April 14, 2013
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.” – Poet Muriel Rukeyser
The Western Wall of Jerusalem is one of the holiest sites of the Jewish faith. Also known as the “Wailing Wall” or Kotel, the Western Wall is a remnant of the Second Temple that was almost completely destroyed by Roman soldiers in 70 CE. Today, it is the gathering place of Jews internationally every Friday at sundown for Shabbas – the day of rest: “… it’s simply an amazing sight … A sea of religious Jews – thousands, really — praying, swaying, singing and dancing in circles facing the Wall” (Daniela Deane, January 8, 2013, “Women at the Western Wall,” Washington Post).
Public prayer is a key element of the Jewish faith, as emphasized in Psalm 30 this week. The prayers of the faithful must be heard aloud, not only before the congregation, but before YHWH in order to give full voice to praise for the Creator:I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the Lord, O you faithful ones, and give thanks to [the] holy name (Psalm 30:1-4).
As Carolyn J. Sharp comments, “‘Temple’ becomes a richly layered symbol for the participation of the faithful in worship through the centuries. In the sweeping historical perspective constructed by the superscription, the Temple with its liturgical rhythms becomes the spiritual edifice constructed by those who sing God’s praises in every generation” (“Commentary on Psalm 30“). At the Western Wall, Jews from around the world are united in worship, not only with each other, but with the deep, rich history of YHWH’s promises to Israel.
The group “Women of the Wall” tells the story of what happened when a group of women attempted to pray at the Wall aloud over 20 years ago, with Torah, and wearing prayer shawls (objects which Orthodox Jews maintain are for men only):
On the morning of December 1, 1988, a multi-denominational group of approximately seventy women approached Jerusalem’s Kotel (Western Wall) with a Torah scroll to conduct a halakhic (according to Jewish law) women’s prayer service. As no provisions for Torah reading existed in the women’s section of the Kotel, we brought a sefer Torah (Torah scroll), stood together, and prayed out loud (a number of us wore prayer shawls). Suddenly many women, and men on the other side of the mechitzah (barrier separating men and women), began to scream, curse and even threaten us.
Since then, Women of the Wall has fought a protracted legal battle to allow women to pray aloud at the Wall, as a part of the community, with the holy items of their faith (the Torah and prayer shawls) that connect them with YHWH. These women have been subject to repeated arrests, and even physical abuse by Orthodox extremists, as they attempt to pray at the Wall. In a recent development, however, the head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, made a sweeping proposal to expand an area to the south of the main plaza to “provide for an area of non-Orthodox worship at an extension of the Western Wall south of the main prayer plaza; men and women could pray together there, and women could lead services” (Joel Greenberg, April 11, 2013, “Women Challenge Orthodox Practice at Israel’s Western Wall,” Washington Post).
For full and meaningful inclusion of women into the prayer life of their community, they must be on equal footing with men, not crowded into a tiny “women’s space” and consigned to silent prayer because their voices are regarded as “lewd” (as some Orthodox authorities maintain). The full truth of a woman’s life is intertwined with the public life of her faith community, and when women speak aloud in prayer and praise, the walls of intolerance split open and crumble so that a new and inclusive structure for praise can be built. As the Prayer for the Women of the Wall says, “May our prayer be desirable and acceptable to You like the prayers of our holy mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. May our song ascend to Your Glorious Throne in holiness and purity, like the songs of Miriam the Prophet, Devorah the Judge, and Hannah in Shilo, and may it be pleasing to you as a sweet savor and fine incense.” Amen.