Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

'Women of the Wall' and Other Miracles

Twenty years ago last week, a unique Israeli revolution began. This was a revolt against a stubborn Jewish religious establishment that had denied basic religious rights to women. And last week, on the first day of the Jewish month of Adar, Israeli women celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of this uprising: in prayer, song, and disobedience to religious authority.

Last Wednesday, February 25, was the twentieth anniversary of the founding of “Women of the Wall”, an Israeli group dedicated to securing the rights of women to pray in loud and joyous voices at the Western Wall, the remnant of the Jerusalem Temple that Rome destroyed in 70 CE.

The Western Wall, prior to 1967, was a place of yearning and desire. Beginning from the time of Rome’s destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 CE, many Jews had viewed this ground as truly sacred. Even though this wall had been merely the retaining wall that surrounded the precinct of the Holy Jerusalem Temple at the time of Herod (circa 5 BCE), because it remained standing after the destruction, it fired the imagination of Jews who dreamed for two millennia of a return to being able to fulfill the sacrificial rites as dictated by God in Torah. Here is a photo of the Western Wall and its sacred plaza:

In the years since the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem, the Western Wall has become a place venerated by Jews of all kinds. However, early on in the Wall’s liberated history the Chief Rabbinate of Israel created a men’s and women’s side, which has led to the following dilemmas:

The Orthodox Rabbinate directed that men and women pray separately if they wish to approach the Wall; for Progressive Jews, this in itself was a painful situation. But a further consequence was to silence the voice of women in worship: To our Orthodox cousins, hearing women’s voices during a time of worship is understood as obscene or vulgar. Consequently, women are prohibited from praying aloud, singing, publicly reading from a Torah scroll, or otherwise engaging in public acts of worship in the Western Wall plaza.

Twenty years ago, Israeli women of different movements decided that enough had been enough, and they began to deal with this issue by worshiping together, and in loud voices. Over the years, women and men in this struggle have been detained or arrested for disturbing the peace; women have organized for regaining their civil rights; the “Women of the Wall” filed suit after suit in the High Court of Justice; and a special Tallit was designed and marketed for fundraising purposes. (I own one, as does my wife. Let me know if you wish to examine it.)

At this point in time, the Rabbinate has been the winner in the many court cases brought by the Women of the Wall, the last one declaring that the women should respect the decisions of the Orthodox Rabbinate. But their determination to wade through the court system and to wait out more positive results is strong, and they anticipate an eventual success.

I don’t believe that I, as a male, had ever experienced life on the ‘disallowed’ side of the mehitzah, the divider that institutions of Orthodox Jewry use to separate men from women during worship. Last week, however, the roles of male and female worshipers were reversed, as the men in our group stood behind a separation fence to witness the Women of the Wall engaged in disobedient prayer. Here is a photo of what my view was like on that day while trying to worship with the women at the Western Wall:

If you could look clearly through this divider and peer into the midst of serious worship, it would look like this:

This male worshiper was quite loud in his objections to the women singing. He tried to prevent the singing and stop the “atrocities” against God:

Here he is engaged with one of the males in our group who insisted that he lower his voice so that the women could worship:

The struggles for religious equality, as well as those struggles for Israeli societal equalities of minorities of all kinds, are at the heart of Israeli society today. As the nation strives toward a peaceful resolution with its Arab neighbors, it begins to turn inward and address its internal problems. The religious inequality of males and females, Orthodox and Progressive Jews, Israeli Jews and Arabs, will be those efforts that will occupy our people over the next fifty years. And I invite you to come to Temple Beth El next Friday, March 13, as I report on my recent trip to Israel and to describe some of the struggles that I witnessed during my visit.