Rosh Hodesh Av 5777
“Are you sure you want to walk with me? -this is the most dangerous part” said Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall as she and I walked alone together to the Western Wall exits. “Why?” I asked. “Because I’m a woman wearing a tallit, and we are at the Kotel.”
I looked at the tallit that Anat was wearing, and it was the very same tallit that she wore a month ago in Westfield, New Jersey when she spoke to my congregation about her struggle for equality in Israel. At that gathering, she spoke passionately about Women of the Wall, the group of extraordinary women of all denominations who gather monthly at the Women’s section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray with tallit, tefillin, and a Torah scroll. Anat has been arrested several times, for it is considered a “provocation” for a woman to wear a tallit or read from the Torah at the Western Wall, which is under the rigid control of the ultra-Orthodox. I promised Anat that I would join her at the next prayer service.
So it was that yesterday morning I was standing at the edge of the Women’s section in support of the Women of the Wall, who were conducting a lovely and highly spiritual worship service. I was standing next to a small group of like-minded men, all there in support of women determined to exercise their right to worship in freedom. Unfortunately, we few men were surrounded by dozens of ultra-Orthodox, men and boys, screaming epithets in Hebrew and English at the women as they prayed. “Reform are worse than Arabs!” “Reform go home!” “Get out of our Holy Land!” “You are not Jews!” are some of the milder things I heard. Ultra-Orthodox women and men blew whistles and shouted curses. At one point, a young man who came to pray wrapped in a tallit was taunted so harshly he left in tears. A few of us, having had enough, began to confront the protestors, but a male representative of Women of the Wall present amongst us gently asked that we refrain from causing a disturbance. Even when one of the younger ultra-Orthodox Jews tore up a Women of the Wall prayerbook, this gentle man simply took the pieces of the book and asked the stupidly grinning boy to leave.
The service ended as the Women of the Wall sang Hatikvah, which I could barely hear as the protestors screamed and blew whistles. Many of the women were spat upon as they left.
Saying goodbye to Anat and leaving the Western Wall, I spotted two of the most nastily vocal ultra-Orthodox Jews outside the walls of the Old City. I came right up to them and said in Hebrew; “Why do you act with such causeless hatred towards fellow Jews”? They stared sullenly and looked away. As I walked, they shouted at my back, “Go home, American, you don’t belong here”. I stopped, came right back to them and said “Again, why do you act with causeless hatred? And by the way, I belong here as much as you do.” They walked away without speaking.
The bravery and spirit of these women, determined to pray and sing in the face of such hate, is an inspiration and represents the best of what Judaism can be.