Women of the Wall
STORY BY Emily Kirkpatrick
Published: May 21, 2013
On May 10, the protests at the Western Wall in Jerusalem against the feminist activist group Women of the Wall came to an end.
Ultra-Orthodox women and men butted heads with the group over their untraditional practice of wearing men’s prayer shawls while performing typically male religious ceremonies at the wall. Over the course of the past few years, a number of members of Women of the Wall have been arrested for this practice. However, last month, a court ruled that women wearing these male-gendered scarves were not causing a disturbance of the peace, and thus of no harm to anyone. In fact, early on in the week at a hearing of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, a representative of the Jerusalem Police confirmed that they would do nothing to stop WoW from praying, as it did not contradict “local custom.” This was to be WoW’s first monthly worship service conducted under the sanction of the local government and authorities.
But last week, at the behest of haredi rabbis, men historically charged with the protection of holy sites, thousands of yeshiva students and haredi school girls descended upon the holy site to prevent the group from reaching the wall and conducting their usual prayers. Protesters threw water bottles and objects at the activists while also verbally insulting them. Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of Sarah Silverman and a member of WoW, told The Jerusalem Post that haredi men spit on her three daughters and threw coffee at activists while a girl next to her was hit in the head with a heavy object.
In the aftermath of the protests, three haredi men have been arrested under suspicion of disturbing the peace and two officers were treated on the scene for light injuries. Security forces attempted to create a human barrier between the men and women’s sections of the wall, in an attempt to dampen hostilities. Silverman told the Post that these protesters represent “a fundamentalism and a belief in a single and very narrow view of God that I believe is idolatrous.” While WoW Spokesperson, Oshrat Ben Shimshon, pointed out on Israel Radio that, “Orthodox rabbis have determined that there is no halachik barrier to women praying with prayer shawls and tefillin and reading from the Torah.”
Although this dispute is supposedly centered on a group of women’s choice to wear traditionally male religious garb, it’s clearly about so much more. The Women of the Wall represent an ideological and hierarchical threat to the haredi rabbis. In Orthodox Jewish tradition, men are the religious leaders, sole interpreters of the Torah, and the leaders of their household. Women taking this step, even one as seemingly inconsequential to us as wearing a different type of scarf, is the first move towards a more modern and liberated Orthodox Jewish woman. They represent an idea that would rock the social and sexual hierarchy of Israel to its core and threatens to knock men out of their privileged, place of power, one controversial prayer at a time.
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