Monday was the first day of the Jewish month of Adar. So, as they've done on every Rosh Chodesh (first day of the new month) for more than two decades, members of Women Of The Wall gathered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, wrapped in their tallitot (prayer shawls), for a special prayer service. And, as has happened in the past, police arrested them.
The Western Wall, called the Kotel in Hebrew, is Judaism's holiest site. It is part of what remains from the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, where the Second Temple stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Jews from around the world gather there for prayer, inspiration and to gain a sense of connection with our ancestors. No trip to Israel is complete without a visit to the Wall.
Access to and activities at The Kotel are controlled by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, an Orthodox organization. As a result, there are separate sections for men and women in recognition of the practice in Orthodox communities that men and women do not pray together.
Women Of The Wall do not challenge gender separation at the Kotel. They are merely seeking to have the same rights as the men who come to the holy site - to wear prayer shawls, pray and read Torah together and out loud at the Western Wall. But the rules prohibit any religious ceremony in the women's section of the Western Wall.
Women praying at the wall are generally detained by police, enforcing the Orthodox rules. They are sometimes taken to jail and held for a short amount of time. But at least one woman, Anat Hoffman, was treated more brutally when she was arrested in October:
“In the past when I was detained I had to have a policewoman come with me to the bathroom, but this was something different. This time they checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw the food through a little window in the door. I laid on the floor covered with my tallit. I’m a tough cookie, but I was just so miserable. And for what? I was with the Hadassah women saying Sh’ma Yisrael.”
This week was also different. For the first time in 24 years, women were allowed to complete their prayer service at the Wall, and were arrested only as they left. The difference was likely due to the fact that they had been accompanied by veterans of the Israeli Army - members of the 55th Paratroop Brigade who helped to liberated the Old City of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967. As Anat Hoffman said, “These alter kockers, with their presence, put an end to something absurd ... The Israeli feminists received help today from the heart of the patriarchy.”
As those who oppose dividing Jerusalem as part of any peace settlement with the Palestinians point out, before these men helped Israel to regain control of the Old City in 1967, Jews were unable to worship at the Kotel. Today, members of all faiths are once again free to worship at their holy sites.
Except, apparently, Jewish women
Perhaps the presence of soldiers who helped liberate Jerusalem in 1967, will increase pressure on the Israeli government to limit Orthodox control over the Kotel and to liberate the Wall for Jewish women today.
Image by James Emery via Flickr