I'm Still Thinking About the Day I Chanted Torah at the Kotel

March 8, 2017Sharon Mann

A week has passed, and I am still mentally and emotionally processing my experience chanting Torah for the first time on Rosh Chodesh Adar with Women of the Wall, surrounded by intense hostility, jeers and curses from a large hot headed ultra-Orthodox crowd. What most jarred me was that the majority of hecklers were there for the sole reason of threatening and disturbing our prayer service. Amidst all the noise to drown out our voices – including the broadcasting of the men’s morning prayers over a loudspeaker ordinarily only used on some Jewish festivals – I tried to concentrate on the service and my reasons for being there with my family, friends, and all the supportive women and men who attended both in person and spirit.

At my bat mitzvah 40 years ago in the Conservative synagogue I grew up in, I had only chanted a Haftorah portion, as was the custom. So, along with embracing a personal milestone, I felt strongly about participating in a service and supporting Women of the Wall’s ongoing struggle to ensure a safe and inclusive space for women’s prayer at the Kotel, or Western Wall – for myself, my daughters, and all those who believe in pluralism and inclusion. 

Despite my attempts to focus, I found myself continually distracted and appalled by the chillul Hashem (typically translated as “desecration in the name of God”) that surrounded us. I thought to myself that maybe my understanding of chillul Hashem was wrong. Upon returning home, I looked up the term, and wherever I searched, including Merriam-Webster's dictionary, it was described as "an act in contravention of Jewish religious or ethical principles that is regarded as an offense to God" (emphasis mine). I was deeply distressed to confirm that the protesters had been unaware that their own verbal violence – and in some cases physical violence – in that holy space was an affront to God. Moreover, I felt depressed and as if I had been smacked in the face by the reality that our Israeli government condones such behavior with its silence and inaction. While standing among the unruly uproar, I held onto my two daughters who stood with me and tried to concentrate.

I don't don a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) as a regular practice and have only worn it when I have had the honor of an aliyah (literally, “an ascending”) to the Torah. That morning, though, I felt compelled to wrap myself in the tallit that my father presented to my oldest daughter on the occasion of her becoming a bat mitzvah eight years ago. I wore it throughout the entirety of the service to strengthen my concentration and connection to the past and the present.

I remembered that upon presenting it to my daughter, my father told her:

"…the prayer shawl has been part of Jewish life for thousands of years and it has always had great meaning and significance. When you wrap it around yourself you are surrounding yourself with generations of Jewish history. Your tallit is feminine and should connect you with women who have come before you and women who are with you now."

He also said, as did my in-laws who gave my younger daughter her tallit, that as you pray wearing a tallit and participate in services, you are a trailblazer lighting up a new path for the women in your family.

How right they were!

On Rosh Chodesh Adar, even my youngest daughter felt spurred to wear her own tallit for the first time since her bat mitzvah, a reaction to the chillul hashem of the crowd. I am proud of my daughters' reactions to the situation we faced and felt extra satisfaction and fulfillment regarding my decision to participate in the service.

I've been living in Israel since 1992 and can't believe that women here are still struggling to read Torah at the Kotel and participate in all aspects of religious life. My mixed impressions about Rosh Chodesh Adar will still take some time to settle. Still I feel enriched and empowered knowing that each small step we take is meaningful in the ongoing struggle for all Jews to feel welcome and respected at that holy space.  

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