Women of the Wall
On the morning of December 1, 1998, an international, multidenominational group of Jewish women approached the Kotel (formerly known as the Wailing, or Western, Wall) in Jerusalem to conduct a women's prayer service. The women--including editors Chesler (a psychotherapist and author of Women and Madness) and Haut (coeditor of Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue)--were jeered at, cursed, threatened, and assaulted: "proper" Jewish women do not pray aloud in public, carry or read from the Scroll, or wear ritual objects. WOW--Women of the Wall--was born. For the next 14 years, they fought for their right to continue prayers at the Kotel in this way, which is not prohibited by Jewish law but was banned by Israeli law because it caused such a riot. This is the story of WOW's continuing struggle. Divided into four sections, it contains thoughtful personal accounts by participants, keen legal and political analysis, various denominational views, and discussion of halakhic theory and ritual objects. This is the first book-length treatment of this landmark case in Jewish women's spirituality, feminism vs. Orthodox society, and basic human rights. Highly recommended for Judaica collections. --Marcia Welsh
For the past 14 years, a multidenominational group of women has tried to conduct a women's prayer service--Torah scrolls, prayer shawls and all--at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Since their first attempt to pray there in 1988, Women of the Wall (WOW) has engaged in a political, legal and religious struggle against the State of Israel that continues today, though the group is hardly anti-Israel or anti-religious. This anthology traces the genesis, history and impact of what is now an international grassroots effort on behalf of Jewish women's religious rights. Haut, an Orthodox Jew, and Chesler, a feminist author and psychologist, present essays from 30 women wearing and using ritual objects, and express their deep connection to the Wall. The essays reflect the diversity of voices. The descriptions of the first prayer service, at which the women were "cursed, threatened, pushed, shoved, spit upon and bitten," injured by heavy metal chairs thrown at them, hospitalized and arrested, are horrifying. . . The universal themes that erupt in this specific context are worthy of broad reader interest: discrimination, democracy, religious pluralism, anger at the silencing of women, solidarity, sisterhood and the sacredness of place.
I must confess that the cause of the Women of the Wall has never drawn me personally, and I was therefore rather reluctant to take on a review of this book. I have never harbored any doubt that women were well within their democratic rights in seeking to pray at the Kotel as a group, especially when in accordance with the guidelines they had prescribed for themselves. But I questioned the wisdom and value of doing so. Somehow the notion of women marching monthly to the Western Wall plaza with a Sefer Torah, deliberately imposing their presence upon a community of regulars who pray there daily and who are totally incapable of appreciating the impulse for this form of worship, struck me as naive and tactless.
I also questioned the value of mixing prayers with politics, viewing it as counter-productive to the act of worship. But although some of the support for this group may be driven by elements interested in using the issue of women's prayer as a tool for making feminist statements, reading this book makes it evident that for the core of stalwarts, there are other less utilitarian factors involved.
One of the impressions conveyed by the personal accounts of the women who back this movement is a tragic disparity between their mentality and that of the opposition. It is noteworthy that sophisticated Western women who ordinarily distance themselves from the trappings of fold religion, and most likely would be horrified by the return of temple sacrifices, nevertheless harbor a deep sentimental attachment to the Temple site.
This, however, is where the common ground between the women and their opponents begins and ends.
The joyously robust attitude to prayer and spirituality on the part of WOW women, who undoubtedly regard themselves as reappropriating the role of Miriam and her dancing sisters in the desert, is quite foreign to the more subdued religiosity characterizing many of the people who frequent the Kotel, unselfconsciously continuing the habit of generations. The view of female piety itself as public celebration stands in stark contradistinction to the humble mien of those more traditional women who are quite comfortable praying alone, idealizing and even cherishing their privacy. The pride that WOW participants feel in overcoming factional barriers and creating a sisterhood of Jewish women who can pray together despite their differences is also far removed from the entrenchment in exclusionary practices that characterizes their opponents.
The idealistic enthusiasm that WOW core members feel in making history, overcoming what they regard as the forces of darkness and bigotry, and creating a new environment of religious tolerance and pluralism, comes from another place. One can only hope that this gap will close over time, and that the persistent presence of WOW will contribute to a process whereby each group will learn from the other.
Just how influential such passion and tenacity will be in shaping the future ambience of women's presence at the Kotel has at least as much to do with extraneous factors (such as the future of women's tefilla groups in general and the balance of power on the ever-volatile Israeli political scene) as with the efforts of the WOW women themselves. But given the rapidly growing receptivity to women's voices in Jewish life at large, the chances are that the victory of WOW in their struggle for greater accommodation and self-expression in worship is merely a matter of time.
For those interested in following the process more closely, this anthology provides an unusual window to the self-perception of a few of the women who will probably one day be acclaimed as pioneers in the struggle for acknowledging women's rights to independent congregational prayer in sacred space. Framed in this context, their personal contributions and more theoretical reflections will remain memorable, moving, and impressive testimony to the power of feminist solidarity and determination. --Tamar Ross
ASSOCIATION OF JEWISH LIBRARIES
A compelling anthology, excellent essays. This book would make an excellent choice for any book club, women's group, synagogue or academic library. –Judith S. Pinnolis
THE VOICE OF LIVING JUDAISM
This book opens with its most powerful and provocative five words. The dedication "for the State of Israel." Powerful because the goal of WOW is to make space within Israel, at the place of "supreme national" importance, for women praying together. This is a challenging vision. It is about establishing pluralism at the Kotel. It is about setting feminist commitment above denominational allegiance. It is about facing religious intolerance, to the extent of physical violence. The Wall is a place of incredible contradictions. Perhaps these women, who come there genuinely in peace, will be part of the long slow process that will bring lasting peace to the Wailing Wall. –Shulamit Ambalu
DALLAS MORNING NEWS
The book offers an eminently readable collection of essays by 30-plus women who have had direct Kotel experiences, encompassing and blending both ancient and modern history with spirituality and moving personal stories. A detailed chronology is included, along with more than two dozen evocative black and white photos. –Harriet P. Gross
An intriguing anthology. Chesler's tenacity and the fervor and focus of all all WOW ensures that they will surely continue the struggle, however long it takes. –Elaine Margolin
By praying aloud at the Kotel, WOW participants have declared an end to voicelessness and have demanded full inclusion in the ritual and practice of Jewish observance. A moving testament to female-led (and female-only) worship and an inspiring--often riveting--look at the undoing of patriarchal rule. It is heady stuff. At the end of the day, these fierce, feisty, creative and sassy women are high on my list of heroes. –Eleanor Bader
NEW MEXICO JEWISH LINK
The effort of a group of unwavering women...have been met with frustrating obstacle after frustrating obstacle. To clear up much of the misinterpretation and misunderstanding surrounding WOW, Chesler and Haut have compiled an extensive explanation of WOW's philosophy and history. Their stories, essays and photographs tell of violence and arrest, of legal standstills, setbacks, and progress, and of political inequalities. Their stories also offer hope by presenting the accomplishments of a very determined group of multidenominational women battling so many sides. In Chesler and Haut's words: "As long as women are excluded from sacred space, there can be no complete worship of God." –Michelle Howard
AMERICAN JEWISH WORLD
This book is of historical importance. I was struck by the sincerity of the writers, especially the Orthodox women. The Women of the Wall are carrying on a double revolt: against the state turning over governance to the religious, a political struggle, and against the Orthodox treatment of women, a religious struggle. Praying at the Wall has major significance for Orthodoxy, far beyond the act itself. How long can women be excluded? –Ruth F. Brin
Women of the Wall includes analysis and reminiscences from dozens of women. The concept of transforming Judaism itself poses a threat to many in the religious establishment, and is deeemd irrelevant by those outside it. The Women of the Wall pray as a halakhic group which means they follow Orthodox practice in their manner of worship. The objection of the ruliing rabbis are not that these women are violating Jewish law but Jewish custom. And it is exactly the custom of exclusion and discrimination that the women wish to change. This is a comprehensive history. –Rebecca Schwartz
BLETHER. THE BOOK REVIEW SITE
The book serves as not only a description of one's group tenacity in fighting for their rights but also as a fascinating insight into the various views concerning the freedom of expression and assembly. –Norman Goldman
This is a bold book, intimate and rich in detail… Chesler is a voice crying out for women. She will never stop
--Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics and Going to Iran
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Note: The content of external articles does not necessarily reflect the views of The Phyllis Chesler Organization.