“Just to Make a Statement”: Power, Sincerity, and the Women of the Wall

My girlfriend and I recently became engaged, which event has sent us into the religious and social minefield that is the process of planning a wedding ceremony. One issue that is of paramount importance to me, both as a scholar of Judaism and as a feminist, is that our ceremony addresses and tries to ameliorate the sexist narratives and legal mechanisms of “acquiring” a bride present in the traditional Kiddushin ceremony;[1] I’d also like to pass out a text explaining how and why our ceremony differs in this way. Yet, as we plan this, a voice in my head—echoing voices I’ve heard in real life—keeps repeating, “a wedding isn’t the place for a political demonstration. People will think that you’re planning the ceremony this way just to make a statement.

This is the point at which I tell that voice in my head to shut up. The dualism it establishes—between engaging “seriously” in prayer or ritual, and “making a statement”— infuriates me, and recent news out of Israel provides an object lesson as to why.

Nashot ha-Kotel, or Women of the Wall, is an interdenominational group of Jewish women who meet every month at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem to conduct prayer services. Their “central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”[2] Women of the Wall have been meeting for the past 24 years; in the last six months tensions between the group and the Kotel’s state-sanctioned religious administration have heightened considerably. As Haaretz reports:

For the past few months at Rosh Hodesh, the start of every Hebrew month, women worshipers have been forcibly removed from the square and taken for questioning, and sometimes even arrested. Their crime: use of a tallit, prayer shawl, or a siddur, prayer book, or singing aloud in the Western Wall plaza. The arrests point to a significant tightening of the limitations placed upon women’s prayer at the Wall.
Over the years, the Women of the Wall worked out various arrangements that enabled them to conduct their services; for instance, for a long time they were allowed to wear tallitot so long as they did not look like the traditional black-and-white prayer shawl. This led to the development of a colorful women’s tallit that became a symbol of the Women of the Wall.
Later, the police stiffened the rules and ordered the women to wear the tallit as a scarf around their necks and not to drape it across their shoulders in the traditional fashion.
Last week, a new order stipulated that women cannot enter the Western Wall plaza holding either a tallit or a siddur. For the women, this restriction was too much; some refused to relinquish their tallitot or remove them from their shoulders. Little by little, these orders seem to have metaphorically cut away at the women’s tallit, with the intention of making it disappear.

When asked for comment, the Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, responded by characterizing Women of the Wall as “fanatics” and belittling their religious commitment:

They don’t come to worship, they come to demonstrate,” Rabbi Rabinowitz of the Western Wall adamantly declared. “Every month they come and stir up a new provocation, so as to attract the media. They tried to bring in Torah scrolls, they deliberately sing loudly, and they do these things to create a fuss…What I decided is to remove this struggle from the Western Wall, because it makes Israel and the Western Wall look awful. We told them that the Western Wall is not the place to express political opinions.” (emphasis mine)

Rabbi Rabinowitz is implying, of course, that it’s impossible to demonstrate and worship at the same time. (It’s also worth noting that his wording rhetorically links Women of the Wall to anti-Occupation demonstrators, another group he likely considers deviant and traitorous to the Jewish norm.) And, in all fairness, the idea that worship is an activity in which you remove yourself temporarily from day-to-day concerns is not a position without, you know, significant precedent. Even etymologically, both the English (from Greek) word “sacred” and the Hebrew word kadosh, “holy,” come from roots having to do with “set-apartness” and “withdrawal.” Similarly, it is hardly controversial to suggest that the main goal of worship should be to direct attention not to yourself, but to the Divine.

But what Rabinowitz doesn’t see — or chooses not to see — is that separating worship from daily affairs and not drawing attention to oneself in the practice of worship is a luxury reserved for powerful people with normative practices. If you’re a member of a group that’s “out,” accessing the same prayer sites, practices and rituals, with the same level of respect and dignity, as the “in” group can’t not attract attention. In such a case, worship necessarily becomes a political action.

One of the great ironies of this situation is the fact that an Orthodox Rabbi — a person who, presumably, considers prayer to be very, very important — is belittling acts of prayer. Either prayer— the valuation of which presupposes allowing worshipers to pray freely and with dignity at sacred sites— is important, or it isn’t.

If prayer isn’t, in fact, important, Rabbi Rabinowitz is still upholding an inequitable structure, but he sounds a little less ridiculous when he claims that Women of the Wall are merely creating a petty fuss. However, given that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation has claimed, per Haaretz, that “women’s worship can harm the sensitivities of male worshipers at the Western Wall,”[3] one might then ask him why, if prayer isn’t important, it’s so critical to protect the sensibilities of the men who pray at the Kotel. (For the record, the entire institution of the mechitza–the wall that divides the sexes in Orthodox prayer spaces–is incredibly offensive to my sensibilities, but I doubt the foundation would be so quick to accommodate me.)

If, on the other hand, prayer is important, then it’s just as important for women (and for genderqueer folks) as it is for men. And an arrangement that precludes those people from equal access to prayer is not, to borrow a phrase from Rabinowitz, “a way that allows everyone to be together with one another, and so no extremist group can do whatever it wants.”

I’ve never prayed with Women of the Wall. In fact, I’ve only prayed at the Wall once in my life, and in retrospect that wasn’t exactly a watershed experience. Frankly, in my own practice and belief, the Kotel just isn’t that important. To the extent that I have a relationship to it, that relationship is ambivalent on many levels. I don’t mourn the Temple—I think the Rabbinic Judaism that succeeded the Temple cult is in almost all ways a better tradition. I find a focus on one particular landmark or site of worship to tread uncomfortably close to idolatry. And all of this is not to mention my deeply troubled relationship, on both political and religious grounds, with Zionism as a whole.

But let’s make something very, very clear: Women of the Wall’s struggle isn’t about The Wall as such. It’s about what the Jewish community has made the Wall a symbol of, and the implications of that for the value of women as Jews, and of their prayers as Jewish prayers. Powerful voices and traditions within the Jewish community have, over the years, defined the Kotel as “the holiest site in Judaism,” to the point where that definition is a glibly accepted truism in the vast majority of conversations about this issue.

If the Kotel is, at least in popular discourse, the “holiest site in Judaism,” then the ways in which worship occurs there become, to borrow Clifford Geertz’s language, not only a descriptive model of, but also a prescriptive model for, an ideal form of Jewish worship. As such, the unequal treatment of non-male prayer at that site sends a powerful message about who the ideal, normative Jew is, and about the value of the prayers of people outside that norm in an ideal Jewish world.

It’s worth remembering that the “just making a statement” slur has been used to discredit plenty of other outsiders who attempt to worship on equal terms with the in group. Gay marriage isn’t “real marriage,” it’s just a political stunt. The ordination of female and gay priests, ministers, or bishops aren’t about the spiritual needs of the relevant bodies of worship, they’re political ploys. Et cetera. Et cetera. Let’s recognize language that labels the worship of the marginalized as “political stunts,” “demonstrations,” “fusses,” and “statements,” for what it is: a way to exclude, discredit, and infantilize groups outside the norm of worship, by telling them, “you’re just making a scene.”

Against this backdrop, if I didn’t know the context behind it, I’d wholeheartedly agree with Rabinowitz’s claim that he “[fails] to understand the merit of prayer that hurts others.” Unfortunately, I do know the context. The regulations surrounding the Kotel make it exactly a prayer space that hurts others. And in such a case his comment is cynical and astonishingly fatuous.

This photo, taken by State of Formation’s own Becky Silverstein, was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons and is used under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

[1] For the record, I tend to favor something along the lines of the brit ahuvim ritual detailed by Rachel Adler in her landmark work, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics.

[2] For more background and commentary, see Nashot ha-Kotel’s website, and the following articles (to name only a few) by Vanessa L. Ochs (“For the Sin I Have Committed Before You By Praying as a Jew at the Western Wall” and “Walls Within Community”) and State of Formation’s own Becky Silverstein (“Gender, Privilege, and Women of the Wall”.)

[3] I would be remiss if I failed to note the connection between this kind of rhetoric, and the phenomena of slut-shaming, and of victim blaming in cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and most other instances of violence against women–or, for that matter, any other members of marginalized groups.

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6 thoughts on ““Just to Make a Statement”: Power, Sincerity, and the Women of the Wall

  1. Rebecca –
    Thank you for bringing your voice to the conversation. Your point that dividing the prayer and the everyday is a position of privilege is not one that I had articulated for myself. Though I think it runs through my piece on Women of the Wall as well.
    — Becky

    1. Becky, thanks for your comment! I agree that this thread runs through your (extremely valuable) piece as well. I think that, when one breaks it down, dismissing someone’s expression–whether it be of worship, gender, both, or neither–as “just to make a statement,” as not necessary or important, is a way of allowing oneself not to really see and account for a thing that is real and uncomfortable for or challenging to the status quo.

  2. Rebecca, as a non-Jew but a pious person and a feminist, I agree with your statements.

    I’d also love to hear more about your wedding and how you plan to make is a teaching moment. My own wedding was very much a statement as well as a celebration of love.

    As a practicing polytheist (me) and an atheist (her), we were very concerned about the pressure to have a “normal” Christian-style wedding. We decided to take elements of an Irish polytheist wedding and make it a lot more egalitarian, and nix any nod to the Christian religions we were raised in.

    The big day included an animal sacrifice, carried out privately and humanely by the polytheists. The meat was then slow-cooked all day to provide the wedding dinner. Nothing about the wedding ceremony itself was familiar to most of our guests, but it was explained succinctly and in good humor. I think keeping the message positive is the key to wedding-as-statement.

    The message I wanted people to take away was: this is not a “non-traditional” ceremony. It’s simply a ceremony from a different tradition.

    The message was communicated, and people continue to reminisce about it as the best wedding they’ve ever been to.

    I’m not very familiar with the particulars of a Jewish wedding. I’d love to hear more about what changes you plan to make.

  3. I have been thinking about Women of the Wall for over two decades now, and this essay by a feminist ethicist gives me a whole new way of seeing the struggle and understanding its importance. Thank you!

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