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Vanessa L. Ochs

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For the Sin I Have Committed Before You by Praying as a Jew at the Western Wall

Posted: 09/07/2012 1:47 pm

The new moon of the month of Av this past July was my first time praying in Jerusalem with the Women of the Wall. It was a quiet time, compared to the month before, when two women were detained for wearing prayer shawls. Then, on the New Moon of Elul (Aug. 19) four women were arrested for the crime of wearing prayer shawls that the police, acting as arbiters of fashion, decided were too manly. The Women of the Wall accompanied them to the police station, where they prayed in solidarity with the four held inside for hours.

While I have been a supporter and organizer for Women of the Wall since its inception, I am not drawn to pray at the Wall. There is the matter of the Wall being a giant outdoor gender-segregated right-wing Orthodox synagogue. There is the status of the place. Is it a holy site or the major attraction of a Holy Land theme park? There was the distraction dodge endless request for alms.

Still, I have cast my fate with Women of the Wall for a simple reason: I believe Jewish women have the same rights as Jewish men to pray at Israel's holy sites.

I took my students in the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel to demonstrate that Jews who live outside of Israel can help the young nation with wisdom we have gleaned about democracy, equal rights and feminism. The students could decide if they supported the goals of Women of the Wall: to pray aloud as a group, wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah.

My colleagues asked about security. I explained that police are there to keep the women safe by keeping an eye on those who choose to cry out hatefully as the women pray. Acting as religious arbiters, the police also decide if and when the women will be harassed and arrested. They decide what kinds of prayer shawls are permitted or forbidden, and they decide whom they will tell to wrap her prayer shawl around her neck as a muffler.

Our group assembled in the very back of the women's section of the Wall. The prayer leader, wearing a traditional tallit, was nestled tightly into the middle of the group. I saw that all women wearing untraditional tallitot as shawls drew no attention form the police. The psalms of Hallel were sung exuberantly, and I was surprised that the police did not hear this as a transgression. Eventually, when the police spotted one of the women wearing a tallit with blue stripes, they mimed tying it in a knot around the neck, saying this would be their last warning. Seeing their strangling gesture, she complied. All the time, a police officer was videotaping us; I could hardly stop thinking about the kind of constant surveillance Foucault has written about, in which the power of the state, through a constant gaze, disciplines the bodies of its citizens.

We processed to Robinson's arch all along singing, a sad parade of exile. I thought of the ancient Rabbi Yochannan Ben Zakkai, who sustained Jewish learning after the destruction of the Temple when his students carried him in a casket outside of Jerusalem. We were joined by the men of our group who had stood behind or had stationed themselves just over the mechitza (divider between men and women). They reported that the police had dealt with the man who shouted out that the Women of the Wall were worse than the Amalakite enemy, and with the men who claimed that it was the rabbi of the Wall who had instructed them to curse the women.

One of the women just arrested was wearing the white -- that is, untraditional -- tallit she wore in her home synagogue for daily prayer; the arrest blindsided her. She and the others were charged with "Disturbing the public peace according to regulation 201 A4 of the Israeli legal code, the punishment for which is six months in prison, and the violation of regulation 287A by performing a religious act that 'offends the feelings of others.'" The punishment for the second crime is up to two years in prison.

When I first became involved with Women of the Wall, I had wondered if my daughters could celebrate their bat mitzvahs at the Wall. That was not possible. I have a granddaughter now; will it be legal for her to pray and read Torah at the Wall when she comes of age? I can be optimistic about that possibility if young people take up the cause.

On the Facebook page of Women of the Wall, someone new to the groups' decades-long perseverance asked if "this" -- the criminalization of women who pray as Jews do -- has been contested. Yes. it has been contested since the late 1980s when Women first came together with a Torah scroll to pray there.

One of my students, Sophie, wrote me after the arrests: "I was planning to write a piece for my blog on my experience in Israel encountering sexism/women's rights activism, and really want to include something about these arrests in my article. I think it is really important for people to know about and I want to spread the word in any way I can." Her words were heartening.

For a long version of this blog, see link.

 
 
 
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