The feminist Jewish prayer group, Woman of the Wall (WoW) Nashot HaKotel, have made history, they have finally read at Rosh Hodesh service from a full-sized Torah scroll in the women’s section of the Western Wall, Kotel on Monday morning, April 20, 2015, in Jerusalem, Israel. The ability to read the Torah in the women’s section has been the group’s goal for the past 25 years. This was the first time the group has read from a regular sized Torah scroll in the women’s section, in October 2014 they first read from a tiny smuggled scroll. This month’s reading was all more symbolic as Israel celebrates Independence Day, Yom Ha’azmaut on Thursday, April 23, Israel 67th birthday, breaking the barrier to religious freedom and equality among the sexes, an area Israel still lags behind.
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In honor of Rosh Hodesh Iyar, the group again tried to read from Torah scroll, this time it was smuggled from the men’s section around 8 a.m., with one of the men handing the Torah over to WOW for their service. Their male accomplice, activist and supporter Charlie Kalech faced violence for his action from his male co-religionists and then taken into custody by the police. The Haredim praying through Kalech to the ground when they realized he was the one that gave the Torah and was trying to protect the women of WoW. Kaleach hit his head, and when the police arrived, he was questioned, then told to go to the police station in the afternoon for further questioning. The male activist passed the Torah scroll over the separation, although he suffered for doing so, he was able to fulfill the group’s goal, and make history in the process.
The idea was ingenious as nobody originally suspected or even thought the women would ever acquire the scroll from the men’s section. Engrossed in prayer, it took the men 10 minutes to notice and object to WoW’s feat. Rabbi Barry Leff who was attending service and attempted to protect the women from the angry crowds recounted what happened to the Jerusalem Post, “After the Torah went to the women’s side things were kind of quiet for 10 minutes because no one noticed. But when a group of Haredi men did notice, they forcibly went into the women’s side to take it back.”
Continuing, Leff described the madness after the men noticed the women reading from the Torah, “I was trying to keep the gate shut, but around three of them pushed past me. Then I basically tried to separate [the haredim] from the woman carrying the Torah.” Leff also recounted that when another man who tried to protect the women from the Haredim, he was also thrown to the ground and kicked. One Haredi man even tried to claim he owned the Torah scroll; however, it was clearly one of 100 reserved for the men’s section.
Afterward WoW issued a statement as to what went on saying the police was treating Kaleach facilitation of their reading from a “public” Torah as a “crime.” The statement read, “Charlie Kalech was physically attacked… and when our activist went to file a complaint against the bully, he was detained by the Israel Police. Although he sustained a head injury and repeatedly asked to see a doctor, he was detained for several hours before he was allowed to go see a doctor. His phone was taken away from him. He is now returning to the Kishle detention center.”
WoW, member Rabbi Susan Silverman scared off a Haredi man who threatened to take away the scroll, by telling him that she would touch him, which is forbidden in Jewish law lest the woman is impure. Silverman believes that this Torah reading is a major victory for the group and especially this month coinciding with Yom Ha’azmaut, she expressed Israel still does not guarantee religious freedom for women, “Israel is the only country in the world with laws against Jews practicing Judaism. But because the Jews who are discriminated against are female, no one blinks an eye.” Rabbi Leff concurred, “The Torah is the inheritance of all the Jewish people, not just Haredi men. And the Western Wall is the holiest place for all Jews, not just Haredi men. As such, I believe that everybody should be free to pray to God there according to their own custom.”
The group that emphasizes religious equality at the Western Wall vowed to continue their cause until they succeed. The statement continued, “Women of the Wall at last read from a Torah scroll offered for public use [on] the week of Israel’s Independence Day, despite physical violence from ultra-orthodox bullies and incitement from the state-paid rabbi of the Western Wall. WoW celebrates freedom and independence this week. Despite government regulations, they were able to read from one of the Torah scrolls that are offered for public use. This is the first time WoW were able to stand up and be counted as equal members of the public entitled to read from the Torah.” Women of the Wall chair Anat Hoffman echoed her group’s statement saying, “Nothing you could say could tear me away from my Torah, nothing you could do because I’m stuck like glue to my Torah.”
The feminist prayer that the Women of the Wall are practicing is a form of liberal prayer that does not conform to the Kotel’s norm or Orthodox Judaism and customs. Israel’s Haredi, ultra-Orthodox object to the women’s praying because they choose to wear tallits; praying shawls, and tefillin, which according to the Jewish Orthodox tradition are religious garments only men are allowed to wear during prayer and have been considered illegal for women to wear by Israeli laws. The women also read the Torah, another ritual activity that only men do, and read their prayers aloud. The WoW’s practices are against the religious hegemony of the Kotel and have led in the past to arrests and protests.
Two years ago in April 2013, an Israeli court ruling Jerusalem District Court ‘Sobel Decision’ determined that the women should be allowed to pray according to “their beliefs” and that is “does not violate ‘local custom,’ at the Kotel.” The court ruling might have stopped the insistent arrests and the threat thereof WoW faced, but it did not mean Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch who is the religious leader and authority at the Kotel has embraced or even accepted the WoW’s method of prayer. Rabbi Rabinovitch has made it against the rules for women to read from the Torah in the women’s section.
Rabbi Rabinovich’s response now, was that the Torah reading was tantamount to starting a war, and the holiday scroll was “degraded,” and “transferred with contempt.” Rabinovich accused WoW of tearing “at the delicate fabric that is the Kotel.’ The rabbi’s statement said, “The Torah scroll was transferred in degradation, as if it were a random object, across the partition barrier separating the men’s section and the women’s. This is a provocative step intended to ignite the Western Wall, and indeed, the women of the organization manage to provoke the anger of worshipers, and the Israel Police and employees of the Western Wall had to work hard in order to avoid bloodshed.” To which WoW chair Hoffman, in turn, accused Rabinovich of “inciting” and that WoW is “the only ones who refuse to surrender to the religious extremism that is taking over the Kotel.”
WoW has faced protests and from ultra-Orthodox groups both men and women, who do not want the women to pray in the Women’s section, Instead, the Kotel administration and the government has been trying to relegate the women to the Robinson Arch area. The continued policing of the group has been deemed a violation of women’s rights in a country that touts its self a democracy respectful of religious freedom. This has not deterred the women from pursuing the same equality men expect but in the women’s section.
This is the second time the group has succeeded from reading from a Torah scroll for Rosh Hodesh services. The group first read from a Torah scroll in the women’s section on Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan Friday, Oct. 24, 2014, for a bat mitzvah torch reading to the women’s section of the Kotel, Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel marking a historic first at the Kotel. In their second attempt to bring a Torah scroll into the women’s section in the same morning, they were able to smuggle a “tiny” scroll into the complex, the Torah used then was only 28 cm and 200 years-old. Earlier in the morning, security stopped the WoW from bringing a regular sized scroll into the women’s section. Afterward the director of the Western Wall complex Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz vowed, “This will never happen again,” but it has. WoW first tried to smuggle a Torah scroll on Thursday morning, Jan. 2, 2014 the into the women’s section at the Western Wall at their prayer service honoring Rosh Hodesh Shevat, an accusation the group denied.
The Women of the Wall have been attending their monthly prayer service at the Kotel for over 25 years. Formed in 1988, the group of women is predominately composed of Americans Jews that have moved to Israel of liberal denominations and women rabbis, but also some who are traditionalists. The group sees their largest support in North America. Since their formation, they have been fighting for their legal right to gather, pray publicly and read the Torah at the Kotel, Western Wall’s women’s section.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.