The Women of the Wall: Subverting Judaism in a Jewish state
The Western Wall is considered by many religions a sacred place, In the Jewish state of Israel it is thought to be the only remaining wall left of the second temple, therefore making it an extremely holy site for many Jews around the world. The Women of the Wall are a group who believe women should have the right to pray out loud at the Western Wall, wear prayer shawls, read from the bible and have an equal share in one of Judaism’s most holy places.
Until recently the wall has been directly under the control of the police, who take orders from the rabbinical authority in Israel which is strictly orthodox. The wall is set out with a divide for men and women with 75% of the space on the men’s side. Women are forbidden from praying out-loud, reading from the bible and blowing the shofar [rams horn] at the wall. Up until recently they were also forbidden from wearing prayer shawls as well.To break these rules is considered a desecration of the holy space and can result in arrests, fines and various other punishments.
The Women of the wall was formed to campaign for women’s equal religious rights in the state of Israel. They argue that while Jewish women’s rights are suppressed in Israel, it cannot call itself a Jewish state, and to stop Jewish women praying at one of the most holy Jewish sites is discriminatory and wrong.In protest, the Women of the wall hold services at the start of each month where they pray out loud and wear prayer shawls. This has caused out-rage at the wall, and frequently results in members of the group being arrested. These arrests have gained the Women of the Wall much needed media attention and helped them garner sympathy from much of the Jewish world. Recently several female members of the Knesset [Israeli Parliament] joined the monthly service claiming that the Women of the Wall’s cause is key to equality in Israel.
There have been many different court cases in this on-going struggle; the most recent of which is seen as a break-through for the women. This April a Jerusalem district judge ruled that it was in fact not against the law for women to wear prayer shawls at the wall which was seen as a big victory for the group. At the same time the campaign has drawn enough attention that the government has no other option but to deal with it. Netenyahu, the Prime Minister, has put head of the Jewish Agency NatanSharansky in charge of a finding a solution for all interested parties at the wall. Currently his suggestion of creating an egalitarian prayer sight next to the wall has been rejected, not only by the many outside the group, but also by many orthodox women in the group who wish to pray in female only spaces, this is along-side those who wish the wall to not be separate for progressive Jews and women, but equal.
The case of the Women of the Wall poses some difficult questions for how modern Jews interact with the state of Israel. On the one hand many Jews see Israel as their spiritual homeland, with places like the Western Wall being one of their most holy sites. On the other hand, religious law in Israel is made by Orthodox male Rabbis who have no respect for an alternative Jewish perspective. This means many Jews, especially women, feel actively alienated by religious laws in what is supposed to be their home. The Women of the Wall are only one example of many where women and religious minorities in Israel are fighting for their rights and ultimately shows the issue you face when different religious perspectives come head to head at a state level.
NEWS UPDATE 07/05/2013
The attorney General, after consulting with several religious leaders and ministers, has rejected the district court ruling that women should actually be allowed to pray at the rule. Ministers are now planning to add amendments and clarify the original laws to explicitly forbid women from praying at the wall. More info here.