A heavy snowfall was predicted in Jerusalem on the morning of Friday, February 20, 2015, Rosh Hodesh Adar, but after 27 years of maintaining a continuous presence at the Kotel, some snow and ice would not deter the Women of the Wall from reaching the Western Wall by 7 a.m., to pray during the festive morning service.
Women of the Wall is a group of religious women from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements. We first came together in 1988 to fight for the right of women to pray out loud, read from a Torah scroll and wear tallit and tefillin at the Western Wall, free from the threat of arrest and intimidation.
In 2015, I was responsible for organizing the Women of the Wall’s monthly service. In anticipation of the snowfall that would bring the city to a standstill (as 15 cm of snow invariably does in the Middle East), I slept over at a friend’s house, which was within walking distance of Jerusalem’s Old City. That morning, about 30 of us trudged from all areas of Jerusalem through the snow-blocked streets, over the snow drifts on Mt. Zion, to the Kotel.
When we arrived, the sight was breathtaking. The plaza was almost empty. In fact, we had the women’s section all to ourselves. Although most of us didn’t have the right boots and clothing for the weather, it was a beautiful service.
As a Canadian who’s now living in Israel, I was struck by the arrogance of Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau’s remarks about the Women of the Wall, during an interview with The CJN. Remembering that snowy Rosh Hodesh experience, I needed to respond.
Rabbi Lau makes some disturbing claims. First, he says that the Women of the Wall are not the “real” women of the wall, who are there every day and every night, regardless of the weather.
I cannot think of a more disunifying message than that. The Kotel doesn’t belong to
any one sect of Judaism and ownership of it isn’t dependent on how often one frequents the holy site, or the manner in which she prays.
Secondly, the rabbi says that, “When I go to a mosque, I take off my shoes and follow the customs of the place.” Well, I have news for the Rabbi: The Western Wall is not a mosque, nor it his private synagogue. The Western Wall is a public holy site, and the “customs of the place” are manifold, including group prayer and Torah reading performed by both men and women! This law was upheld by an Israeli court in 2013, in a ruling confirming that women’s prayer groups are part of the “custom of the place” at the Kotel.
Thirdly, Rabbi Lau claims that the Women of the Wall “make a very big hoopla with speakers” at the Kotel. As Canadians, we care deeply about pluralism and free speech. So when the chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Israel claims that the Women of the Wall disturb other worshippers, that’s a very serious accusation.
The truth is that our service is joyous but respectful – and we certainly do not use speakers to amplify our voices. And the Kotel is almost always full of men wearing prayer shawls and leading loud services close to the women’s section.
The disparaging remarks by Rabbi Lau about the Women of the Wall – saying that they are “presumptuous” and not “polite” because they refuse to be silenced in a way that’s never demanded of men – is, quite frankly, sexist.
Rabbi Lau should apologize, not only to the Women of the Wall, but to all Jewish women. Our voices, our prayers, our dances and our songs are just as legitimate at the Western Wall as the voices and prayers of men. The snow cannot hold us back, and neither will his exclusionary remarks.