It’s a theme lately: women taking the lead in pushing back against religious and gender oppression imposed by antiquated doctrine, fundamentalist dogma, and, typically, implemented by men. Today’s story hails from the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest prayer site in the Jewish religion, where a group of women, inclusive of Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of comedian Sarah Silverman, have formed a coalition named “Women of the Wall” to protest gender restrictions in how one can pray at this sacred site. Today these women were arrested for daring to wear the “tallit,” the Jewish prayer shawl traditionally worn only by men, while praying at the Western Wall. From NPR:
The Women of the Wall have been fighting for years for permission to worship in the manner that men do at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism for prayer. The stone structure is part of the retaining wall that surrounded the Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.
Men and women both pray at the wall, but in separate sections and under rules set by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a body appointed and funded by the government. It is headed by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz.
Many of the women at the wall Monday gather regularly on the first day of the Jewish calendar month to pray — and just as regularly, police detain them.
Much like the tradition-bound and gender-restrictive Catholic church, the more orthodox branches within the Jewish religion also take a very sexist view of how men and women are, respectively, able to worship or participate within the faith. And this, in the year 2013, rankles a large contingent of the faith.
Most famous of the gathered “rabble rousers” – aka Women of the Wall – is Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of zany comic, Sarah Silverman, well-known for her bawdy and irreverent take of life’s idiosyncrasies. Rabbi Silverman, who share a sense of humor – if a less iconoclastic one – is a Reform Jew, a branch of the religion that does not subscribe to such restrictive gender rules, amongst many other elements of the more orthodox interpretation of Judaism. And though the Orthodox faction does not recognize them, they are a growing and very vocal segment of Judaism and, in the case of Women of the Wall, willing to use the tactics of civil disobedience to make their point. They have been donning prayer shawls at the Wall for 25 years – and being arrested each of those times over those 25 years – and though none has ultimately been charged with a crime, neither have they been able to sway the fundamentalists in their midst.
But, still, they believe the point must be made, however long change takes. Their defiance in showing up at the Wall, month after month, on that first day of the Jewish calendar, to stake their claim to pray freely, as just as men do, is heralded by other free-thinking women who share their outrage at being so anachronistically limited in how they can express their faith. And because the police work at the behest of the Rabbi Rabinowitz, they enforce his policies. The leader of Women at the Wall, takes great issue with how the rabbi interprets Jewish law on this issue:
“Secular Israel, the democratic, Jewish state of Israel, has taken the keys to the holiest site of the Jewish people, and given it to one rabbi, who belongs to less than 8 percent of Israel’s population,” she says, referring to the country’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Hoffman had a male friend sneak in the prayer shawls. In the past, police have confiscated them. Then she and her supporters entered the women’s section, donned their shawls, and began to pray
The security force for the site moved in quietly and told some of the women to come with them. But the women refused, and sat on the ground.
Police have arrested women for donning prayer shawls at the wall in the past, but left them alone for the time being.
On the men’s side of a mesh barrier, some male supporters chanted along with the women. But one man began yelling at them, saying Reform Jews don’t belong at the wall — Israel’s ultra-Orthodox do not recognize more liberal strains of Judaism. […]
But once the crowd of supporters and media dispersed, police stepped in and grabbed 10 women, including Susan Silverman, the sister of American comedian Sarah Silverman, and Lior Nevo, a rabbinical student. [Source]
And since the police, too, believe women who are Reform Jews, particularly those with the audacity to wear prayer shawls, don’t belong at the Wall, they move in with their authority and make a great show of force in arresting the praying women.
Sarah Silverman was keeping tabs on the melee from the States and took to Twitter to shout-out her support of her sister and niece. From International Business Times:
“SO proud of my amazing sister @rabbisusan & niece@purplelettuce95 for their ballsout civil disobedience. Ur the t—!#womenofthewall,” the comedian wrote early Monday morning. The Twitter post was retweeted 248 times and the Facebook post was liked by nearly 500 users as of late Monday afternoon.
Most Facebook users who commented on the post were supportive of Sarah Silverman’s sister.
“As an Israeli, I’m ashamed she got arrested. All she did was praying at the Wailing Wall with a prayer shawl,” wrote Yonatan Nir. “I can’t believe there’s an actual Israeli supreme court’s rule forbidding them to do that… Religion should be free for everyone as they see fit!”
Rob Vogu wrote, “im not one who is keen or likes religion, but anything for greater good of womyn [sic] and all, i feel is a beauty in itself.”
It’s interesting to note that this past couple of weeks has provided several compelling stories of women standing up against religious and gender oppression. There were three separate stories of young women defecting from the hate-based Westboro Baptist Church to strike out with a new mission of tolerance and compassion (Libby Phelps Alvarez, Megan Phelps-Roper, and Lauren Drain). Another young defector from the Church of Scientology, Jenna Miscavige Hill, released a book detailing her experiences and ultimate escape from the constraints of that controversial organization. And of course, we cheered when it was announced Malala Yousafzai had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her continued stance against the Taliban who attempted to kill her simply for fighting for the right of women in her country of Pakistan to get educated.
Women all over the world are showing such strength and courage in response to systemic discrimination and repression in their religious communities that one of my male readers actually commented, “Are there any courageous MEN willing to take this step?” in response to a piece on the Lauren Drain’s escape from Westboro and subsequent stand with NOH8’s marriage equality campaign.
Certainly there are courageous men, but this is the moment of women. Women who are willing to face the shunning of their families, change their circumstances, leave their homes, speak out at risk of attack, even death, and willingly face arrest and detention to take a stand as equal members not only of their specific faiths, but of the human race.
As for the Women of the Wall:
After a circuitous court battle, the Women of the Wall have been offered an alternative site for worship away from the wall proper, something they refer to as “the back of the bus with new upholstery.”
The rabbi in charge of the wall hasn’t budged, although police did refrain on Monday from carting women away during prayer. The Israeli Parliament has basically punted on the issue.
Meanwhile, the Women of the Wall say they’ll be back next month to try again. [Source]
Brava, Women. Continue.
[See video of an earlier incident of the Women of the Wall being arrested in 2010.]