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Trouble for Women of the Wall

February 16, 2010

Image via Jezebel

Women of the Wall is a group of Jewish women who meet at the Western Wall the start of each Hebrew month to pray and read from the Torah. WOW’s actions are a direct protest against a law barring women from praying out loud at the Wall. The controversial actions of these women have resulted in confrontations in the past, and yesterday, at the group’s monthly gathering, Haredi men and women harassed the participants by calling them Nazis.

From The Jerusalem Post:

The group arrived at the site around 7 on Monday morning to take part in Rosh Chodesh celebrations for the new Jewish month of Adar. After about 30 minutes, however, worshipers on the men’s side of the Western Wall’s prayer section began verbally attacking group members, objecting to their singing and their wearing of tallitot prayer shawls, a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall (WOW) told The Jerusalem Post.

“All of a sudden this group of men got really riled up and started yelling ‘Nazis!’ and so on,” said WOW’s Public Relations Coordinator Michelle Handelman, who was at the Western Wall when the ruckus began.

“The police, who were standing by to protect WOW members, moved in and blocked off the area. However, a group of some 10 haredi women then moved in and began antagonizing the group as well,” said Handelman.

WOW regularly encounters this degree of opposition. Most recently, in November 2009, Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl at the Wall.  Though Israeli law does prohibit women from wearing the garment at the Wall, the action in no way violates religious law:

Jewish religious law is open to interpretation. The Women of the Wall argue that even according to some Orthodox opinions, they are doing nothing wrong.

“Women are exempt from carrying out certain commandments, but not forbidden,” said Ms. Frenkel, who kept her prayer shawl hidden beneath her jacket by the Kotel this time around.

But the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, said “there is no value to prayer that creates controversy and offends other female worshipers” at the site.

What is particularly intriguing about WOW, to me, is that the women involved do not view their actions as a form of activism. Instead, they view their behavior as exercising their basic human rights. As WOW organizer Anat Hoffman wrote last month:

If I wanted to mount a provocation at the Wall, I certainly wouldn’t do so by inviting a group of modestly dressed women — most of them devoted Orthodox Jews — to show up early in the morning to pray in a manner entirely consistent with Halacha. That some are provoked does not make us provocative. We have been waking up early to pray every Rosh Hodesh for the past 21 years — this is no fad, no political act. It is done for the sake of prayer.

While I wish I could write that yesterday’s verbal attack and November’s arrest are isolated incidents, there is no indication that the discrimination faced by WOW will change or diminish any time soon. Despite the setbacks, however, I am relieved that WOW’s participants show no signs of giving up. Social change can be a slow process, but it is always possible. The monthly presence of these women at this holy site is proof that religious women do care about inclusion and equality and that they are willing to defend their equality no matter how strong the opposition. Even though the women involved do not necessarily view their actions as radical or political, the fact that they break the law for the sake of prayer on a regular basis is powerful feminist act in its own right. Little has changed in the two decades that WOW has existed, but the group’s persistence and continued presence is a beacon of hope for Jewish feminists everywhere.

For more on Women of the Wall, check out What Women (of the Wall) Want at from the rib?

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