Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Standing with the Women of the Wall

When I was growing up in a Conservative synagogue and day school on Long Island, it was still controversial for a woman to wear a tallit and tefilin. In USY back in my day, there was a subtle prejudice against egalitarianism--the serious Jews went to the "traditional" minyan. The synagogue that I grew up was torn apart when a faction demanded expanded rights for women. Adolescence was a confusing time for me, as I was an well-educated Conservative Jew, but my education was not equal. My brothers were taught to read Torah and lead services, and I was not. It didn't make sense that I was taught and encouraged to achieve in most every way, but my voice counted less in the context of formal prayers. My personal experience of Jewish practice gave me a real taste of what it means to be a feminist.

As the mother of three daughters, I believe very strongly in religious freedom and pluralism. All people should be able to practice the religion that they believe, without persecution. This is true here in the US, and it should also be true in Israel.

Yesterday in Israel, ten women, including two Conservative woman rabbis, were arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit. (Described here in the New York Times). I am well aware that women's religious freedom at the Kotel is an issue that resonates more strongly in the diaspora than it does in Israel. But then again, perhaps the the Kotel itself is more important to diaspora Jews than to Israelis. There is not a single journey to Israel that would omit that important destination. I have been there many times, and every single time I have felt alienated, because the Kotel is an Ultra-Orthodox synagogue. It doesn't feel like home, to me.

Next Rosh Hodesh, Tuesday March 12th, there will be a public egalitarian shacharit minyan here in NYC to show solidarity and support for the Women of the Wall. Time and location TBD (please get in touch with me for details). I pray for a day when Jews worldwide will respect one another for their commonalities, rather than shun one another for their differences.

See below for a message from organizer Rabbi Iris Richman:
It is customary, each day and especially as we welcome each new month - that people gather to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  The beginning of this month of Adar, in which Purim falls and joy is traditionally the greatest - be happy, it's Adar! - is celebrated yesterday and today.  Notable among groups who specifically come to celebrate at the Kotel is Nashot haKotel - Women of the Wall.  It is a group of women who have the idea that they should be free to engage in Jewish worship at the Kotel, including wearing tallit and tefillin. There is a "separate but equal" area of the Kotel where women are "supposed" to gather - not at the main western area with the wide plaza, but around the corner and down some stairs, at the Southern side, called Robinson's Arch.  That is the same "separate but equal" area where Conservative groups of both genders are also supposed to worship, so as not to disturb the sensibilities of the Orthodox Jews at the main area of the Kotel, since the government of Israel, in concert with Israel's rabbinic establishment, have designated the Kotel, liberated by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967, as an "Orthodox prayer site".   
And of course, I use the words "separate but equal" advisedly. In 1898 the US Supreme Court decided in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation, characterized by the court as "separate but equal", should be the law of the land in the US.  It was not until that court reversed itself and decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, that our government even began to acknowledge that segregation should not be the policy of our country. 
Unfortunately, this has not yet happened in israel. With increasing regularity, women who gather to pray at the Kotel to welcome Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the month, have begun to wear a tallit, as many of us do - and take for granted - in defiance of the Israeli law that prohibits them from doing so, because they are women.  Over the last few months a few women have been arrested for doing so.  Some Israeli women, a Reform rabbi.  Yesterday, it hit much closer to home when two Conservative woman rabbis, including one whose congregation is in Queens, R. Robin Fryer Bodzin, together with R. Debra Cantor, were arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit. 
So what do we do as we stand, possibly, at the cusp of possible change? There is a possibility that the new government, for the first time in many years, may not include Haredim (the religious parties), which might allow for some changes in the way the government involves itself in excluding Conservative, Reform and even some Modern Orthodox rabbis, from Israeli religious life. 
I propose that we organize an egalitarian Rosh Hodesh outdoor prayer service here in NY, in celebration of our religious freedom in this country and as a statement of encouragement to those who do not yet enjoy that freedom, hopefully attended by many Jews.  As the new Israeli government forms, and we celebrate the next Rosh Hodesh on Tuesday March 12, welcoming the month of Nissan, biblically, our first month, and the month of our liberation from slavery, we shall not continue to remain silent. 
--R. Iris Richman

1 comment:

  1. Wanted to share some comments I've received in emails:

    "Amen -- ridiculousness -- would love to join you. Let me know the time & place & I'll do my best to be there. It is in these places that Israel feels so foreign to me..."

    "The basic problem is that the Kotel should not be a synagogue – it wasn’t until 67. Of course the issues are more than the Women at the wall. Conservative/Reform Judaism, clergy and institutions are treated as third class and the orthodox establishment controls all life cycle events – terrible – needs to change. Unfortunately this issue has little traction with Israelis – what I read is not on their radar. They have more important thing to worry about."


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