Episode 7: Women of the Wall (Transcript)
Nahanni Rous: This summer, I went to a Bat Mitzvah in Jerusalem. I've been to lots of them before, but this one was different. For one thing, it wasn't held at a synagogue, and it wasn't clear if the young woman would have the chance to read from the Torah. At this Bat Mitzvah, the Torah would have to be smuggled in, and the young woman and her family might face violence or arrest.
Nahanni: I’m Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk? from the Jewish Women’s Archive. In this episode... the struggle for gender equality at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall, or Kotel in Hebrew.
Lesley Sachs: The Kotel is the Mecca of the Jewish people. It’s the heart of the heart. Every synagogue faces the Kotel. Abroad, they face Israel. In Israel, Jerusalem,. In Jerusalem, the Kotel. So this belongs to all of us; we’re not giving up on it.
Nahanni: That’s Lesley Sachs, the Executive Director of Women of the Wall, a feminist organization based in Jerusalem. For nearly three decades, the Women of the Wall have been defying restrictions on women’s prayer at the Kotel, restrictions imposed by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. The Women of the Wall read from the Torah, sing and pray out loud, and wear prayer shawls and tefillin… all of which are strictly for men, according to ultra-Orthodox Jewish practice. Lesley and other members of the group have been harassed, beaten up, and arrested.
Lesley: The fact that we were being arrested for something that most women in North America, for instance, do in their synagogue… and here in the place which is the holiest place to everybody, women are being arrested for that… I think that’s something that really ignited tremendous anger.
Nahanni: Pressure from American Jews has helped Women of the Wall gain some leverage in Israel, but there’s still no resolution to this struggle. In 2013, the group entered negotiations with the Israeli government. After three years the government agreed to open a new egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, where women could read from the Torah. It was a historic and controversial compromise, but after the deal was signed, the government failed to follow through... because of Ultra-Orthodox opposition. This month, the Israeli Supreme Court blasted the government for failing to obey its own ruling, and indicated it will step in if the government doesn’t act soon.
[Ambient sounds from the Wall]
Nahanni: The Kotel... The central, but silent, character in this story. I’m walking over the white stones of the Kotel Plaza, which slopes down to meet the towering 60-foot tall wall. It’s a two-thousand year old retaining wall and it’s all that’s left of the Biblical Jewish Temple, which was destroyed by the Roman Empire in the year 70. For more than a millennium, the platform above the Kotel has been the site of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. It’s a place that has been at the center of religious and political conflict for centuries. But this story is about a modern, internal Jewish struggle. Who decides how Jews can worship in our most sacred space?
[Ambient sounds from the Wall, men’s singing]
Nahanni: I enter the women’s section, separated from the much larger men’s section by a 6-foot tall mechitza, or divider. I can hear the men singing, but I’d have to stand on a chair to see them over the barrier. Women sit or stand close to the massive stones of the Kotel, some sway in quiet prayer, or lean in their heads as if whispering to the wall. Tourists take pictures. The Women of the Wall are assembling.
Lesley: Just go in and be part of it, or go in the front, wherever’s good for you, no shyness.
Nahanni: They mill around, greet each other, sing wordless melodies. Anat Hoffman, one of the group’s founders, is setting up a small podium. She glances nervously at several police officers stationed around the women’s section.
Anat: We’re hoping the Torah will arrive. The Torah is having real problems today because they’re checking everything.
Nahanni: It’s not the first time women have had problems reading Torah at the Kotel. In 1988, Anat was part of a Jewish feminist conference in Jerusalem. A group of women wanted to hold a Torah service at their hotel, but weren’t allowed to.
Lesley: And the women didn’t want to create problems for the hotel manager so they said, ok, let’s go to the Kotel. Went to the women’s section, and they were beaten up.
Nahanni: That was the beginning of Women of the Wall. Over the past 28 years, there has been violence at their monthly prayer services: ultra-Orthodox men have pushed through the mechitza, punched women, torn up their prayer books, even tried to dump a Torah scroll onto the ground. Once, an Ultra-Orthodox woman rammed a participant’s head into the Kotel itself. Police did little to stop the violence, and even sometimes arrested the Women of the Wall. After a series of Supreme Court cases between 2002 and 2013, the Israeli high court ruled that women have the right to read Torah at the Kotel. Lesley Sachs...
Lesley: We can pray with a Torah scroll, we’re permitted to by law, but we can’t bring one in.
Nahanni: That’s because the Kotel rabbi doesn’t allow it. Men can’t bring Torah scrolls in either, but they don’t need to, because dozens are already provided on the men’s side.
Anat: There are 100 Torah scrolls... See the arks over there? For public use, and we don’t have the right to use them.
Nahanni: So how are you getting it in? Is a man bringing it in for you?
Anat: If I tell you, I’m gonna have to kill you after that so I can’t tell you.
Nahanni: Every month the women have to think up a new way to bring a Torah to the Kotel.
Lesley: So one month for instance, and this I can tell you because we can’t do it anymore… we just opened up the door between… in the mechitza and the men gave us a Torah scroll. The next month there were huge padlocks on the mechitza. It’s very upsetting in so many ways that we have to go that way.
[Voices at the Kotel]
Nahanni: Today, there’s a large crowd of women here, eagerly waiting for the ceremony to begin.
Anat: We have a young bat mitzvah girl coming today and we very much need to have a Torah scroll for her.
Nahanni: The 13-year-old Bat Mitzvah girl has travelled from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to have her coming of age ceremony at Judaism’s holiest site. She knows what she’s about to attempt is controversial here, though it’s completely normal at home.
[Voices, Boker tov Chodesh tov]
Nahanni: Most Jewish congregations in America belong to the Reform or Conservative movements, where it’s customary for both men and women to read the Torah in a public prayer service. But even in North America, that’s only been true for about 40 years. In Israel, the State’s religious establishment is entirely Orthodox, and that change hasn’t happened. Many ultra-Orthodox women have never even seen a Torah scroll up close.
[Voices: Anachnu matchilot b’tfillat shacharit l’rosh chodesh.]
Nahanni: While the women wait for their Torah, they begin the morning prayers.
[Voices: Amud shesh, page 6. Baruch she’amar...]
Nahanni: Nearby, a group of ultra-Orthodox teenagers in long skirts hold their prayer books. They look wide-eyed at the Women of the Wall, who are wearing pants, kippas, and prayer shawls. Some have the black leather straps of tefillin wrapped around a bare arm. They’re also praying out loud in a group, something ultra-Orthodox women don’t usually do.
Nahanni: I ask one of the girls what she thinks. She winces and looks away, but an older woman, her group leader, is eager to talk. She doesn’t want me to share her name, so I’ll call her Esti.
Esti: I feel very sorry for them because they are off track. These women are suffering from some sort of emotional… you know, I would consider it the same thing as a woman who changes her gender to male. Don’t we consider that a sexual disorder? I consider it a disorder.
Nahanni: Several times in the course of our brief conversation, Esti compares the Women of the Wall to cross-dressers or transgender people. She says women don’t need to wear a kippah or a tallit because by nature they are already close to God.
Esti: I am totally fullfilled. I have no need to do any of this. If I have a problem I should go to a psychiatrist, not try to mix up the way God set up the world.
Nahanni: In Esti’s view, the Women of the Wall are not just defying the rabbi of the Kotel, they are defying God. While I talk to Esti, I miss some action by the police. Anat fills me in.
Anat: Our Torah scroll was just confiscated by the police…
Anat: It was confiscated like meters away, we were so close. Police is looking at us, and they noticed.
Nahanni: I ask Lesley what will happen now. How will they have a Bat Mitzvah with no Torah?
Lesley: Don’t worry, there’s another one.
Nahanni: Another one! A moment later, a baby-size Torah emerges inside the circle of women, borne by some secret midwife. The circle closes protectively around it.
Lesley: God is Great, and she loves us.
Nahanni: Many hands hold the Torah up in triumph before laying it gently on the podium.
Anat: Our brilliant Lesley Sachs figured that today she should try to double her chances. By getting all of us focused on one... And she tried another one at the same time. And while everyone was looking at the decoy, the other one got in.
Nahanni: Once the women have their Torah, the police don’t try to wrestle it away. But now, angry shouting from the men’s section intensifies.
[Men yelling, Atem lo yehudim… goyim… Lechu l’Tel Aviv. Tafseeku lashir kvutzot! Arur Haman!]
Nahanni: You’re not Jews, they say, goyim, go to Tel Aviv! Stop singing in groups! This demand is loud and persistent… ultra-Orthodox men are not supposed to hear the voices of women singing.
Nahanni: While the shouting continues, a different group of men, not ultra-Orthodox, start up a call and response with the women. They’ve come here in support.
[Women singing, men singing. Men banging. Women singing, men yelling, equally audible. Whistles being blown.]
Nahanni: Several ultra-Orthodox women crowd in. They bang on chairs and blow referee whistles in an incessant and ear-splitting rhythm. They’re attempting to disrupt the women’s Torah reading.
[Aliyah blessing: Baruch atah hashem...]
Nahanni: Another ultra-Orthodox woman asks the whistle-blowers to stop, but they don’t.
[Ta’amod, ta’amod ha bat mitzvah]
Nahanni: In the midst of this bedlam, 13-year-old Franny Warner from Milwaukee is called to the Torah. She quietly reads her Torah portion, and becomes a Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of the commandments.
[Ululating, Siman tov]
Nahanni: The circle of women breaks up, still singing. Anat and Lesley go to the police station to reclaim their confiscated Torah. Franny tells me she feels like a suffragette. I talk to a young ultra-Orthodox woman who says it’s the first time she’s seen women reading from a Torah scroll. She says its “sad” and “horrible”. An older woman, also ultra-Orthodox, argues with the whistle-blowers. She says they should let everyone pray as they want, and not create chaos in this holy place.
Nahanni: Several years ago, Women of the Wall entered talks with the Israeli government and the Kotel rabbi. The subject was a different section of the Western Wall, called Robinson’s Arch. It currently looks like an archeological dig, adjacent but separate from the Kotel. The government eventually agreed to renovate Robinson’s Arch as an egalitarian, pluralistic prayer space that would be administered by the non-Orthodox denominations with State funding. But after signing an agreement, the government caved in to ultra-Orthodox pressure and backed out of the deal.
Nahanni: Some of the founders of Women of the Wall also weren’t happy with the deal. The group always included Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist women, yet recognition for non-Orthodox denominations was never a priority for them. Neither was egalitarian prayer. Their focus was on women’s rights in the women’s section at the Kotel. Some longtime activists have split off from the group, and formed what they call the Original Women of the Wall.
Shulamit Magnes: My name is Shulamit Magnes, I’m one of the founders of Women of the Wall.
Nahanni: Shulamit read Torah at the Kotel during the first gathering 28 years ago.
Shulamit: I refuse to give up women’s hard won right to be at the Kotel as women. I mean, we feel that they took our cause and they sold it for cheap goods. It’s bitter.
Nahanni: Shulamit says that if the Robinson’s Arch deal is implemented, the ultra-Orthodox would get full control of the existing Kotel Plaza. Women’s public prayer there, even as it exists now, would become impossible. She knows the deal would be a huge win for Reform and Conservative Judaism. It would be an official recognition of those movements, and of egalitarian prayer. But she’s in this fight for women’s prayer.
Shulamit: I just think that women’s issues are not to be subsumed into something else. I don’t think that feminism is solved in egalitarianism. I do not believe that. I think that there is a critical importance to have women as women, as Jews, be in that place and give female form and face and voice to Judaism, which we do when we go as a group and we put on tallis and tefillin and we read Torah. Nothing is going to change that, if there is an egalitarian option or whatever it is, it doesn’t obviate the need for women’s presence and expression.
Nahanni: Shulamit is committed to expressing herself at the traditional Kotel, the very place that has at times made her feel marginalized. Lesley Sachs, by contrast, thinks one part of the wall is as good as another.
Lesley: It’s the same wall. It’s not sending us to Tel Aviv… It’s the same wall. I don’t even call it a compromise. Because I think it’s much more than we have now, than we could have. Women won't have to stand on a plastic chair to see their sons having a bar mitzvah and girls will be able to have a bat mitzvah and there will be Torah scrolls there for anyone, any woman, any group of women—to take, to read. I think it is far from a compromise, I think it’s a tremendous victory.
Nahanni: And, she says women-only prayer groups would be welcomed within the new space. The idea that someday her own grandchildren might see non-Orthodox Jewish practice at the holiest Jewish site? That’s very important to her.
Lesley: They will see pluralism… they will see that there’s also another way of being Jewish. They’ll see a woman with tallit, they’ll see a woman putting on tefillin. They’ll see a mixed, an egalitarian prayer… they will see options, choice. That is completely revolutionary in my eyes.
Nahanni: But even with those options, Shulamit says, Jewish women have to grapple with a legacy of sexism.
Shulamit: Anytime I open any holy book of ours, whether it is the Torah, the Tanach, the rabbinical works, the Talmud, Midrash, whatever. You open it up anywhere and you see your marginality as a woman, you see your otherness.
Nahanni: The question is, what do you do with that?
Shulamit: You can walk away from it all together, or you engage. And then its this very complicated tension of stuff that you love and that loves you and that also does these terrible things to you. And so you need feminism, you need women who get together, because when we get together, we overcome that.
Nahanni: Female-centered Jewish spaces, like the women’s section of the Kotel, provide Shulamit a kind of comfort that mixed spaces don’t.
Nahanni: On the face of it, the rift inside this movement seems like the typical divide between purists and pragmatists. But here, it’s hard to say which is the higher ideal. If the Robinson’s Arch compromise were implemented, and Reform and Conservative Judaism were recognized in Israel, that could change a lot of things... and not just for women who want to pray at the Kotel. It could challenge the ultra-Orthodox establishment’s grip on many aspects of family life: marriage, divorce, conversion, and it could mean more options for how people practice Judaism. But that’s a big if. And is it worth giving up on the symbolic Kotel Plaza?
Nahanni: For now, there’s a Supreme Court case that’s been left hanging, an agreement the government refuses to implement, and a continuing struggle at our holiest Jewish site.
Nahanni: There’s no telling how this battle will be resolved. But among all the human struggles this ancient wall has witnessed, this one is almost certainly the first being led by women. That in itself is cause for celebration.
Nahanni: Thank you for listening to Can We Talk? Our team includes Jewish Women’s Archive Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum and Director of Engagement Tara Metal. We had help this month from Bella Book and Ned Lazarus. Ibby Caputo edited the script and our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. I’d like to thank Moment Magazine for naming Can We Talk? one of its top ten Jewish podcasts.
Nahanni: Visit Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk to listen, subscribe, and make a donation. Share a link to your favorite episodes, and please consider reviewing Can We Talk? on iTunes. It helps other people find our podcast!
Nahanni: I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. I’ll see you again next month.
[Theme Music fades]
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 7: Women of the Wall (Transcript)." (Viewed on January 28, 2023) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-7-women-of-the-wall/transcript>.