For decades, liberal Jewish women have been demanding a place at the Wailing Wall for men and women to pray together – a horror for the ultra-Orthodox. Moreover, like men, they want to bring the Torah to the sanctuary. Now the dispute comes to a head.
"Reformists go home," shouts an angry young man in a black suit and kippah. At the same time, a group of women chanted loudly to defend themselves against the insults of their ultra-Orthodox brothers in faith. The women move in rhythm with their songs around a Torah scroll, some keeping their eyes closed: Once a month, the square in front of Jerusalem's Wailing Wall is transformed into an arena for verbal exchanges between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the women of the Wailing Wall, who are supported by liberal and conservative Jews.
While the ultra-Orthodox establishment clings to the traditions and strict interpretation of the pious Jewish rules, the Jewish Reformists and also the Conservatives fight to be allowed to express their faith in a more individual way. The women of the Wailing Wall are leading this struggle, which they are also fighting on behalf of the majority of liberal Jews in the Diaspora. They are a thorn in the side of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel because they do what traditionally only Jewish men are allowed to do: They wear the kippah, the head covering of devout Jews, and some even tie the Jewish prayer straps around their arms and heads.
For 27 years now, feminist Jews have come on the first day of each Jewish month. Even their songs disturb the orthodox men. According to strict halacha, Jewish law, they are forbidden to listen to female voices singing. However, they are particularly angered by the fact that women carry the Torah and that they hold mixed prayers together with liberal Jews.
"Amalekites," exclaims a young ultra-Orthodox, alluding to the biblical people who were enemies with the Hebrews. According to the Old Testament, King David quarreled with God because, in spite of his order to exterminate the people and their animals, he spared the king and the cattle of the Amalekites. For an Orthodox Jew, Amalekite is one of the worst swear words.
Separation at the Wailing Wall
In order to settle the quarrels at the Wailing Wall once and for all, the government decided at the end of January to divide the area immediately in front of the Wailing Wall. Ultra-Orthodox men and women should then continue to pray undisturbed, separated by gender and in accordance with the pious tradition in the northern section.
For the liberal women of the Wailing Wall and their male comrades-in-arms, the southern section was to be prepared from now on.
Necessity is the mother of invention
"Nothing has happened since the government decision," grumbles Lesley Sachs, chairwoman of the Women of the Wailing Wall. "The government is stalling." Police had caught Sachs red-handed trying to get to the Wailing Wall two weeks ago, complete with Torah scroll. "Reading from the Torah is an integral part of our prayer at the beginning of the month," says the vivacious final-five-year-old, outraged, "I am not a criminal."
According to the legal ruling, she was authorized to read the Torah even in the ultra-Orthodox women's section. The only problem is that Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, state commissioner for the entire area of the Wailing Wall, intercepts the liberal Jewish women even before they reach the Wall. "We're allowed to read the Torah, but we're not allowed to bring it in," Sachs complains. The women must therefore always come up with new tricks to smuggle the holy book to the prayer site. They do not always succeed.
Government should keep its promise
The fact that the government is delaying implementation of the decision is due to protests, especially from Oriental Orthodox voters, and the backtracking of the Orthodox Shas party, which is now threatening to leave the governing coalition. "The government does not have the right to decide on mixed prayers in front of the Wailing Wall," Jerusalem's Oriental Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar sums up the anger of many ultra-Orthodox.
Amar moved with a group of strictly observant women and men to the prayer area designated for liberal Jews and demonstratively stretched out a cloth to separate the sexes. "He wanted to show us who actually still owns the area," Sachs explains. "It's coming to a head," she says, urging the government to keep its promise: A physical separation between the ultra-Orthodox and the "pluralists" and a clear definition of responsibilities. The Wailing Wall is "the heart of the heart," Sachs enthuses, "the Mecca of Judaism".