Women of the Wall: a historic Torah reading

This past Rosh Hodesh (Rosh Hodesh Iyar), Noah and I went to the kotel (the Western Wall) for a Rosh Hodesh service. Rosh Hodesh = literally, head of the month, refers to the beginning of a new month in the Hebrew calendar. 

Yes, in theory it would be nice to attend a Rosh Hodesh service at the kotel for any reason, but we were going with the particular aim to participate in and support Women of the Wall. For those who are not familiar with the political situation at the kotel, here’s the break down:

The kotel is divided into a men’s section and a women’s section, divided by a mechitza (a partition used to separate the two genders, customary at Orthodox prayer services). While many people who go to the kotel do not necessarily feel the need for a mechitza and are not necessarily members of communities that use a mechitza as general practice (including myself), the mechitza is generally accepted as a reasonable standard at the kotel to make it accessible to the most number of Jews possible. YET, the mechitza has enabled the development of discriminatory practices against women and their ability to worship freely at the kotel. For example, it is illegal to bring a Torah into the area of the kotel (for all genders in any circumstances). For men, however, this poses no problem because there are over 100 Torahs at the kotel for public use. BUT, all of the Torahs are kept on the mens side – not a single one on the women’s side. Traditionally, women do not read Torah, receive aliyot (recitation of the blessings before and after Torah readings), or lead services, and the set up at the kotel reinforces these traditional restrictions. YET, all Reform and Conservative as well as a growing number of Orthodox communities have adapted this traditional practice to be more welcoming towards women and their full participation in services and Torah leading. Thus, there are MANY, MANY women who regularly participate in and read at Torah services, but they are not able to do so at the kotel. WHY, then, you may ask, do women not have access to Torah at the kotel? Answer: The ultra-Orthodox (haredim) have political control over this area and they maintain the status quo.

Women of the Wall is a group that fights for Jewish women all around the world to be able to worship fully and equally at the kotel. Their hallmark event is a monthly Rosh Hodesh service at the kotel where they hold a complete service led by and participated in by women – including, to whatever extent is possible, a Torah reading. Prior to the first of Iyar a few weeks ago, the group (which has existed since 1988) has never successfully been able to read from a full size Torah scroll at the kotel. Full size scrolls had always been confiscated in the past, although there were successful instances of bringing in mini-scrolls.

So now that you know the background…

Noah and I headed to the Old City for Rosh Hodesh Iyar:

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The service went smoothly and interrupted for all of Pesukei DeZimra and Shacharit, but then it was time for the Torah service…

A male supporter (of whom there are many) got a Torah from the men’s side of the mechitza and handed it to the women by quickly opening up a space in the partition. The partition was quickly closed (and the man was thrown to the ground and injured by an angry ultra-Orthodox man).

Full size Torah in the women’s side – check! Celebration ensues:

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Meanwhile, one of the group leaders prepared the table to open the Torah scroll and read:

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As these events transpired, more and more ultra-Orthodox men were standing on chairs and looking over from the other side of the mechitza (there are also many Women of the Wall male supporters standing and looking over from the side and the back – where Noah was). When the Torah was opened and started to be read, a few ultra-Orthodox men opened the mechitza and tried to push their way into the crowd of women and take the Torah back. One of them was yelling, “zeh sefer sheli!” (this is my book!). The women reading tried to continue as naturally as possible while some of the male supporters tried to create physical blocks to prevent the ultra-Orthodox men from reaching the women. Other women tried to scare the men away by getting close to them and yelling, “I’m a woman! I’m a woman!” – utilizing the ultra-Orthodox practice of not looking at or touching women that they are not married to. Look at the center left in the photos below to see where the main action is happening:

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After some tense moments and an overall joyous Torah reading, it was time to wrap the scroll back up!

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And dance!

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It was a shehecheyanu moment (a prayer said to celebrate special occasions – particularly something happening for the first time):

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Who knows what will happen at the next Rosh Hodesh Women of the Wall service (which is coming up on May 19th). I’m not sure if I will attend, but either way I suggest you check the news afterwards! For a write-up in the Times of Israel about the historic reading outlined above, see here.

Old City Exploration

Hands down, the best part of being in Israel is getting to explore with my best friend:

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I’m so lucky to have such a great travel buddy! Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement and, arguably, the most significant day of the Jewish year – begins tonight, so we wanted to take the morning and early afternoon to visit the Jerusalem Old City for some site-seeing before a serious day of reflection. We took a roundabout way to walk to the Old City so we could walk along the race circuit for the upcoming Formula One Road Show (info here). Noah is EXTREMELY excited about Formula One, so I anticipate lots of cars in my future next week!

Along the walk, we had a lot of great views looking out on Jerusalem:

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We also spotted lots of sukkot (temporary outdoor structures put up for the holiday of Sukkot that begins next Wednesday):

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I love being in a country where Jewish holidays are so publicly noticed. I definitely plan on taking some walking tours next week to check out all the sukkot around the city! When we eventually arrived to the Old City, we headed to get tickets for the Ramparts Walk. The Ramparts Walk is a series of catwalks lining the top of the Old City walls:

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The walk gives incredible views looking out over Jerusalem and also views of inside the Old City that would generally not be visible from the regular roads. We did the southern part of the walk (planning to return in the future to do the northern part). Looking out beyond the city walls, we got great views of the Sultan’s Pool, Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Yemin Moshe (neighborhoods just on the outskirts of the Old City):

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East Jerusalem:

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And an excavation site just outside the Old City walls:

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Looking into the Old City, we had the rare opportunity to peek into the Armenian Quarter:

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The Armenian Quarter is actually its own walled city within the main Old City walls, and the quarter is closed off to the public. The views over the walls from the Ramparts Walk are essentially the only opportunity to see into where that community lives. Even so, the view of these basketball courts inside the Armenian Quarter were a nice reminder that we’ll all not so different in the end. 🙂

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We also walked by the Church of the Dormition: a church built by German Catholics to commemorate the eternal sleep of the Virgin Mary:

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After finishing the Ramparts Walk, we headed to the Kotel (also called the Western Wall or Wailing Wall – the only remaining remnant of the second temple). The space was all set up and ready for the anticipated influx of people coming for Yom Kippur – evidenced by the extended mechitza (divider to separate men and women during prayer, used by Orthodox Jews):

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I went down to the wall and spent a few minutes with a book I selected from the public prayerbook collection at the kotel (various prayerbooks are provided for public use):

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Before leaving the Old City, we took a detour to the Christian Quarter and spent a little time looking around inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

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The church is arguably the most significant Christian site within the Old City walls, marking the place where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried, and resurrected. The interior of the church is very unique, because it is actually shared among many Christian denominations. The various denominations each have a section of the church for their own shrines, art, and communal prayer spaces. As a result, different areas of the church have very different feels – reflecting the diversity of the denominations which control that specific area of the church.

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When you walk inside, you immediately see the Stone of Unction – also called the Stone of Anointing. Christian tradition believes this is the spot where Jesus was prepared for burial, and many people go to crouch and kiss the slab:

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In the center of the church is an area called the Rotunda. At the center of the Rotunda is a chapel called the Aedicule, inside of which is believed to be the Holy Sepulchre itself – the room where Jesus was buried and then resurrected. The tomb can only hold about 4 people at a time, so there was a long line of people waiting to go in and visit the site:

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Visiting the Old City was a ton of fun. I feel so lucky to be living in Jerusalem with the opportunity to visit these sites and see places that have been central to belief, faith, and identity to so many of the world’s people for literally thousands of years. Inside the Old City, it is also especially striking that while thousands come here on pilgrimage to see the sites of the world’s holiest city, it is also home to thousands of people whose regular lives are held within these city walls. Between the tourist shops and restaurants selling pizza, there are butchers, tailors, stores selling regular clothes and household items to Old City residents, and even a gym and internet cafe:

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Thinking about this dichotomy today reminded me of a poem by Yehuda Amichai, one of Israel’s most acclaimed modern poets:

Tourists, by Yehuda Amichai

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb
And on the top of Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust over our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed
my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was
standing around their guide and I became their target marker.
“You see that man with the basket? Just right of his head
there’s an arch from the Roman period.
Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself:
redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see
that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next
to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit
and vegetables for his family.”