Mirror, mirror on the Wall: Striving for pluralism at home and at the Kotel

Mirror, mirror on the Wall: Striving for pluralism at home and at the Kotel

In recent weeks since the tumult over whether or not to print the wedding and engagement announcements of LGBT Jews in the Standard, our communities in northern New Jersey have experienced firsthand the pain and challenge that come with striving for authentic religious pluralism. Simultaneously, at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the most sacred historical site to Jews the world over, a similar struggle for Jewish pluralism has been taking place, albeit with different advocates and circumstances.

Every rosh chodesh, an international group of women known as Women of the Wall, founded in 1988, gathers for prayer at the holy site. Their stated purpose as an organization is to obtain the rights of women “to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” Over the history of their existence, and especially during the past two years, Women of the Wall and their monthly guests from around the world have become periodic targets of hostility and violence. In 2009, police arrested Nofrat Frankel for reading Torah at the Kotel. In 2010, a haredi man physically attacked Noa Raz at a bus station in Beer Sheva because of the marks on her forearm from wearing tefillin during her prayers that morning. This past July, police arrested Anat Hoffman, chairperson of Women of the Wall, as she carried a Torah scroll from the Kotel, which is under the jurisdiction of the administer of Holy Sites, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, to Robinson’s Arch, an area beyond the Western Wall Plaza where the women have legal permission to conduct a Torah service.

These events have spurred a group of rabbis, of which I am proud to be a part, to organize a campaign of solidarity to support Women of the Wall and to call for a zero-tolerance policy against acts of violence against women for their religious practice. The new group, called Rabbis for Women of the Wall, is an international coalition of male and female rabbis from the Modern Orthodox, Masorti/Conservative, Progressive/Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal movements.

As our statement of purpose asserts, “many of our sisters and daughters, mothers and grandmothers, and female leaders and teachers across the world hold the Torah and read from the Torah. Hundreds of thousands of women and young girls embrace our Torah scrolls while their prayers reverberate in our synagogues. We pray without disturbance in many lands on every continent. Women’s prayers are seen as normal and accepted in many places around the world. Sadly, however, in Jerusalem, a woman can be verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, arrested, and treated as a criminal for wearing a tallit or holding a Torah scroll or reading from a Torah scroll at the Kotel and its surrounding areas.”

We reach beyond our denominational differences because we are committed to both upholding democratic principles in Israel and advocating for social change, even as we recognize the complexity of the burdens borne by two opposing groups: those whose understanding of Jewish law requires separate roles and prayer spaces for men and women, and those who whose practice of Judaism thrives as it encounters the progressive impact of female leaders invigorating Jewish spiritual life side by side with our male counterparts. At the heart of the conflict is an issue we should recognize when we consider our community at home – it is the conundrum of Jews believing that their understanding and practice is the only true and correct form of Judaism. When looking in the mirror, too many Jews see only a singular reflection of our own likeness, believing it to be the most authentic representation of the Jewish people. Convinced by our reflections, we often pay no heed to the radiant spectrum of light that enables our very likeness to appear so deceptively before us. Similarly, we refuse to accept the plurality of Jewish peoplehood that makes any particular adherence to Judaism even possible.

Since the launch of Rabbis for Women of the Wall on Oct. 18, we have garnered the support of nearly 500 rabbis and we are witnessing a growing number of organizations standing up for WOW and a constant stream of individuals signing on to demonstrate solidarity with the cause of obtaining religious liberty for all Jewish women at the Kotel. Within the first week, 650 letters were sent through the website of Women of the Wall (womenofthewall.org.il) to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem Chief of Police Nir Bakat, and others calling upon “the government of Israel, your leaders, your courts, and your rabbinic officials to open your hearts to the diversity of Judaism within your borders and around the world.”

The clash of Jewish cultures at the Kotel has been going on for decades with Women of the Wall on its frontlines since 1988. In 1979 Rabbi Pamela Frydman Baugh, one of the international co-chairs of Rabbis for WOW, then a rabbinical student, came to pray at the Kotel where a male teacher of hers passed his tefillin to her over the mechitza separating the men’s and women’s sections. While she was praying in tallit and tefillin, a group of haredi women surged upon her and questioned her. Within minutes, a Kotel guard sent soldiers to consult with Rabbi Yehuda Getz, then the administer of Holy Sites, to inquire about whether to take her into custody. Pressed to reveal the identity of her male collaborator, Frydman maintained her composure and kept his identity a secret, fearing reprisal. Only now, with the establishment of Rabbis for WOW, did that male colleague become ready to identify himself publicly. Rabbi Jonathan Omar-Man of Berkeley, Calif., was the person who lent her his tefillin.

This story is one example of the power of men and women’s partnership to urge on the advancement of the status of women in Jewish life. Just as haredi Judaism provides a path of authentic religious expression to those who follow it, so too do many other forms of Jewish belief and practice give deep Jewish meaning to thousands upon thousands of people all over the world. As Jews, we look toward Jerusalem with our prayers and aspirations together. And as we look eastward, so must we work toward the day when all Jews have the right to pray authentically at the Kotel without effacing our principles or practices of Judaism because we are truly recognized as legitimate, respected, and equal members of the Jewish people.

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