“What you’re doing is a sin! If you read the Torah here, God will never forgive you!” The woman’s soft European accent contrasted with the stridency of her tone as she leaned closer to us and added, “When you stand before God eventually and seek forgiveness for your deeds on earth, He will not grant it. Do you understand what I am saying? He will not forgive you!”
I asked her, with a trace of humor, “Are you God, then?”
“Yes!” she shot back, carried away by her own momentum. Catching herself, she tried to amend her answer, but I turned away, not knowing whether to giggle or sigh. I had heard enough.
Jewish tradition speaks of a merciful, compassionate God Who is close to us all our lives and especially near in time of trouble. Yet as the woman in the dark snood continued her warnings of terrible divine punishment I sadly realized that she was describing God as no better than the most vindictive of human beings. And as she and the others continued to shout at us, I also reflected that people who would ordinarily never dream of indulging in bad behavior find it all too easy to do so where women—particularly women who do not stay in their place—are concerned.
My prayer group, Women of the Wall, has been holding women-only prayer services in the women’s section of the Western Wall every Rosh Hodeshthe start of the Hebrew monthsince December 1988. Contrary to an oft-cited misconception, we are not members of the Reform movement. (I confess that charge has always stumped me. Why on earth would the Reform movement, which holds mixed prayer services as a matter of course, need to promote women-only ones?) Nor do we pray as a minyan (a quorum of ten men). We define ourselves as a women’s tefilla [prayer] group, of which there are dozens in Israel and throughout the world, and modify our prayer service accordingly. (A number of such groups have rabbinical support and meet in established Orthodox synagogues.) Contrary to what our opponents would like to believe, the majority of our core members are religiously observantin fact, the group was founded in large part by an Orthodox woman from Brooklyn.
In 2004, Women of the Wall held two prayer services that included a Torah reading in the women’s section of the Western Wall. In contrast to the group’s tumultuous beginnings, these services were completely calm and peaceful. I remember how some of us wept with joy, feeling that our long journey was finally over, that after nearly fifteen years of struggle women could finally pray as a group and read the Torah freely and without disturbance at our holiest accessible site. But at the end of our service a womana respected teacher in her communityapproached us to express her pain and sorrow over our Torah reading. I felt confused. How could a person who considered herself religious feel pain over Jewish women reading from the Torah? And what, I wondered, did this teacher feel about the pain of women who, for centuries, had been denied the opportunity to learn their own scriptures?
Yet, saddened as I was by her attitude, I had to admit that at least this woman had behaved with civility and courtesy. Many others who have disagreed with us over the years do not feel bound by manners at all, to say nothing of the very religious law and tradition they claim to champion.
In June 2004, as we arrived at the women’s section of the Western Wall to begin the morning service, a long-time opponent of our group approached us. Carrying printed sheets of text in her hand, she tried to persuade us to study the laws of minhag ma-makom [local custom] with her instead of worshipping. When we refused she tried to steal our Torah scroll, which was a gift to us from Jewish women abroad.
In December 1988, opponents of Women of the Wall physically threw the Torah scroll the women had brought with them. A member of the group who was pregnant at the time caught the scroll on her abdomen rather than allow it to be desecrated by falling. Perhaps our opponents believed that a Torah scroll in women’s possession is not truly a Torah scroll and therefore unworthy of the great respect normally accorded such a sacred object. Perhaps this opponent of ours held a similar opinion regarding the theft she was attempting to commit.
If our opponent’s respect for the Torah scroll was lacking, so was her respect for her fellow human beings. As we defended our Torah scroll, she kept shoving one of our members, who was carrying her infant son, even as the young mother begged her to stop for the baby’s sake. Our opponent, who surely regards herself as a devoutly religious woman, ignored the pleas of my colleague, who finally sent the baby away with one of her older children for his own safety.
This woman then began to incite other women present at the Wall, who bombarded us with shouts and taunts. One woman tapped her hand to her lips over and over, hooting in the same way that my classmates and I used to imitate “Indians” when we were small. At one point a red-bearded man stood on a chair in front of usin the women’s section!and worked himself up into an inarticulate, hysterical harangue that went on for several minutes. Meanwhile, our opponent retired to a protected spotaway from the rioters she had incited as well as any police who might arrest themto survey her handiwork from a distance.
We realized right away that the disturbance was a calculated move on our opponent’s part or on the part of whoever had sent her. A governmental delay in carrying out a ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice had temporarily enabled our group to read from a Torah scroll legally in the women’s section of the Western Wall. The two peaceful Torah readings we subsequently held there must have worried our opponent, or those who had sent her, so much that she came all the way from the coastal city where she livesapproximately two hours from Jerusalem by carto create a disturbance rather than allow us to hold a third one.
As we continued to pray, one of the rioting women slapped one of our members across the face. Another threw a stone. As they shouted and chanted childish slogans, at one point dragging chairs along the ground to drown out the sound of our praying (did they think they would be able to keep God from hearing us?), I couldn’t help imagining a classroom full of unruly first-graders. Apparently the women our opponent incited have no tools beyond that level to deal with ideas different from their ownand besides, the looks on their faces showed how much they were enjoying letting their hair down, so to speak.
It was probably the most fun they’d had in years.
* * * *
But what really confused me was the columnist’s description of how members of Women of the Wall supposedly stood behind the fence at the rear of the men’s section and shouted the morning prayers at the top of their lungs, with the specific intention of disturbing the men. I was there that day, and we did no such thing. Unlike our opponents, we respect all worshippers at the Western Wall, and we would never engage in such atrocious behavior. Why would the columnist write such a thing, then?
I would like to believe that he thought he was telling the truth, that perhaps he encountered a particularly ill-mannered group that day and chose to believe, based on his own prejudices and failure to check his facts, that it was Women of the Wall. Though I would rather believe that than the alternativethat he slandered us for his own purposesI have difficulty doing so.
Here’s why. Several years ago this columnist founded a group to oppose Women of the Wall. This group sponsored a short film supposedly showing how dangerous our group is to Jewish tradition. I watched this film and was shocked at the lengths to which it went to portray us negatively. At one point it focused on a woman with an unusual hairstyle whom I have never seen with our group. The intended message was, plainly, “Look at the kind of freaks this group attracts. Do you want weirdos like this praying next to you at the Kotel?” At another point the film used misleading editing to give the impression that members of our group wear tefillin at the Western Wall. (The film’s intended audience cannot abide the idea of women wearing tefillin anywhere, and they would certainly be infuriated to see women wearing them at the Western Wall.) Yet we have never worn tefillin there as a group; when we meet at the Western Wall for prayers, those of us who have taken on the mitzvah of tefillin fulfill it elsewhere. But the film did not see fit to make this distinction. It had an agenda to promote, so the facts didn’t matter.
More recently, another opponent of our group wrote a predictably scurrilous attack on us, but from a new angle. Since high-level Jewish study is now available to women (and halakhic sources are readily available on the Internet), these days our opponents are more cautious about asserting that what we do is a violation of Jewish law. Now they say that although our actions may be technically permitted, our motives are impure. This article went even farther, asserting that our group is, knowingly or not, an arm of various movements inimical to traditional Judaism and that the sincere Jews in our group are being manipulated by sinister anti-Jewish forces.
(Well, at least the author admitted that members of Women of the Wall can be sincere Jews. That’s a first.)
As a friend of mine once observed wryly: “If you don’t have facts, there’s always innuendo.” To which I would add: If you don’t have facts, you can always make some up to suit your purpose. As far as I know, none of these columnists has ever bothered to contact a single one of us, yet they claim to have intimate knowledge of our motives. So where are they getting their information from?
* * * *
During our service I rejoiced in the quiet around us, unbroken by any disturbance. Then I noticed a woman regarding us with a sour expression. She listened as one of our members gave a talk on the weekly Torah portion and then approached another member, muttering, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“You can speak here too if you have something pertinent to say,” my colleague offered. “Just bear in mind that everything this woman is saying has a basis in Jewish sources.”
“That doesn’t matter,” the woman said. “I don’t like it.”
And there it is. It doesn’t matter that Jewish law allows women to pray as a group and read from a Torah scroll. It makes no difference that the learned ones among usand in dozens of women’s tefilla groups throughout the worldcan cite chapter and verse to prove it. Some people would simply rather not be bothered with the facts. They don’t like what we’re doing; it makes them feel uncomfortableand so they believe that this gives them the right to behave in ways that would earn them censure and perhaps even arrest under almost any other circumstances.
I don’t like it. My grandmother never felt the need to do that. (Oh, really? Did you ever ask her? I think you might be surprised.) It’s unfamiliar to me. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Therefore I may steal, shove, shout, slap, stone and slander. Love my neighbor? Judge my fellow human being favorably? Tell the truth? Pursue justice? Only when I agree with you; not otherwise.
This is the attitude of people who claim to be defending Jewish tradition.
It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.