Monday, January 26, 2009

Fear -- and awe -- with Women of the Wall

Monday morning I woke up at 5:30am and walked to meet my friend and classmate Emma. Together we walked to the Old City, up the rocky path to the Zion Gate and down to the Western Wall. It's Rosh Hodesh, the new moon marking the beginning of the Hebrew month of Shevat. Every Rosh Hodesh, the Women of the Wall meet to pray together.

A Rosh Hodesh service would typically include morning psalms and prayers, the Hallel service (a set of celebratory psalms used on new moons and festivals), and reading from the Torah. For women praying at the Western Wall, this last part is actually illegal under Israeli law.

It turns out that wearing my tallit was also illegal. I didn't know that it was illegal, but I did know that it felt scary. There were nine of us there, huddled in the back of the women's side of the space in front of the Kotel. I wasn't sure what to expect of this whole experience, so I found myself watching the other women closely for social cues. Emma took out her tallis so I took out mine. And then it hit me: the other women had tallitot that could easily have passed for a scarf or shawl that happened to have fringes on its corners; my tallis is a large rainbow tallis designed by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. It more or less shouts: "Hello, everybody, I'm wearing a tallis!!!"
I felt fear and hesitation and then I realized that this fear and hesitation is one I have been walking around with since I got off the plane last summer: fear of the scrutiny of my Haredi/ultra-Orthodox brothers and sisters. And, in this context, not only fear of their disapproval, but fear of their violent attack.

This garment that I wear as a reminder of the mitzvot, that I wear to wrap myself in Divine light and love, was now turned into a marker that I could be attacked for wearing. Suddenly not wearing it did not feel like an option. I wrapped myself up and took a moment to let the space underneath its folds be the only space, to let this place itself --regarded as Jews by holy and yet governed by laws which strike me as deeply unholy, as simply wrong-- to let this place itself disappear. To remember that, more that I am subject to Haredi scrutiny, I am also subject to ultimate scrutiny. I chose which master to serve, I tried to let fear melt into awe. And then we prayed.

No one threw anything at us or attacked us physically (though there have certainly been attacks in WoW's 20 year history). Mostly the worst we were subject to was dirty looks. I was reminded of the college course I took on deviance. Jim Monsonis, a favorite professor of mine, had us do a project where we were instructed to "do something mildly deviant and write about it."

When it was time for the Torah reading, we trucked all the way over to Robinson's Arch, a site further south on the wall where men and women can pray together, where women can form a minyan, a site which is freed from the clutches of state-backed ultra-Orthodox control. When I asked why we were moving, one of the women said simply, "Because if we tried to read Torah here, we would be lynched."

I have too many mixed emotions and thoughts to describe here and now but I am very glad that I went.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Kol Hakavod! It's hard to be in Jerusalem and not be controlled or dominated by the comparison to orthodox and Haredi versions of Judaism. To wear your talit in the face of that is quite impressive. You go girl!

(Interestingly, my google "word verification" is "kbula" - is that from me or you?)