Bonna Haberman is pumping her fist in the air. It was the moment that she envisioned on December 1, 1988 when she founded Women of the Wall (WOW). Now she can lead the monthly Rosh Chodesh service without harassment. However, Haberman, a former Bostonian and Brandeis University Resident Scholar in Women’s Studies, knows how differenct this service is from all the past services conducted by this group. No one will be arrested. No one will be bathed in spit. No one will be scorned in public. The headlines will not again shout that comedian Sarah Silverman’s sister and niece were arrested, interrogated because they wore a tallis and read from the Torah, and then made to promise not to return again to the wall for two weeks.
Ridiculously enough, that was in Adar when anticipating Purim meant dreaming of upside down moralities where the villain and the hero trade places. Here Rabbi Susan Silverman declared that her jailing was like “splitting [the sea] at Sinai.” to her this was a new freedom for women, who sometimes number almost 200. Last February, however, they prayed with some of the paratroopers who recaptured the Wall from Jordan in 1967; this was a special coup because, after the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, Jews were barred from praying at the Western Wall until Israel reclaimed the Old City.
Rabbi Silverman could have also used this metaphor to describe women celebraing the right to pray freely as before. History declares that it wasn’t always this way. Early pictures of the “Jew’s Wailing Wall,” as it was called in the 1890s, reveal a mixed congregation devoted and ignorant of the mehiztah, the divider separating the men from the women. This divider became a law declared by Israeli orthodox rabbis in 1928. Early penitents, before this, were full of awe that the Western Wall on the Temple Mount, a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Temple’s courtyard, is a sacred Jewish site. The main building from the Second Temple period was constructed by Herod the Great in 19 BCE, after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by the Roman occupation. Later layers were added from the 7th century upwards. It became a pilgrimage site beginning around the 4th century CE. The sections beneath the plaza were yet to be unearthed by ambitious Israelis at the end of the 20th century and even now in the early 21st century.
These were the tunnels that the women used after the Israeli court declared that it was not legal for women to arrive at their appointed corner of the wall. Officers constructed a walkway with an awning to fend off any thrown objects, a habit of only one month prior to this event. This time the Israeli police protected them because a Jerusalem district court ruled that WOW can now legally perform their monthly services. Even the Charedi (ultra-orthodox) leaders implored members of their community not to commit acts of violence against the gatherings. However, some disobeyed rudely and were taken into custody by the police in a Purim-style turnabout. The former heroes of orthodox protest again the prayer groups were now the villains disturbing the devoted, who numbered around 300, including modern Orthodox, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, many Israeli-born women, and even non-observant Jews of both genders.
Upon receiving an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University, Barbara Streisand in her recent commencement address, spoke of her support for WOW. She detailed how chairs were hurled at the women. for a video of her remarks see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sXHN8GHGqQ
For a history of Women at the Wall see:http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vaaj8INViDQ&feature=player_embedded