Pray Tell: On Jerusalem’s Feminist Activists, Women Of The Wall

If you go to to the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, you might see men singing loudly and dancing in circles. What you might not notice right away are the women, who are quietly murmuring and praying. The men’s side looks way more fun – plenty of my male friends have stories about that time they hung out at the wall with a Jewish celebrity. My boyfriend danced the hora there with Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. The total disparity in the fun department isn’t a personal preference – it’s actually Israeli law.

But a group of brave female activists, The Women of the Wall, are working to change that.

According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, men and women pray separately, standing on opposite sides of a divider called a mehitzah. Ostensibly, this mehitzah is supposed to allow an even amount of space for men and women, but the truth is that the women’s “half” at the Wall (called the Kotel in Hebrew) is more like a fifth (12 meters for women, 48 for men). And because of the law of kol isha – literally “voice of a woman” – hearing a woman’s voice singing, even during prayer, is considered about the same thing as seeing her naked. In other words, it’s bad and wrecks the man’s holiness while he’s busy trying to pray. Because of kol isha, women must keep their voices low and not sing while they’re at the Kotel. There are people at the Kotel who yell at you for talking too loudly, and men have been known to yell and throw stuff like bottles over from the men’s section while asking you to shut your unholy lady mouth so they can get back to prayer business.

A group called Women of the Wall, led by Anat Hoffman, a group that goes to the Kotel wearing kippot (yarmulkes) and tallitot (those blue and white fringed shawls you see some Jewish men wearing under their clothes), to pray out loud, sing, carry the Torah, and hold services for Rosh Chodesh, a monthly holiday that celebrates the new moon and is traditionally associated with women (because, y’know, menstrual cycles). Usually, the women can’t get through the whole service because police show up and arrest or detain them. Hoffman has been arrested at least three times, including this fall. After the last arrest, she wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about her experience:

A few days ago, on Oct. 16, 2012, I was arrested at the Western Wall while conducting a prayer service in honor of Hadassah’s [a Jewish women’s organization] centennial birthday. Two hundred and fifty Hadassah women came to the wall in solidarity with our group. As we were chanting the “Shema,” a major prayer in the service, I was approached by a police office, ordered to leave the wall plaza and taken to the nearby police station. A night of humiliation and pain followed.

I was handcuffed, strip searched, laid on the bare floor. I was not allowed to call my lawyer. I was dragged on the floor with my hands cuffed and worse of all, locked in a tiny cell with a crying young Russian woman accused of prostitution, who was the target of every filthy comment male inmates could utter. Her tears and their words are the hardest memory for me to move on from.

I thought it was a cruel and unusual punishment, but as I found out it was cruel but not unusual. This is how arrests are done in my town, in Jerusalem.

This year, the Women of the Wall are upping their ante. Last month’s Rosh Chodesh service resulted in multiple arrests, including one of Rabbi Susan Silverman, who just so happens to be the sister of Sarah Silverman. If there’s one thing guaranteed to get a story about religion picked up by mainstream media outlets, it’s to have a celebrity connection. (For the record, Sarah has said that she’s completely on board with her sister’s beliefs and with the Women of the Wall’s actions.) Earlier this week, three female members of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) joined the group at the Kotel. One of them was Stav Shaffir, a former journalist and the youngest female member of the Knesset in history.

For the Women of the Wall, being treated as equals at the Kotel is just part of the goal. Ultimately, any feminist movement in Israel will have to get past a ruling group of Orthodox male rabbis, who think God wants them to do things like sleep in separate beds when their wives are menstruating. But these brave women know that “separate but equal” is inherently inequal – and they’re not afraid to use very loud voices to say so, kol isha be damned.

Lilit Marcus blogs at Faith Goes Pop. Follow her on Twitter.