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Why is Women of the Wall Such a Hot Button?

The Israeli multi-denominational Women of the Wall group holds a prayer service in Gan Miriam, Jerusalem. Participants in Orthodox women's tefillah groups wishing to maximize women’s participation in communal prayer while remaining within the halakhic parameters of the Orthodox community meet regularly to conduct prayer services for women only.
Courtesy of Joan Roth.

When it comes to women’s religious expression, what is it that drives men to such distraction that they throw chairs, hurl insults, and resort to other forms of violence? Are we as women allowed to push the boundaries only so far?

On Sunday night, I went to hear Anat Hoffman—chairwoman of Women of the Wall and Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel—speak at Brandeis University’s Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

Ms. Hoffman’s message is simple: Allow women to participate in Jewish rituals such as carrying the Torah and wearing Tefillin and Tallit, rituals that have, for centuries, been reserved solely for men. For 25 years, she and her supporters have met monthly at the Western Wall, and Hoffman and her supporters have sparked an incendiary debate in Israel about women’s roles and the use of Jewish ritual objects.

Clearly, Hoffman is in the US to drum up support for her cause and to make it plain that it is something bigger than an argument within Israel’s borders. And she builds a powerful and passionate case. She details the physical and verbal abuse she and other women have endured and speaks about the treatment she has received in a way that has me questioning how we Jews can treat one another in a way that denigrates our common humanity.

What strikes me about Ms. Hoffman is her incredible courage. This is a woman who has survived beatings, slander, and imprisonment, all because she believes deeply in her cause. Listening to her, I find myself thinking that—agree or disagree with her tactics—her message is about amplifying women’s voices and carving out an equal place for us in the Jewish community. 

Women of the Wall invites women of all denominations to participate and pray at the women’s section of the Western Wall.  In an era when movements of this sort are afoot in nearly every corner of the Jewish community, why is this collection of women such an affront to the establishment?

Some of us choose to express ourselves through art, others through mathematics, and some through spirituality. How does it harm us as a people to raise our voices in unison, proclaiming our faith? Does that not elevate our holiest sites?

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re: "Allow women to participate in Jewish rituals such as carrying the Torah and wearing Tefillin and Tallit..."

Just a small clarification: Women of the Wall's "central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and READ [my emphasis] from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall."

How to cite this page

Shaby, Velda. "Why is Women of the Wall Such a Hot Button?." 18 April 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 21, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/why-is-women-of-wall-such-hot-button>.

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