Praying for Pluralism: "It's About More Than Just a Wall"
During my first year as a rabbinical student, which was spent on the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I began to see my homeland in a new light, a light that sadly wasn’t pleasing to the eye. I was angry and hurt that my own Jewish homeland didn’t accept the type of Jew that I was, and I was inspired to do something about it. For this reason, I became an intern for the organization and multi-denominational prayer group Women of the Wall, a group whose aim is "to achieve the social and legal recognition of [their] right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” The organization’s mission is one of gender equality and religious pluralism in Israel.
Attending my first Women of the Wall service at the Western Wall, I could not believe the scene before me. Women were being taken to the police station and detained there, all because they chose to pray while wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). These women were told that they were “disturbing the public order.”
How ashamed I felt! Israel had become an embarrassment to me. I could not believe that the Israel I knew as a Jewish safe haven, a beautiful and spiritual homeland, was the same Israel allowing Jewish denominations to be placed on a hierarchy.
When I strip away the halachic (Jewish law) arguments of who is obligated to pray with tallit or tefillin (phylacteries) and who can or cannot pray out loud, I am left asking questions that only God can answer:
What does God think about all of this?
What does God think when seeing our divided people, a Jewish people that won’t even acknowledge one another as part of the same people?
What does God think when some are too busy yelling at Women of the Wall than taking that time to pray to God?
And for some more questions:
How could something as sacred as prayer tear us apart?
How could something that should lead us to understanding and unity only lead us to arguments and building higher barriers?
Why won’t my Israel accept my Judaism?
Where is the one who will stand up for religious pluralism and remind Israel we are all created b’tzelem Elohim “in God’s image” (Gen 1:28)?
Where is the one in Israel who is brave enough to say that every type of Jew is equal no matter his or her religious observance?
When many people talk about Women of the Wall, they narrow the topic to “women’s rights" - but I would like to change that notion.
I would like to overcome the idea that Women of the Wall’s mission is just a women’s battle. It is so much more than that. When we limit the struggle, we are narrowing the scope of people we are actually fighting for. You see, Women of the Wall’s mission is not just for women’s rights or gender equality but for freedom of interpretation. It is about thinking for oneself. It is about every Jew’s right to study Judaism, halacha (Jewish law), philosophy, and theology, and to choose which Jewish practices help one to live a meaningful life.
You see, when we choose to narrow the situation to a gender conflict, we are cheating ourselves of our own autonomy to live, practice, and pray in ways that are meaningful to each one of us as Jews. We are allowing one group of people to take away an individual right at a site that belongs to all Jews. This struggle is about more than just a wall. The Western Wall is a symbol for what we are still working towards: it is a symbol for whether we choose to build up boundaries between one another or find it within our hearts to be even stronger as one people. It is a symbol for whether we choose inclusion or exclusion. It represents the struggle for Israel to recognize, accept and place all Jewish denominations on an equal plane.
The work is not yet complete. Through education and consciousness-raising, we can all work towards a more pluralistic Jewish future.
This is my prayer.
Alli Cohen is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is a past Women of the Wall intern and currently a rabbinic intern at Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, OH.