Misogyny at the Wailing Wall

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Every month for the past 24 years, a group of Jewish women of many denominations meet at the Western Wall, a holy site in Jerusalem, to pray and worship together. They have been met with violent opposition, including tear-gassing, thrown chairs and brutal police arrests. These brave women call themselves The Women of the Wall, and through non-violent opposition are slowly gaining the right to equal religious participation.

The Wall is separated into two sections—a large one for men and a much smaller one for women. This segregation is due in part to Orthodox laws segregating gender in places of worship. There is, however, no Israeli law about women being given less space than men. The misogynistic Orthodox laws also disallowed women from wearing traditional prayer garb at the Wall, but the Women of the Wall brought a case about that to the Israeli Supreme Court and that prohibition was recently deemed unconstitutional.

I spoke with Shira Pruce, director of public relations for Women of the Wall, to get a better understanding of the organization and to see what they have planned for the future. She told me that Women of the Wall is a “pluralist group” with the goal of fighting for “the general right for everyone to be able to express themselves as they see fit according to their beliefs.”

She also explained that, according to some ultra-Orthodox interpretations of Jewish tradition, women are not allowed to wear prayer garments or read aloud from the Torah. This small minority of ultra-Orthodox Israelis has a huge effect on preventing women from worshiping freely, and has called the Women of the Wall subversive. According to Pruce:

There is something in our prayer that is subversive by nature because of the misogynistic nature of the ultra-Orthodox space that has been created at the Western Wall.

But the Women of the Wall are not trying to shock or impose their beliefs; they are simply trying to pray freely. Says Pruce,

It’s not an intentional protest, and I think that there are many things that women have done throughout the years that have been subversive: It was subversive at one point to go into the workforce or go get a divorce, but you weren’t doing it for protest, it just wasn’t in line with the social norms at the time. … This issue is not isolated to the Western Wall, but this is our issue now. We are so entrenched here in Israel in these gender roles and that I think that is the deepest challenge. We are still wading in the water for it, but we are making great strides.

In Israel, the gender roles are very traditional. …We are shattering those expectations as women, we are raising our voices, we are not afraid of police, we are wearing certain religious articles that are associated with men inside Israel and we are saying, This is not for men, this is for anyone who chooses to take on this tradition.

This May, women were granted the right to wear traditional prayer garb but they are still not allowed to read aloud from the Torah.

Here, a woman is being arrested for reading from the Torah, something men are doing freely only a few feet away.

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The legal struggles took 24 years to bring to the forefront of the consciousness of society but also to the courts. The legal struggles were certainly very difficult but interestingly enough and religiously speaking, you know, we are really not violating Jewish law, but this is also something that you need to work very long and very hard to convince people that we are really not violating orthodox Jewish law, but that also needs to be coming through as a clear message now.

A main critique of the Woman of the Wall is that they are disobeying the gender roles ascribed to them in Judaism (as interpreted by the ultra-orthodox).  Pruce debunks this by explaining: that

…[Israel] is a democracy; we should all have the right to free expression and this in Israel is guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence. Freedom of religion with no discrimination based on gender and this should be a guarantee and upheld at a public site just as much as it should be upheld at any a public site… with no regard to minority/ majority.

According to Ms. Pruce, “I would say that the greatest obstacle [for Women of the Wall] is the age-old obstacle of any feminist movement, and that is the socialized gender roles.”

I also asked her about what Americans can do for the organization:

And women abroad can be extreme influential, as I believe writing and speaking are the way to apply pressure to the Israeli government that they know that we are looking out.

Recently, Barbra Streisand joined the cause by mentioning the arrest of Women of the Wall while receiving an honorary doctorate at Hebrew University.

This was heard around the world, and I have no doubt that it applies pressure to the Prime Minister Netanyahu and all of his ministers to let them know that the women for the world are watching and waiting for 100% equality for women at the holiest site for Jews in Israel. For this public site, to be made free for women, inequality should not be made expectable anywhere, and certainly not inside of a democracy.

The Women of the Wall continue to face great opposition, but like Ms. Price stated, they “are making great strides.”

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Orthodox men shield their eyes from women praying and singing out loud

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A member of the Woman of the Wall prayer group wears tefillin

Photos by Miriam Alste

Comments

  1. Thanks for bringing this to light! Great piece!

  2. Cecilia Eaves-Walker says:

    Look at her arm, so swollen. Why. this is grievous. RE: A member of the Woman of the Wall prayer group wears tefillin

    • Her arm is not swollen. Tefillin straps are leather and are bound around and up the arm several times. She still has perfect freedom of movement. She’s fine. :)

    • Jennifer Read says:

      No, it’s not swollen. You wrap the straps tightly enough that your arm pokes out a bit, and you do have marks for part of the morning to remind you that you’ve been praying. But it’s no worse than yarn tightly wrapped around your hand when you’ve been winding it. In fact, I find my tefillin more moving and meaningful than my tallit, and I do not see how it is appropriate to wear the warm, fuzzy tallit without also accepting the uncomfortable tefillin.

    • It’s a wonderful spiritual practice, and yes it looks kinda odd and I am in agreement with Chaiya and I would add, she’s “splendiforous”.

  3. And they like to go on about Islamic misogyny! What are these men, like all the assholes they rightfully but hypocritically condemn in Islamic countries, afraid of? To these women, I say you are braver than I am. Never back down!

  4. They’re also praying with uncovered hair, uncovered arms, and while wearing red–I know it sounds draconian and perhaps it is, but those are also big, big reasons that Orthodox men would be affronted by them–not simply their woman-ness. Saying this as a super-progressive, secular American Jew and a radical feminist who lived with an Orthodox community for a year (and so happens to know more about Orthodox culture than the average American), so please don’t get too mad at me for pointing these additional pieces of info out.

    • About praying with uncovered arms… you can’t really wear tefillin without uncovering your arm. In fact, you MUST uncover your arm to wrap tefillin. Men do the same. And about the uncovered heads… Jews are encouraged to pray ‘according to their custom.’ For some women, this may not include a kippa. That doesn’t make their prayer any less sincere. I have NEVER heard anybody criticised for the colour of their clothing while at prayer, though… REALLY?!

    • Davida Chazan says:

      With all due respect, what the women do on the women’s side is none of the men’s business. If they kept to their prayers and stopped looking over to the women’s side to see how they’re dressed, and how they’re praying, there would be no problem. The separation is high enough to keep them from seeing anything (unless they stand on chairs) and if you’ve ever been to the wall when the WotW are there, you’d know that you can’t hear the women over on the men’s side unless you stand up and lean over and make an effort to listen to them.

    • The ultra-Orthodox gave up many years ago trying to get secular women even to cover their shoulders at the Kotel, much less cover their hair or avoid red. If they harassed every female who broke those rules, there would be a huge backlash, and they know it. The men with their hats over their faces have the right idea – if the sights or sounds of these women offends them, it is their own responsibility not to look or listen. And that goes for all of us: tolerance does not require a smile, it requires self-restraint.

  5. Women should leave the Abrahamic faiths altogether. Hinduism and Buddhism aren’t all that women-friendly either. Unitarian Universalism or Wicca would be better ways for spiritual women to go.

    • This is a rather general statement. I have personally found great liberation through Buddhism. As a western liberal woman, I still have the sense to try and understand a person’s faith rather than desperately claiming they need to abandon it because it doesn’t agree with a certain lens of feminist ideal.

    • Liberal Judaism, the movement that these women are associated with, is a good choice for Jewish women who feel close to their tradition but do not accept dictations from the 13th century. Many Liberal Jewish men have come out to the wall to support these women, though they are not mentioned in this article. They are from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal Jewish communities.

  6. marjorie strom says:

    This piece centers on points of Israeli law guaranteeing freedom of religion. It misses an important aspect of Jewish law: women are not REQUIRED to pray wearing tefillin and tallit as men are. This does not mean they are not ALLOWED to do so. The Talmud excuses women from many time-bound commandments because the demands of motherhood and other traditionally female roles would make filling them onorous (praying at a particular time while nursing a hungry baby). But in no place is it written that they are prohibitted from doing so.

    Furthermore, Halacha states that the voice of a woman is “naked” or “indecent.” The most extreme interpretation prohibits men from ever hearing a woman’s voice outside his immediate family – in a lecture, on the radio, etc. Less extreme interpretation prohibits men from hearing a woman singing, and the general Orthodox interpretation means that men praying should not hear a woman singing, because it will distract them from prayer. This most common interpretation is what has brought Orthodox women (including many members of WOW) to pray in all-female groups, so that they can sing aloud and pray aloud freely.

  7. This article is extremely well done; respectful and accurate. I’m really proud of this organization. They have succeeded in inspiring women across the world, and in bringing truth to light.
    The Jewish Orthodox world is complex and filled with myriad interpretations of Jewish law and practice. WOW is correct in stating that their methods of worship are in keeping with Torah observance. The insistence on stringencies that would keep women and women’s spirituality out of the public sphere reflect decisions that were made in a misogynistic era, and are not reflective of the genuine equality and models of female leadership inherent in the Torah. Israel is founded on the principles of democracy, and can be seen as a model of good in this world. WOW’s efforts, like water on the rock, are serving to bring the world into balance. To achieve rational feminism in the Middle East is no small feat, but if it can be accomplished anywhere, it makes sense that it will come to fruition in Israel.

  8. Aysha Besher says:

    Perhaps these women should realize that it’s their religion that’s misogynist.

  9. Israel cannot fully function as a democracy while the fascistic ultra-Orthodox hold sway in public life. The law must confine whatever restrictions the ultra-Orthodox want to practice to THEIR synagogues and THEIR homes. They don’t own the Kotel (Wailing Wall) and their violent and verbally violent repression of women must not be tolerated, especially not by the Israeli authorities. I’m not religious, but I’m proud of the Women of the Wall for pursuing their goals and very pleased that you published this article to raise awareness of the issues.

  10. Thanks for posting this article. A Diaspora Jew, and a Conservative Jew to boot, I have been at the Kotel and prayed with Women of the Wall at Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the new month). I was shocked and sickened by the vitriol and naked hatred exhibited towards us by men on the other side of the mechitza (the dividing wall between the men’s and women’s sides of the plaza) – if they concentrated more on their own prayer and less on mine, they might find themselves having a holier experience. I have no wish to tell any other Jew how to pray and simply wish to be able to pray, myself, as feels most authentic to me. In my case, that’s wearing a tallis (prayer shawl) and kippa (head covering). I don’t use tefillin as an aid to prayer – but that’s not to say that I will never use it. I might.

    The point here is that we (for I number myself solidly alongside Women of the Wall) want nothing more than to be able to pray at the holiest site in Jewish belief. And that happens to be the Kotel. If you were to Google pictures of women in prayer at the Western Wall, you would find pictures from the turn of the 20th century, where there is NO mechitza. This is not an age-old tradition there. It continues to astound me that barely 10% of Israel’s ENTIRE population can make decisions that affect EVERY SINGLE JEW – I suspect that part of this is that Israel-born Jews grew up for the most part Orthodox and see as the norm that men and women are separate in prayer COMBINED with the fact that Israel is in general more and more secular. Many of my Israeli friends, raised Orthodox, are observant only at holidays and wonder at me, that I should be so concerned about whether or not I can pray as I wish at the wall. “Why don’t you just leave it alone?” they ask me. “You know it only upsets them.” Sigh.

  11. heartbroken says:

    I am extremely disheartened by the Anti- Religious nature of this piece. There are hundreds of thousands of woman worldwide who come to pray at the Kotel peacefully and respectfully each year. WoW, a group of 250, intent is to dismantle their belief system and create their own. I am the belief that they are the ones bullying and systematically discrediting the intelligence of these woman. Shira Pruce is a proffessional PR representative whose sole intent is to denigrate religious women and men to promote her cause. WoW was offered numerous compromises but they disagree as they feel their way is the only way. Please do the research before forming any judgements.

  12. I am a man, but I grew up reading Ms. magazine, especially because my mother experienced repeated gender discrimination and is now a leader in her field, thanks to all that women have accomplished.

    With that said, this article has it all wrong.

    The “Women Of the Wall” are not simply coming to the Western Wall to pray, as they claim for PR purposes. As their leaders have written, they intend to change the Orthodox. There is actually another section of the Western Wall, with all of the same holiness, which is available for any other sorts of services a person might wish to conduct, including mixed.

    The traditional Plaza is exactly that: traditional. Just like the Vatican or Westminster Abbey, it is expected to be used for prayer in accordance with the traditions of the place, and not political protest. The “Women Of the Wall” are a unique phenomenon in Judaism: a group of people who categorically refuse to let other people pray in peace in accordance with their own traditions, in a place set aside for that purpose.

    That’s not feminism, because it antagonizes the overwhelming majority of women praying in that place. And given what WOW says about those women, the misogyny is all their own!

    • Sometimes big change needs to happen and sometimes one “hero” need to be taken down (orbetter yet, humbled) so that change will happen (I’m thinking of Samson and King David at the moment). And sometimes, people have insight into what’s-a-comin’. It’s all over the Torah, it’s our Tradition. But this is not what WoW is about.

      WoW is not interested in changing the Orthodox. They are interesting in changing the way things are managed BY the Orthodox and having the Torah-God-Given freedom to pray in earnest.

  13. I’m not a big fan of fundamentalists of any stripe. The Women of the Wall are no less Jewish than the black hatters, who are no less Jewish than the Women of the Wall – but I tend to side with the people who do not impose their views on others. There’s plenty of room at the Wall for all Jews who wish to pray there, and if you’re praying, you should be paying attention to the Almighty and not to others who might be praying a little differently than you.

    More power to ‘em, I say.

    On a separate note, the term used by Jews for the Wall is the Western Wall, or the Kotel ha-Ma’aravi. The term “Wailing Wall” is an old Arabic term.

  14. Just a few points: You wrote that the prohibition of women praying at the Wall in traditionally male attire (tallit and tefillin) was unconstitutional. Israel doesn’t have a constitution; that is a purely American concept used here as a sort of editorial comment. The fact that the men’s section is bigger than the women’s is not only because of misogyny, but rather because according to Jewish Law men are required to pray 3 times a day in a quorum, women are not required to do so, therefore there are FAR more men at the wall on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis than there are women. Last, this article makes it sound as if women are not allowed to pray as they like anywhere at all. This is absolutely not true. There are many congregation throughout the State of Israel where women can wear what they like, pray as they want, do whatever they want. It is only at the Wall, yes a public place, but also a holy place, that women are required to follow traditional Jewish practices. I can understand that this might be difficult for some women, and I understand that there is room for change, but please, if you are writing an article, really you should keep to the facts.

  15. Every woman has the right as a human being to choose the method and expression of her faith. People don’t choose religions to follow because it looks like it might be more accommodating. Though some do, most choose it out of comfort, it is the religion they identify with because of family history or connection, because of traditions, because of culture, or even god forbid because of a deep and abiding spiritual connection with that particular expression. It’s like falling in love, either you feel it or you dont. It doesn’t matter which one you choose every religion has the ability to be accommodating to women, and women can make that happen. There is nothing more beautiful than a woman worshipping her god without intermediaries regardless of the god she chooses for herself. Thanks for the article, it’s great to see religion being shown as a legitimate part of the feminist experience.

  16. Sherron & Roy Lazarus says:

    Thank you for keeping us informed!

  17. Why would a woman wear Tfilim? Why would a woman wear Kipah or Tzitzit?

    So basically, these women make up their own religion and come to “practice” at a Jewish holy place, and are shocked that their behavior is not accepted there. Well duh!

    These women are NOT brave. They are enticing violence and give Israel a bad name. We don’t need that.
    You want to make up your own religion – do it in your own home, or in the park, or on the beach. Not in a place that’s holy to people whose religion and practices you don’t respect.

  18. Charles Huckelbury says:

    The mystery is why the women–any women–would want to pray to a god whose putative word institutionalized the misogyny in the first.

  19. dissapointed says:

    These types of articles are extremely dangerous as they bring disunity to the Jewish people. Jewish men and women are allowed to pray at the Kotel any time they please. Media and PR representatives that WoW bring to their prayer service are not

  20. Rasha Mekhail says:

    “…For the LORD has created a new thing in the earth – A woman shall encompass a man.” (Jeremiah 31:22)

    Thank you this great article. I want to express my support for the Women prayer group at the Western Wall. I believe they will trigger the coming of our Messiah. Can you direct me to a email address I can reach them at. We can all use their help as they offer our prayers on behalf of us. Thank you,

    Rasha Ayad Mekhail

  21. Cheryl Birkner Mack says:

    WoW is a pluralistic group which includes Orthodox members as well as representatives of all Jewish denominations. To the question of tallit and tefilin for women: Those who chose to observe these commandments do so for a variety of reasons, among them the desire to connect to their Creator and to remember the commandments. There is no prohibition, only an exemption which may and has been refused by some. To the question of women covering their heads, in almost every understanding of Jewish law this applies only to married women. I can’t say how many women in the photograph are married, but it does appear that the majority have some head covering. There is no religious law regarding the color of any garment. The tefillin must be black. To those question WoW’s identification with a misogynist religion. We believe that our opponents demand is a gross distortion of what Judaism is.
    Cheryl Birkner Mack
    board member Women of the Wall

  22. I take issue that this piece represents orthodox laws as ‘misogynistic’ and demeaning to women. As a proud, liberal-leaning orthodox Jewish woman, I am offended that no one felt that our side was important to hear as well. There is a group, women FOR the wall, that is working to build bridges and unite both sides in a way that respects tradition without compromising religious Jewish values.

    Before a piece like this is written, please do thorough research and talk to both sides.

  23. Read the Torah, how many times did the women save the “heroes” of the bible. How many times Adonai answered the women’s prayers? I think that these women are beautiful and precious in the sight of the almighty because they have a zeal that man don’t have.
    If man have a problem with the women being there it is because the men have wicked minds.
    Instead of trying to stop them, women should be encouraged to go to the wall and pray and intercede for Israel and their loved ones. Forget stupid tradition that is not Biblical.

  24. Many of the praying women work and pay tax which supports many of the praying men (and their families) who do not work and do not pay tax. Interesting…..

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