From the Western Wall to the Western Well: Where Women Cannot Pray

The Email came; I read: “FYI for those who have not heard about the recent arrest of Anat Hoffman  [an Israeli woman who has led the effort for women to pray freely at the Western Wall] for chanting the Shema out loud at the Western Well.”    

Says the Sh’ma, “God is One.”  

Unless you are a woman. Then God is not One, and probably not even Two, or Three, or Ten (as in the Kabbalistic imagery of the Sfirot). God is as splintered as the s^h^a^r^d^s of a broken wine-glass after the wedding.

Not surprising: The Rabbis taught that our Covenant with the One is a Marriage. The Wedding was at Sinai.

So————-   arrest a One who Proclaims the One, and the glass is truly shattered — not to affirm the marriage but to destroy it.
 
And forbidden was not only chanting aloud this outcry of Unity, but wearing a tallit — a prayer shawl. What makes the shawl sacred is fringes at its four corners, fringes woven of a person’s own cloth and the air of the Breath of Life. Threads of connection between the wearer and the world.  Good fringes, not good fences, make good neighbors. Women who wear Fringes to connect find their fringes forbidden at this Wall, making it a Wall of Separation?
Rereading, I see the email report said “at the Western Well.”  “Well,” not Wall. Ah, maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we need a Western Well!    Like Hagar’s.  And Rivka’s. And Rachel’s. And Tzipporah’s. And Miriam’s.
 
Maybe the problem is marrying State Power — the power to arrest — to Male Overlordship.  On second thought, maybe they don’t need to be married — each is, both are the same domineering life-process. Maybe the State Power that arrests and invades yet calls itself Jewish is as much about Overlordship as are those who beat up women, yet call themselves Torah-true?
 
Ahhhh, maybe that’s what the Levitical prohibition is about:  “No Overlording Alpha Male shall marry an Overlording Alpha Male as if he were marrying a woman who wants to chant the Unity at a sacred place. The result is liable to be the “Violence Alliance.”

 Sh’sh’sh’sh’shma! Hush’sh’sh’sh’sh in order to listen to the Wellspring’s mmmmmurmmmurrrring:  “I am your long-lost sister Hajrrrr: Drink me. I am your long-lost sister Tzipporaaaahhhhhhh:  Drink me. I am your long-lost sister Mmmirrryammm: Drink me.”
 
All those trouble-making women. Tzipporah and Miriam would have been dragged away, shrieking the Sh’ma into the night, if they had dared to chant it at the Western Wall.  Better they should find a Western Well instead.
 
Why are we still pretending that there is a Jewish government  in charge there?  Maybe Anat Hoffman is the real Prime Minister of a Jewish country that is defined by wellsprings, not by Walls?
 
Sh’sh’sh’sh’shalom  —  Arthur

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Dear chevra,
 
On first hearing about the arrest of Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I sent out an expressive, poetic/midrashic  letter evoking my feelings— but not invoking action. I want here to explore what to do.
Hoffman was arrested for chanting out loud the Sh’ma (one of the crucial prayers of Judaism, affirming the Unity of YHWH, the Interbreathing of all life),  while wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl. Both the chanting aloud and wearing the tallit are forbidden there – for women. They are completely normal, for men.
Women have been praying this way at the Wall for 23 years. Out of the pressure to stop them has arisen a group called “Women of the Wall.” In deference to Orthodox women in the group, WoW has not tried to hold a gender-integrated service of women and men together.
What happened to Hoffman? She reports –
I was handcuffed, strip searched, laid on the bare floor. …They checked me naked, completely without my underwear. I was not allowed to call my lawyer. I was dragged on the floor … 15 meters…  with my hands cuffed and worse of all, locked in a tiny cell without a bed, with three prisoners,one 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.

In response, Rabbi Laura Geller of Los Angeles wrote —   “I believe that if Henrietta Szold were alive today she would be standing next to Anat Hoffman singing the Sh’ma wrapped in a tallit. If I were in Jerusalem this week I would be there, too.”  
(In 1903, Henrietta Szold became the first woman allowed to study at the all-male Jewish Theological Seminary. JTS insisted that as a condition, she agree to forego seeking ordination to the rabbinate. Reluctantly, she agreed. She became the founder of Hadassah, a women’s organization that is now one of the largest Israel-oriented Jewish groups. This particular prayer service at the Western Wall was part of a gathering in Jerusalem to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, and Hoffman had spoken at the Hadassah convention.  Astonishingly, while Hadassah has reaffirmed  in general terms its support for women praying at the Western Wall, it has not yet commented on Hoffman’s brutal arrest.)

Back to Rabbi Geller’s wistful assertion that if she were this week in Jerusalem, she too would risk arrest for praying aloud, wrapped in a tallit, at the Western Wall. But she isn’t in Jerusalem this week. Indeed, few American Jews are.  What to do?

Some American Jews have suggested a symbolic penitential act: that women and men in America put aside their tallitot in prayers, and/or pause for a moment of silence beforee chanting the sh’ma.
Some have suggested organizing pressure on Hadassah to speak out against the arrest with vigor.

Leaders of  Reform Judaism in America have urged the Israeli government to investigate police behavior, and have restated their stand that women should be free to pray at the Wall in the same ways men do.
But it seems to me that as laudable as are these efforts, Rabbi Geller’s instinct is correct — that the best way to insist on religious freedom is to embody it.
Although few American Jews are in Jerusalem this week,  many many of us are in cities where there is an Israeli consulate or embassy.
It would be pointed and powerful for women and men to show up there together on a workday morning (so that the staff would actually be there) to chant perhaps a bare-bones version of the morning service. Women and men together wearing tallitot, women and men together chanting aloud, women and men together denouncing this act of official violence against women.   

Up to that point, such pray-ins would be legal — for unlike Israel, the US has freedom of assembly and religion. And some present might choose to go further: a sit-down on the steps, a visit inside, etc.

Some of us see the arrest at the Wall as a special case of using police power at the behest of haredi “ultra-Orthodox” Jews with political clout in Israel.

Others of us see this use of violence against women as part of a larger pattern of actual practice, regardless of rhetoric,  in which the Israeli government encourages the use of violence by Israeli settlers on the West Bank against Palestinians; tolerates lynch-mobbery by Israeli Jewish youth against Palestinians living in East Jerusalem;   tolerates mob violence and uses official police power against refugees from Africa seeking asylum in Israel; stops, boards, and takes over on the high seas, in international waters, a ship with five parliamentarians from Europe and a former Canadian lawmaker, carrying a shipment of humanitarian aid for Gaza  — in short, behaves at home and abroad like a militarized state uncaring about rights of the disempowered.

From either point of view, it is the Government of Israel that ordered and carried out the arrest and tolerates the brutality.  It is the government that should be the focus of demands for change.

Universal: 

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