Listen to the voices of our sisters

I returned from Israel during the week of Vayislach, when we read the story of Jacob’s famous nocturnal wrestling match and the painful story of Dina, his daughter. 

The midrash, in explaining why Jacob speaks of his 11 children when in fact he has 12, tells us that Jacob locked his daughter in a chest so Esau wouldn’t see her. “And for that, Jacob was punished. … For perhaps she would have led him back to the right way.” 

No surprise that this story has particular resonance after my trip to Israel to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall (WOW). In a profound way, WOW is a struggle against the invisibility and the silencing of women. For 25 years, a brave group of women — Orthodox, Reform and Conservative; native Israelis and immigrants; as well as visiting tourists and the men who support them, have been going to the Kotel 11 times a year, early on the morning of Rosh Chodesh, to pray together as a group. For 25 years, there has been push back, abuse and even violence from more traditional Jews. Over the years WOW participants have been arrested, forbidden to bring a Torah scroll to the Kotel, had their tallitot confiscated. For 25 years, many Israelis and North American Jews felt their issue was frivolous — who really cares about the Kotel, after all? It is just another manifestation of idol worship. But WOW refused to be silenced. Month after month, they came … reminding us all that the Kotel belongs to all Jews and that there is more than one way to be a Jew. 

The situation began to change a year ago, when the leader of WOW, Anat Hoffman, was arrested and physically mistreated by Israeli police. The outrage over this made it international news, and suddenly world Jewry began to pay attention. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the chair of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, to find a compromise. And so Sharansky proposed a plan that would expand the Kotel to include an equally accessible contiguous new section in direct contact with the Western Wall. Sharansky’s plan cedes control of the current men and women’s section to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, effectively enshrining into law that it is an Orthodox synagogue that can be run by Orthodox custom. But WOW agreed to accept that in return for conditions that include the following: The new section will have a managing body that includes members of Women of the Wall and other relevant parties, among them the Reform and Conservative movements, which will also manage the upper plaza now controlled by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The state’s treatment of both areas will be equal not only in funding but also in status, including referring tours by Israel Defense Forces soldiers, official ceremonies and visiting dignitaries to it. There will be one entrance for three sections. 

The victory, if the Sharansky plan is accepted, is that the government of Israel is officially recognizing that there is more than one way to be a Jew, and that non Orthodox movements have official status with the government. This is a huge victory. WOW has accepted the compromise, though not unanimously, with an important caveat: Until all the conditions of the compromise are met, WOW will continue to pray every month in the women’s section of the Kotel the way they have done it for 25 years, with tallitot, tefillin and Torah scrolls. 

When we met with Sharansky, he told us that Hoffman was a hero for two reasons: First, that over 25 years of serious abuse and threat, she and her colleagues never gave up; and second, that even at this moment of greatest political power because the whole Jewish world is watching, she was willing to accept a compromise that recognized the voices of others who understand Judaism in a different way from how she does. 

In the Knesset, leaders from different political parties, even those who disagree with WOW, said that because of the constancy of WOW, the even more important issues of civil marriage and divorce, and of the increasing threat of gender segregation and the silencing of women in public space, including public airwaves, are now in the consciousness of both Israelis and North Americans who know that what happens in Israel matters.

Rabbi Uri Regev, who heads Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, told me that Israel is the only one of the world’s 45 democratic nations to place severe restrictions on marriage and that the majority of the next generation of American Jews will not be eligible to marry in Israel because they would not be considered Jewish according to an Orthodox understanding of Jewish law. He told me the heartbreaking story of a Southern California woman who was adopted into a Reform Jewish family when she was a baby and converted by rabbis at American Jewish University. She grew up active and engaged in her Ventura congregation, made aliyah, lived in Israel, fell in love with an Israeli Jew and wanted to get married. But they couldn’t get married in Israel because she wasn’t considered “really Jewish.” And this is only the tip of the iceberg. 

The real highlight of the trip was the Rosh Chodesh prayer. More than 800 women were there; the police were on our side. The loud public address system employed in the men’s section with the explicit goal of drowning out our prayer was cut off in the middle — explained as a technical problem but later acknowledged as a deliberate decision by the police.

Even on this anniversary, there were compromises. Although the May decision of the Jerusalem Court explicitly gave permission for WOW to pray with a sefer Torah, over the summer the Western Wall Heritage Foundation enacted another ruling that forbade anyone from bringing a Torah scroll into the Kotel area. They control the 100 Torah scrolls (owned not by them but by the government) and they have repeatedly refused to let WOW use them, citing that the donors would be upset. So, instead of risking another major confrontation, WOW decided to read from a Chumash instead of a Torah scroll. I had the honor of standing on a chair holding an empty Torah mantle to symbolize the absence of a Torah scroll. Standing on that chair, holding the mantle, looking over the 800 women and girls … the men standing in the plaza supporting … remembering all the other times I had been at the Kotel over these many years … I can’t even describe what it felt like to hear so many women’s voices singing Hallel, the psalms of thanksgiving. And reading the prayer for Women of the Wall was heart-opening:

“May it be Your will, our God and God of our mothers and fathers, to bless this prayer group and all who pray within it: them, their families and all that is theirs; together with all the women and girls of your people Israel. Strengthen us and direct our hearts to serve You in truth, reverence and love. … And for our sisters, all the women and girls of Your people Israel: let us merit to see their joy and hear their voices raised before You in song and praise. May no woman or girl be silenced ever again among Your people Israel or in all the world. God of justice, let us merit to see justice and salvation soon, for the sanctification of Your name and the repair of Your world, as it is written: Zion will hear and be glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoice, over Your judgments, O God. And it is written: For Zion’s sake I will not be still and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be silent, until her righteousness shines forth like a great light and her salvation like a flaming torch. For Torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem. Amen, selah.”

We are all b’nai Yisrael, the children of Yisrael, Dina’s father. If we want our people to be truly shalem, we need to learn from our sister Dina and our sisters of Women of the Wall that none of our voices should ever be silenced.