Thursday, April 15, 2010

Women of the Wall

Today, for the second time, I proudly prayed with Women of the Wall, from behind a mechitza (a semi-transparent wall that separates men and women in Orthodox synagogues).

Women of the Wall pray at the Kotel (Western Wall), the holiest accessible prayer site for Jews once a month on Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the new month, and one of the most joyous non-Shabbat/holiday services. These women wear traditional Jewish ritual items, such as a tallit (prayer shawl with specially tied fringes). Over the past few decades, they have been harassed, taunted, arrested, interrogated, and sued, all only for peaceably assembling and expressing their religion. Recently, larger and larger groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews have gathered to attempt to disrupt their prayer.

(The other time I was there was a few weeks ago during one of the intermediate days of the holiday of Passover, and since it was a one-off meeting, no one seemed to notice what was going on or bother to protest. This is a case-in-point that the actual prayer is almost completely non disruptive and therefore not actually a threat to anyone.)

The space in front of the Kotel is organized with adjacent men's and women's sections with a mechitza between the sections perpendicular to the Kotel itself, and a mechitza parallel to the Kotel at the back of each section. I was with about a dozen men behind the mechitza at the back of the women's section, as close as possible to the about 70 women in front of the mechitza at the back of the women's section. There were also a handful of men across the mechitza in the men's section.

Today, there were multiple police officers on the outside of both mechitzot, near where each group of men stood. This police officers did their job perfectly, turning away any men attempting to harass the women, such as by throwing chairs (which happened one month ago).

At one point, one ultra-Orthodox older man on the men's section began screaming at a police office, about how they did not respect Jewish law and tradition. A younger ultra-Orthodox man came over and persuaded him to stop yelling, asking him to come with them toward a larger group. It was then that I noticed what was happening on the men's side. Before this point there was the general commotion of a weekday morning with Torah reading at the Kotel (generally Mondays and Thursdays) which normally includes Bar Mitzvahs of both Israelis and those that come from abroad. But at this point, something different was happening.

In our morning service, we were up to Hallel. This is special part of services added on the happiest days of the year: on holidays (Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot, Chanukah) and on Rosh Hodesh. It consists of the most jubilant parts of the book of Psalms. As we began this, the ultra-Orthodox men (there were probably now more than 50 of them) began also reciting from the book of Pslams. They however, were not singing Hallel. There were wailing the saddest parts of the book, normally reserved for times of intense mourning and hardship. It was as if they were begging God to forgive them for being near this spectacle.

As they began to sing louder, so did we. I could hear the women singing in front of me, and joined them as loudly as I could. I've never been that afraid while praying before. I kept saying to myself, "Look forward toward the Kotel and keep praying. You are here to worship God on Rosh Hodesh. What you are doing is normal and regular, albeit in an exceptionally special place."

This incredible contrast, between the our joyous Pslams of Hallel and the ultra-Orthodox men's wailing Pslams of mourning, reminded me of the verse in Deuteronomy 30:19:

הַעִידֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ

"Today, before heaven and earth, my witnesses for you, I give you live and death, blessing and curse; choose life that you and your offspring will live."

Unlike the ultra-Orthodox men there this morning, we chose life. We chose to sing and praise God on 1st of the month in the way that our ancestors have for many generations. I have asked myself why I, as man, needed to be there today. My answer was simple: How could I not be there? How could I justify to my children and grandchildren that when women went to the Kotel to pray and were harassed I did not go in solidarity with them? How could I justify it to my God?

After the services at the Kotel, one of the older women approached me and said that today was the first time when she could hear male voices behind her singing along with them, and how wonderful that was. I thanked her, but said that the honor of being there with them was all mine.

1 comment:

Vardit said...

I'm so proud of you for doing this. Yishar koach and thank you for sharing!