Although the origins of Shabbat are tied to the seventh day of creation in Genesis, there are several other components that factor into its observance. Shabbat is about remembering two significant events: the first is the seventh day of creation, when god rested from his work and the second is the Exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites were liberated from slavery and given the Torah on Mount Sinai. To observe the sabbath is literally to refrain from the work associated with building the Tabernacle, but it also includes the cessation of all labour. Thus, many shops, restaurants, and public transportation in Israel are out of service starting Friday before sundown until nightfall on Saturday. The purpose is to rest and take delight in the sabbath as one would in the world to come (a place of peace, where all needs are met) and to honour it as sacred and distinct from all other days of the week.
The person who lights the candle, which is typically a woman, is the one who initiates the sabbath. Once the candle is lit, it is the beginning of sacred time—men go to the synagogue, whereas women are not obligated to go and often remain at home instead. There are, however, many aspects of Jewish tradition and ritual practice where women play a central role: lighting the candles to initiate the sabbath, beautifying the sabbath with her best clothes, jewelry and food, and being on the receiving end of Shabbat blessings, particularly the poetry of Proverbs 31, which praises the Jewish woman in appreciation for all that she does. This clear distinction between men and women highlights that although they each have their own religious obligations, there is a gendered history of tradition and ritual practice that creates a dissonance between how and when they worship. This is problematic in terms of feminism because a certain honour is given for prayer that women are excluded from.
This exclusion occurs primarily in the synagogue, a private space where any attempt to change the traditional role of women is difficult to achieve—especially in Israel, where the Orthodox tradition remains a dominant influence. That said, women are typically seated in a separate area where they cannot be seen and, to avoid further distraction, they are also forbidden to sing. According to the Talmud, a woman’s voice is distracting and, like her hair, it is considered to be “sexually enticing.” Norma Baumel Joseph argues that “the laws prohibiting a man from listening to the voice of a woman singing are consequential only in the Orthodox community today.” It is therefore a “fear of sexual indiscretions and men’s inability to control themselves” that renders Jewish women silent and religiously invisible, as a result of their exclusion from prayer. Joseph describes how in the earlier biblical period, women’s “voices and their prayers were readily accepted by God and the community of Israel.” How have things changed so drastically? First, we must consider that Joseph is providing a “feminist-friendly” interpretation of the Torah, the halakha, and the rabbinic debates within the Talmud, however, the reality is that many of the practices that men are obligated to observe are not strictly forbidden to women. That said, if a woman wants to sing from the Torah or wear tallit and teffilin as she prays, there is no halakhic law prohibiting her to do so.
Despite this loophole in the tradition, it is important to note that some women are content with and willing to keep the role they have been designated by their community. Others, however, are more eager to fight legal battles in order to make room for women in the Jewish tradition, particularly in terms of ritual performance in public spaces—where the intimate worlds of men and women often converge. That said, women’s movements in Israel, such as Women of the Wall, are attempting to make their voices heard by god, the state, and the Jewish community at large, in order to make women’s equality in the Jewish tradition a reality. Of course, this is no easy feat. However, it is believed that women’s prayers are heard by god, nonetheless. The explanation for this is that women are capable of hesed, “loving-kindness.” This implies that women have a unique relationship with god (a belief that is echoed in the narratives of biblical figures, such as Sarah and Rebecca) because they care for their families as god cares for creation. The Women of the Wall draw on this notion by highlighting the sacredness of the Kotel (the Western wall), which—according to the Midrash—is where the feminine aspect of god resides. Batya Kallus, the vice director of the movement who spoke to our class about Women of the Wall (specifically, the political and legal struggles faced by Jewish women of all denominations who wish to pray is public wearing ritual garments), elaborated on this belief by explaining how the living and imminent presence of god remained at the Western wall after the destruction of the temple. Undoubtedly, this has become one of the holiest and most significant sites in Judaism.
Kallus explains that the vision of this movement is to enable women to worship according to their tradition (i.e. wearing tallit, teffilin, and reading from the sefer Torah) in a public and sacred space, primarily the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Furthermore, the central mission is “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women…[to pray] collectively and out loud.” Through social advocacy, the goal is “to change the status-quo that is currently preventing women from being able to pray freely at the Western Wall” and “to educate Jewish women and the public about the social, political and personal ramifications of limiting and eliminating women’s right to pray as a group at a holy site.” This means highlighting injustices and violations of civil rights, human rights and religious freedoms. The purpose of such a movement is also “to empower and encourage Jewish women to embrace religion freely, in their own way” and to celebrate religious pluralism in Israel—a contentious and ongoing issue that I have addressed in various blogs, yet there is seemingly no “right” approach for resolving it.
Due to their progressive politics, Women of the Wall have received much criticism regarding their intentions. Are they truly engaged in this movement in order to pray freely at the Kotel, or only to make a political statement against “the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over religion” in Israel? The movement itself is composed of a diverse group of women, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and self-defined Jews, who remain, as a whole, unaffiliated with other social and political groups. As a scholar of religion, it is not my place to determine the sincerity of the movement, but for people like Miriam Woelke, an Orthodox Jew and inside blogger from Mea Shearim, it is easy to dismiss the movement as having “nothing to do with religion.” She states that “the Kotel women are only there when it comes to make a point but many of them don’t even live in Israel but only fly in for the demonstrations. And, to me, many of them don’t even look Jewish.” Her statement speaks to the ongoing tension between Jews in Israel (i.e. the strictly observant and those who wish to change certain aspects of the Jewish tradition in order to be more inclusive of Israel’s diversity on a social and democratic level). More specifically, this speaks to an underlying sense of discrimination toward Jews who do not live in Israel, those who do not abide by the Orthodox tradition, and a feeling of unease toward diversity—despite the multifaceted nature of “Jewishness” in Israel and world Jewry, alike. To make matters worse, there have been accusations against various leaders of Women of the Wall, suggesting that they are part of an anti-Israel agenda, or that the movement, in general, is disruptive to the public peace—particularly, the traditionally held practices of Orthodox and haredi Jews, which are to be protected under the Knesset’s “Protection of Holy Places Law” (1967).
Although the tension continues to escalate as an intra-religious conflict, the state is also strongly involved in the matter. According to Joseph, “the state has effectively silenced” these women by responding to the complaints and protests held by the “ultra-religious” who do not wish to have their holy space desecrated by women’s voices. A great example of this rhetoric is seen in a 1988 interview with Rabbi Meir Getz, the chief Rabbi of holy sites and the Western Wall at the time, who stated (in response to the first women’s prayer service at the Kotel) that, “what the Women of the Wall did was purely provocative, and it’s the same as bringing a pig to the Western Wall plaza. Women at the Wall are like a pig at the Wall.” This clearly demonstrates an aversion to the presence of women in sacred space and the desire to exclude them as if their presence and will to pray is halakhically forbidden. At this time, many Orthodox and haredi men violently protested the Women of the Wall and by 1990, the Ministry of Religious Affairs released a statement in congruence with this attitude: any practices in a holy space that fall outside of tradition or “hurt the feelings of the praying public” are strictly forbidden. If transgressed, the punishment is 5-12 months of imprisonment and a 500 NIS fine. By 2013, many state judges have declare that “the Women of the Wall were well within their rights to pray out loud, with tallitot and tefillin, and were neither going against the custom of the place nor disturbing the peace.” Others state that there is no cause for arrest because the wall is meant to be “inclusive and pluralist.”
When visiting the wall itself, it was hard to imagine this “inclusiveness” when a large wall divides the men and women’s section of the Kotel. But, as I peered over the divider and observed the men and looked back at the women who were equally moved by the presence of the “holy of holies,” I realized the importance of this site as a public space for all Jews to have access to without fear of violence or mistreatment, let alone feeling restricted by the conditions of private spaces, such as the synagogue, in what should be a shared and public space. To quote Norma Baumel Joseph, “praying at the Kotel has become a way of publicly proclaiming [women’s] inclusion in Jewish history and religious practice,” and I, as an outsider to Judaism, began to get a sense of how women are making progress towards equality by merely being present and accepted in a space that was not my own.
Baumel Joseph, Norma. “Shema B’kolah: On Listening to Women’s Voices in Prayer.” In Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site, edited by Phyllis Chester and Rivka Haut, 288-309. Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003.
Acts of Loving-Kindness:
Women of the Wall:
Protection of Holy Places Law: