fighting amongst our very own people?
I mean, again, as a Feminist I speak, but women should be allowed to wear tallit and tefillin. In fact, supposedly it was my cousin, a rabbi in Minnesota who started the women's tallit movement, or at least was a big hand in getting it off the ground. I also think women should be able to read from the Torah as well as study it. I'm all for the opening of more women's yeshivas, and dare I say it, co-ed yeshivas like the wonderfully beautiful Pardes (that I attended) in Talpiyot, Jersusalem. Now, what I'm not saying is to tear down the mechitzah and have women and men sit together. Just because I daven egale (men and women together) these days doesn't mean everyone does. Synagogues and individuals should do what they are comfortable doing as long as it follows the laws of Judaism. I mean, if I'm invited to a Reform synagogue and the general congregation doesn't say wear tallit or conduct service in mostly English, it doesn't mean I won't attend. I'd want to welcome other Jews into my house as I'd be expected to be invited into theirs (be it actual house or house of G-d, synagogue). However, this is not the sentiment of the religious right!
I am disgusted by the behavior and actions of the religious right, who have a major stranglehold on Israeli politics right now. Women aren't even allowed to accept secular studies awards because it is 'too immodest'. I, however, am going to say something very controversial right now. The pigheaded men who lead the religious right movement and those who follow the very extremist line of thinking walk a dangerous line. Many of them do not respect the state of Israel or recognize the government as an institution. Many of the religious right families are also using the welfare system in Israel, as they have lots of children and usually only the women work while the men study. So, they have to use the social services available. Some would call them 'leaches', though I wouldn't go that far because I still recognize and welcome them as fellow Jews. My question is to them, why is a person living in a country that you don't formally recognize, while also reaping the benefits of its social services yet tearing it apart? It hurts my hear and makes me sick to think about it.
Many of my Israeli friends have thought about leaving and there is a large exodus, especially amongst younger Israelis to leave the country because of the difficulty that the religious right is causing. They want everyone to 'be Jewish' like them which means black suits and hats with the women in long skirts and wigs. This is despite the fact that the beliefs held by the Charedi (right wing) Jews are cultural and have little basis off of Jewish law. However, what they need to realize and appreciate is that Judaism has a multitude of different beliefs, practices, sects, races, ethnicities and dare I say it, sexualities. That's what makes Judaism so beautiful, in my eyes. But many folks of the religious right want to erase the rainbow, the keshet, of Judaism.
I would go as far as to say that the religious right who are against the Women of the Wall don't even respect women. They revile women and fear them. They are scared misogynists who want to keep women quiet and subdued. And the only reason their women don't fight back is because they're brainwashed to accept their lifestyle as the ONLY way. And I say this as a proud Jewish feminist who thinks women should be treated and respected like the women in the Torah. What would our matriarchs, prophets, and other notable women of the Bible- Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Ruth, Esther, Deborah, Miriam and Judith- say? These women were strong and fierce fighters for the Jewish faith. These women would be disgusted and outraged that such a travesty in Israel is taking place right by their very tombs.
Plus the fact that it is women who are the carriers of Jewish tradition. The religion was patrilineal in the Biblical ages but changed to matrilineal religion. The women teach the children about Jewish laws and customs while keeping the Jewish home (also keeping the idea of maintaining a 'kosher' home). The ideas of having a 'kosher' home are imbedded within the laws of 'niddah' (female cleanliness) and 'taharath hamishpach' (family purity). Women are at the forefront of this. So, why, if women are so important, are they so shunned and kept waiting in the wings? I'm not saying we should undo Jewish law, but why can't women be allowed to daven WITH a Torah at the holiest of Jewish sites? WHY?? Because a few men find it offensive? Because they don't respect women enough to give their own a voice?
What's even more disgusting is the thought that many of these religious right individuals act with violence and aggression to keep their so -called version of the Torah. So they end up being total hypocrites because the behavior they show when they spit, cuss, and use violence toward women or other Jews is definitely definitely forbidden in the Torah. No questions asked. Their behavior shuns Jews and converts away from the religion. Is that Torah living? To drive people away from being closer to G-d and Torah? Are these members of the religious right acting within G-d's sense of light and truth? When you spend so much time creating fences around fences around fences, you forget the bigger picture.
Plus, the other thing is that we, Jews and Israel, have enemies who want to see Israel blasted into the ocean. Why do we have to be fighting amongst ourselves. The messiah will NEVER come at this rate, with the Jewish people being so divided. The Torah DOES say that. It also mentions how being divisive and tearing the Jewish people apart is WORSE than idol worship. The nation of Israel's unity and the idea of AM YISRAEL CHAI (people of Israel living and being whole) is very important.
WE HAVE TO BE ONE PEOPLE!!! We have no one else. We have been smitten throughout history and many cultures and people have tried to wipe the Jews out. Coming on the heals of Hanukkah, and thinking about the strength of the Maccabees and the miracle of the lamp burning for eight night, we should consider another miracle, the one that has Jews living through major times of strife and evil. The fact that Jews are still here and that we have a nation to call our own, is the biggest miracle of all. What better way to celebrate that than to come together and elevate one another to being not only better Jews, but better people as well. Though this is my view both as a rabid Feminist and Zionist.
My hope for the future is that the Women of the Wall are allowed to daven there freely and are not met with the ferocity of animosity that they've experienced. I hope that Israel will become a place where Jews of many shades and beliefs are not met with discrimination and disgust. None of us, as Jews, or as people are perfect. We should be trying to encourage each other to live and breathe Torah and the customs/laws of Judaism. We should elevate one another upward rather than holding each other back. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. Nu?
I will leave you with a song, 'Henay Matov', Psalm 133:
'Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for bretheren to dwell together in unity'
~ Women of the Wall site
~NY Times article on Women of the Wall