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.
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.”
Photos by Miriam Alste