This article was supposed to be about the view from the other side of the mechitza, but my experience at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh (the new month) turned into so much more. Every Rosh Hodesh, women from around Israel gather at the Kotel for Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall is an organization founded in 1988 with the goal of allowing women equal rights to pray with a tallit, t’fillin, and read from a Torah at the Western Wall. At the Kotel, women are not allowed to read Torah publicly, and the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbanut that control the Kotel don’t allow women’s prayer groups to use any of the Torah scrolls available for public use.
Last month, the women succeeded historically, with the help of male supporters, in smuggling a Torah from the men’s side of the mechitza to the women’s side. This created a huge struggle between Ultra-Orthodox men rushing to the women’s side, and women trying to daven with the Torah–resulting in the much publicized arrest of one of Women of the Wall’s supporters.
This month, the response was expected by the Rabbanut. I arrived to the Kotel to find, instead of women exercising free expression of their religion, a police barricade on the men’s side a few feet from the mechitza. The police were clearly going to prevent the men from being able to pull the same stunt again this week.
Before I even had the opportunity to put on my t’fillin, I had already engaged in a lively debate with a 20-something yeshiva student who was loudly making snide comments about how the women were desecrating G-d’s name. At one point in our argument, he made the comment that when it comes to religion, there are things that are right and things that are wrong (I’ll let you guess which he thought the women were). I turned right to his face and told him, “You know, this is exactly what is wrong with Israel today. Everyone thinks their way is the right way, and there is no room for people who don’t do or think the way they want. The fact is there are fifty shades of gray in the middle.”
The conversation went on a bit longer until another supporter, an older 50-something gentleman took over the fight. At one point, another Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student made some snide remark in Hebrew, to which the man turned to him and told him that he also spoke Hebrew. They then started to argue in Hebrew, one man surrounded by ten Haredim. At the end of their argument, this same yeshiva student asked him if he would bring a dog to the Kotel, to which the man responded, “Nice g’zerah shavah [an argument made by linking two or more statements together due to a word in common in both sentences]. You just compared a woman to a dog!” And he walked away.
Now here would be a good time to state that while I support Women of the Wall’s mission, I often don’t like how they go about achieving that end goal. Many times it appears as if they are intentionally provocative, purposely trying to piss off every Haredi person on the men’s side of the Kotel. They have dozens of cameras, both still and video, and they take pictures both of the women davening (which I have no problem with) and of men over the mechitza. Despite this, however, I get the sense that they need to be a little extremist in order for anything at the Kotel to actually change. So I go in support. Now back to the story.
When it came time for the Torah Service, the women came over to the mechitza, got on chairs, and held out their arms asking for a Torah from the men. They sang songs, while other yeshivot sang as loud as they could to drown out the sound of the women’s voices.
Suddenly, as I’m standing at the Kotel, I hear a commotion behind me. I see one of the supporters trying to carry a Torah around to the women’s side of the mechitza get surrounded by Haredim. I run over to him as they try to rip it out of his arms and I start pushing people out of the way, boxing out newcomers from even getting close. Seconds later, they wrest away the Torah from him, and return it to its home on the men’s side. I move to congratulate the man on his effort, when I hear more shouts, this time coming from the direction of the Wall. It turns out that as the first Torah was being faught over, a second Torah had been taken and was making its way to the women’s section. It got closer than the first, but it, too, was stopped before reaching the police barricade, ruining the Bat Mitzvah ceremony for six girls who were supposed to read Torah. It was also too late for one male supporter, who jumped the police barricade waiting for the second Torah, and was subsequently arrested (and later released). For the next half hour, the men’s side devolved into a screaming match between supporters and Hareidim, with many women being called “whores” over the mechitza.
Over the course of two hours, I came to despise the Kotel. As I mentioned towards the beginning, I realized that the Kotel is really a microcosm of both Israeli religious discourse and Israel’s treatment towards minorities and Palestinians. The Kotel cannot be an Ultra-Orthodox synagogue; it must be a place for which Jews of all stripes can feel a connection and a sense of home. Likewise, Israel cannot be just the homeland of the Ultra-Orthodox, but must be the homeland for Jews of all kinds, and Arabs and Christians as well, and they should feel welcome as such.
Israel cannot be a place of “right and wrong,” but must be a place of compromise and cooperation if it is to succeed. If Israel doesn’t figure itself out now, then it won’t have to worry about Hamas, Hezbollah, or even Iran. Sinat hinam, baseless hatred, will destroy the third temple before it’s even built.