Let's begin with the positive.
First of all, Monday morning's Women of the Wall prayer service to welcome the new Hebrew month of Av, an occasion deep and rich with the painful associations of Jerusalem's historic and tragic destruction commemorated by Tisha B'Av, was very well-organized. A phalanx of buses with police and border patrol escort calmly left Liberty Bell Park on time, wound its way up Mount Zion and toward the Dung Gate, under heavy protection from the threatening protest of ultra-Orthodox Jews who find the idea of women asserting their equal spiritual rights to be, in their own words, "Nazism, Amalekitism, and Reform."
Second, the Women of the Wall's leaders had a few ground rules for the morning that were clearly articulated to each busload of the more than 350 women and men who joined together in the Old City: don't engage with the protestors and certainly don't argue with them; this is a prayer service not a political protest; and this is a women's service, not an egalitarian service. Men were instructed to stand separately and while they were free to pray, they were not holding the service--the women were.
All these guidelines comport quite well with the stated political goals of the group: to win free and equal access to observe Judaism freely at the Western Wall. I rode in the same bus as Anat Hoffman, director of IRAC, the Reform movement's social action arm, who often argues for the rights of Women of the Wall before the Israel Supreme Court. Anat has been claiming (and getting arrested for doing so) that the Western Wall belongs to the Jewish people, not the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authority that has been granted jurisdiction over this universally beloved religious site.
After a recent Rosh Hodesh service, Anat was arrested; and in a humiliating and misogynistic move, was strip-searched by the Jerusalem police for the "crime"of a woman reading from the Torah. Which is to say, since I, a man, can technically read from Torah at the Kotel and she can not, this is *her* movement, not mine, and I was there, with the other men, to *support* the Women of the Wall in their strategy and goals.
Third, and perhaps most important, Women of the Wall tries to balance itself very carefully as an Israeli women's traditional prayer group with the overwhelming sympathy it gets from non-Orthodox and pluralistic Diaspora (mostly American) Jewish leadership. This is not an "egalitarian" or Reform-Conservative-Orthodox social protest movement. Women of the Wall built it that way and they get to say so. It's their movement and those are their rules. Respect.
But after seeing what I saw this morning, I'd say it's time to change the rules.
First, of the more than 350 people in attendance this morning, I'd say at least a third were men who prayed right alongside the women. While women led all aspects of the prayer, the power generated by a unified front of women and men together, sent a clear message that equality of gender is a reality that Judaism has been sustaining and regenerating for more for more than half a century. While there is not yet full equality (pay disparity in the Jewish professional workforce; leadership of major pulpits and Jewish organizational life; work-life balance) more can clearly be accomplished in alliances with one another rather than in a separate battle for equality. Similarly, one has to really ask the obvious question: Can a Reform rabbi lead an egalitarian Torah service at the Western Wall? Can a Conservative rabbi lead an egalitarian Torah service at the Western Wall? The answer is definitively no. And therefore it strikes me as a much stronger movement if in fact it were a movement for free and equal access to a Jewish religious site and that the alliance itself would be stronger and more diversified in this broader unity.
Second, while it was nice to have the police escort this morning--and protection from the kind of irrrational invective and hatred ("Nazis," "Amalekites," "Reforms," were the words tossed alongside eggs and chairs) there is something disturbingly passive and eerily post-Zionist about ceding autonomy for one's Jewish expression to another authority. Despite the fact that legal agreements in place guaranteeing Women of the Wall access to the Wall itself for its service, the police prevented Women of the Wall from approaching the holy site, claiming that "five to seven thousand young women were already blocking the way," and in an effort to "avoid violence" had decided to relegate the 350 equality seekers to a special area at the edge of the Plaza, near the bathrooms, penned in behind several hundred Haredi young men with whistles, spit and a rather pathetic, if venomous, hatred.
This is Zionism? Young Haredi men, living on government subsidies to study in yeshivas, refusing to serve in the Israeli army, benefiting from the protection of the Israeli army, heaping abuse on men and women who do serve in the Israeli army, protecting them, so that they can deny their fellow Jews' right to practice their Judaism. Our colleague Rabbi Sari Laufer of Rodeph Shalom in New York, six months pregnant, had a hard-boiled egg thrown at her, hitting her in the neck, and bringing up a painful welt the size of her hand. Others were sprayed with water, raw egg, and curses. According to Haaretz, two arrests were made.
But the fanatics controlled the battlefield. They had the Western Wall and while the police gave the appearance of protecting the Patriots for a Free and Equal Judaism, in point of fact, the status quo was protected: segregation, misogyny, and state-funded yeshiva draft dodgers ruled the day.
In our troubled and inward looking times, Hannah Senesh is best-known for her spiritual lullaby "Eli, Eli," a song of divine seeking, a calm poem to oneness with God and nature. I kept wishing for the patriot paratrooper Hannah Senesh to come back from the dead and knock out of a few those boys with a good Hungarian roundhouse, showing them what women are capable of: from giving birth to children to building a state, from picking up a gun to win its independence and fighting alongside men to defend it. Prayer is but one dimension of the many ways we men and women are both equal and unique.
Zionism, in its once radical inception, posited that the "Hope" was to be a "free people in our land." As disturbing as it was to see one's fellow Jews hurling hatred (and eggs!) at women who labor through pain to bring men (fertilized eggs, no less) into the world, it was equally disturbing to see a movement for religious equality accept the paternalistic condescension of protection from the State as all-knowing Father.
To my mind, Women of the Wall would do better to issue a rallying cry to world Jewry to show up en mass each month, in mixed prayer, by the thousands, and insist on doing so *at* the Western Wall. Every Birthright bus, every Federation mission, every Reform, Conservative and Orthodox summer camp trip, and every synagogue tour should make very clear to the Israeli government and to the Golden Goose of the Tourism Ministry that if men and women are not treated equally, "as free people in our land," then we choke off the dollars.
For Diaspora Jews who don't live here, it's the only leverage available. And its a failure of leadership to not hear this stated aloud and unequivocally: Zionism was meant to guarantee that the Jew needs no permission to be a Jew. Period.
For 25 years, Women of the Wall have valiantly led the fight for equal rights at Judaism's holiest site. It's now time to evolve, expand the mission, and claim our right to be free in our land. The goals for equality of access and worship will be more expediently achieved in a unified, pluralistic movement for shared rights of Judaism's sacred traditions in Judaism's holiest city.
The voices of our mothers demand it. And after all, shouldn't nice Jewish boys listen to their mothers?
Andy Bachman is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.
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