A group of Jewish women and men teamed up yesterday to defy a longstanding ban prohibiting women from worshipping with full-size Torahs at Israel’s Western Wall — a major win for Jewish feminists that sparked violent reactions from some ultra-Orthodox men.
On Monday morning, a group of women affiliated with “Women of the Wall” (WOW), a Jewish feminist organization, gathered to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a traditional location for Jewish pilgrims and one of the holiest religious sites in Israel. WOW regularly assembles women to pray at the wall on Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the month in the Hebrew calendar, and is dedicated to attaining “the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” WOW has fought for over 25 years to achieve their goals, but have thus far failed to pray publicly with a full-size Torah — the common practice for Jewish men at the site. Instead, men and women are cut off from each other at the wall by a metal fence, a strict enforcement of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish belief that genders should worship separately or, in some strains of Judaism, that women shouldn’t be heard praying at all.
Yesterday, however, WOW’s long-term objective finally came to fruition. As the women circled in prayer, a group of male Jewish WOW supporters quietly opened a small section of the fence separating the two groups. Then, in a move choreographed by the advocacy group, the men hastily handed over a full-size Torah to WOW leaders, who immediately began dancing and singing in celebration as the gate was quickly slammed shut.
Leigh Ann Hildebrand, a American doctoral candidate in Jewish history and culture at the Graduate Theological Union in San Francisco, was at the wall that morning to pray with the women. She was unaware of the planned action until it occurred, but said that, as a Jewish woman, the event spiritually moved her.
“It was very triumphal,” Hildebrand told ThinkProgress. “It was like the holiday of the Torah. Women were taking turns just holding [the Torah] and dancing. I was so happy, because I understood how historic this was.”
Hilly Haber, an American rabbinical student unaffiliated with WOW but who also happened to be visiting the wall that day, shared Hildebrand’s emotional high.
“I got chills,” she said. “When a progressive female rabbi can lift up a Torah like that…it was amazing. It really was kind of a unique moment.”
But the unfettered joy didn’t last long. Several ultra-Orthodox men were reportedly outraged when they realized what had transpired, and began shouting at the women over the fence. Scuffles broke out between the ultra-Orthodox men and the males who passed over the Torah, and one man was reportedly punched in the face by someone trying to force his way over the divider. At least one individual did eventually push past the gate and approach the women, who had already begun saying traditional prayers with the Torah.
“It was really intense,” Hildebrand said. She explained that she and others began blocking the man — who was technically violating rules of orthodoxy by entering the women’s space — as he demanded the return of the holy scroll. “He was trying to push past me, but one of the leaders kept saying ‘You cannot touch a woman! Don’t touch a woman!’”
Hildebrand said that several Orthodox women in the area, who may not have approved of WOW’s actions, also yelled at the man.
“One of the older Orthodox men kept chanting ‘my daughter can see you!’ But some of the women just shouted back ‘Good!’”
After a few strained minutes, several police officers — including one female security official — rushed in to protect the women, escorting the frustrated men away from the scene. Haber noted that agitators only represented “a minority of men” at the wall, and the women prayed without incident for the next 20 minutes as police formed a line between them and the fence.
“It was amazing for me, but especially for the older generation…I mean, it was a moment some people thought they would never see,” Haber said.
WOW has a long history of inciting controversy at the wall through their gender equality advocacy. In 2013, seven members of WOW were arrested for performing non-Orthodox prayers at the wall, which were illegal at the time. The women were acquitted in court, however, after a Jerusalem District Court judge pointed out that, since the wall does not currently have a space set aside for “pluralistic prayers,” the women should have been allowed to worship. But while the decision technically granted female worshippers the right to read from “public” Torahs provided by the curators, women are still effectively prohibited from worshipping with the roughly 300 on-site scrolls because they are stored in the men’s section — which women are forbidden from entering. In response, WOW members successfully smuggled in a small, hand-held Torah last October, using it to hold a bat mitzvah for a 12-year-old girl in front of the wall.
Jewish feminist advocates also made headlines last December when the rabbi overseeing the Western Wall refused a request from WOW to station a Hanukkah menorah in the women’s section. In response, several WOW affiliates — including American comedian and actress Sarah Silverman — lit 28 menorahs in the women’s area. It was the first time in history women have lit menorahs at the wall. The wall’s gender divide sparked debate in January as well, when a transgender woman was turned away from both the men’s and women’s sections because of her identity.
Despite ongoing debate over the WOW’s tactics, however, Hildebrand and other women who participated in Monday’s event do not see their actions as antagonistic, but simply as acts faith that happen to remind others of the situation facing Jewish women.
“I didn’t consider it a protest — I was there to pray, not to protest,” Hildebrand told ThinkProgress. “But I do see it as an act of civil disobedience.”