On praying with the Women of the Wall

A group of leaders from my synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, and I were excited to join The Women of the Wall for Shacharit services on Rosh Hodesh Kislev on November 8.  There were, in all, about 50 women who gathered, along with 15 men supporters, for 7 a.m. prayers.  The women stood at the back of the women’s section while we men stood at the back of the men’s section, next to the mechitzah so we could join the women in the davening.

We men wore our tallitot tallitot as usual.  The women, however, wrapped their tallitot around their necks as “scarves” to avoid “offending the sensitivities” of the other 400 worshippers at the Kotel (mostly orthodox and Hareidim, per written instructions from the Chief Rabbi of the Wall).

The Women of the Wall began their prayers quietly, almost inaudibly. There is an ancient Talmudic principle Kol b’isha erva (i.e. a woman’s voice connotes sexual exposure and impropriety – BT Berachot 24a), and so, again, in order not to create a disturbance or “offend the sensitivities” of the worshippers, the women were quiet in their worship.

This effort, of course, didn’t satisfy one man, who noticed the group in prayer.  He turned to the women, approached, stood on top of a table and shrieked his venomous reproach for more than 15 minutes without cessation; “You are all sinners! You bring shame upon the Jewish religion! Your immodesty is an affront to the people of Israel!  How dare you pray in this way in this sacred place! etc. etc. etc.” His screaming was harsh, and his voice echoed against the stone walls and off plaza’s stone slabs. When his voice finally and mercifully gave out, a legion of 50 Hareidim gathered to take up where he’d left off.  They raised their voices in a harsh cacophony of shouted prayer to drown out the women’s voices.

It was as ugly a scene as I could have ever imagined, at the holiest site in all of Judaism, with one group of Jews against another.

As that one man screamed and the Hareidim raised their voices against the women, I looked into their eyes, and all I saw there was hatred and smug disdain.  The Women of the Wall did their best to ignore the provocation.  They prayed with kavannah (loving intent), despite the noisy provocation.

The contrast between the two groups was striking.  The women brought honor and dignity to themselves and that sacred place.  The men violated a fundamental moral principle of Judaism – Derech eretz kadma l’Torah – Common decency precedes Torah.

My congregants and I were proud to pray with these religious women, and we were deeply disturbed by what we witnessed from the men.  The rabbis of the Talmud explained that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, the gratuitous hatred of one Jew for another, and we worry in this month of Kislev when the fate of our people once hung in the balance whether there can ever be peace in Jerusalem.

To the Women of the Wall we say, carry on and yasher koach – we are with you and we support you!

Rabbi John L Rosove is senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood