The Wall and my Daughter’s Wall

Dr. Gail Labovitz
December 26, 2012
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Sitting in my e-mail in-box, as I sit to write this over Thanksgiving weekend, is an e-mail from the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, including an announcement of a program at a nearby synagogue.  The title of the program is “Women at the Wall: Prayer or Provocation?”  The write-up the event includes this statement: “This public forum is sparked by the Oct. 16 arrest of Anat Hoffman at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, for disturbing the peace by leading a prayer service and singing the Sh’ma out loud.”  Since that arrest just over a month ago (as of this writing), there were several more arrests a week ago at the services for Rosh Hodesh Kislev, news that was overshadowed by the unrest in Southern Israel and Gaza.

I’ve been involved with Women of the Wall, or more particularly the North American support network for Women of the Wall, for many years, ever since a friend (and wife of a rabbinical school classmate) brought me into this movement twenty-plus years ago.  I’ve attended meetings, and participated in planning and strategy discussions over e-mail, and done public speaking, and for a number of years maintained the e-mail announcement list for monthly meetings of the group in Israel.  But even if that were not the case, I think I’d still be deeply disturbed by the question in title of the program at my neighbor congregation, especially given that the hosts of the program are a “liberal” synagogue.  While I can guess which side of the issue the speakers in this particular context are likely to take, the very posing of the question in this way gives legitimacy to an insidious argument that is regularly made against Women of the Wall.

In fact, just this very argument broke out last month on my daughter’s Facebook page (she is a sophomore at NYU) when she posted a statement expressing her disappointment at Hoffman’s arrest and what it said about religious freedom for non-Orthodox Jews (our family being highly committed Conservative/egalitarian Jews) in what is supposed to be the home land for ALL Jews.  One of the first comments she received was an attempt to suggest that there must be another side to the story.  Although posting actual video of Hoffman’s arrest – Hoffman being quietly lead away as confused Hadassah women milled about – helped dispel any claim that Hoffman had actually “resisted arrest” or incited violence, this person continued to insist that in some way since Women of the Wall knew (or should have known) that their very presence was likely to be met by a violent response and/or arrests, that they were in some way responsible for provoking such a response.

My husband, noting that my daughter and I had actually (finally, for the first time, despite my years of activism for this cause) prayed with Women of the Wall last December, suggested that logic like that of our daughter’s friend could lead to a further, problematic conclusion:

“So when [my daughter] was the shlichat tzibbur for Nashot HaKotel last RH Tevet, it would have been her fault if someone had thrown a chair at her? Or if I went to beat the crap out of someone who threw a chair at her, should it be ok because, after all, throwing a chair at a woman should be expected to provoke her father to beat the [$&@#] out of you, so you should’ve expected it?”

Given that I knew I was in conversation with someone who was not on my friend list but my daughter’s, and someone significantly younger and less experienced in the world than myself, I tried to take a more measured tone. In fact, a bit of the educator in me came out, and I tried directing my interlocutor to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  It seems an appropriate step to take in this writing, as well.

Consider these words from King’s letter:

“Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.”

Only the question of whether the oppressor and oppressed are a “majority” and “minority” might not apply here.  Be that as it may, how many of us are implicated by these words:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’… In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?…We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.”

Of course, as King makes clear, the real answer to the question posed by the nearby synagogue is “both,” and that’s precisely the point.  When men pray in community at the Kotel, they are simply praying.  Yet when women do the same – no more, and actually less (since they do not constitute themselves as a “minyan” and consequently omit certain prayers) – then what they are doing cannot be defined simply as “prayer.”  The very fact of their being women – that and that alone – makes their actions, seemingly by definition, “provocation.”  When a man puts on a four cornered garment with ritual fringes on the men’s side of the Kotel plaza, it is a tallit.  When a woman puts on the exact same garment a few yards away in the women’s section, by that act alone she may have committed an act of “disturbing the peace.”

But then the question is: Whose peace?

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Dr. Gail Labovitz is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, where she teaches primarily for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and is also an ordained Conservative rabbi. She is the author of a number of scholarly articles, and the book Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature. She has also worked as a Senior Research Analyst for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and the coordinator of the Jewish Feminist Research Group for the Women's Studies Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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