Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems. Invited to weigh in on recent developments at the Kotel, the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, Sara is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
I am a cowardly feminist. I lived in Jerusalem for three years between 2000 and 2006, and I never prayed with Women of the Wall (WOW). I am embarrassed to admit it.
During my years in Jerusalem, I had a good excuse. It was the time of the Second Intifada, and buses were blowing up all around us. I did go to the Wall then, though, even walking through Palestinian East Jerusalem on Shabbat, smiling at the sweet Arab children and enjoying the smell of fresh baked bread. It was a matter of soul, not safety that kept me away from WOW’s monthly gatherings, and mine was bunkered in the fortress I had built in my heart. I reserved my energy for deep breaths and resisting the urge jump off the Israel-shaped ship I was on, thereby caving to terror. To seek out additional tension, on purpose and among my own, by standing with WOW seemed unthinkable then.
For nearly thirty years, WOW has shone light squarely on a face of Judaism that I preferred not to see. I was in my twenties, a newly religious student in a co-ed pluralist Yeshiva, and I was in love with all of it. Having tired of the limitless freedom of the American university experience, I embraced the structure and strictures of religious life; a child of a liberal Jewish household, I found myself now a part of a great, ancient story. It was a story of unity — one God, one Jewish people. I was a part of it, and it was mine.
Women of the Wall bore witness to another story entirely.
There are few things in our modern world that demand the depths of my courage, strength, and resilience more than staring into the eyes of silenced women. Such women elicit more cognitive dissonance than abject poverty in some far off land or victims of natural disaster, where blame animates my courage. They are the homeless man on my corner, whom I pretend to ignore every day, but they look just like me. They are me, whenever I am not advocating for change.
American culture denies us a name for the silenced woman, but Judaism does not. Judaism names her voice, calling it kol isha, compartmentalizing and legislating it. “The voice of a woman is alluring.” and “It may not be heard during the time of prayer [as not to draw away a man’s attention]” (Talmud Bavli Berachot 24b). In Orthodox Jewish spaces where these rules are at play, women are forbidden from singing and leading prayer, from generally occupying the spotlight based on other complimentary prohibitions against women’s leadership in general and in favor of modesty.
The mission of Women of the Wall was to call upon all of us to hear women’s voices, the kolot nashim that had been silenced for so long. They pursued their mission by gathering as women in a women’s space at the Koteland doing what the boys were doing; they prayed together, complete with the ritual garb worn by devoted Jewish worshippers. No more, no less. Their behavior perplexed almost everyone, because they took up an issue that the liberal Jewish world had leapt beyond: secular modernity granting women some aspect of voice.
Women of the Wall called our attention to the work of justice still emergent, to the feminist work that is not yet complete. For 2,000 years, unquestioned patriarchy ruled the world. Women only won the right to their own voices yesterday, relatively speaking; we have just begun to uncover the many crevasses where her silence was felt, where the absence of her voice and wisdom left the world too quiet.
As a thinking, feeling being, one naturally locates themselves within the “haves” rather than “have nots.” As a young woman in Jerusalem, a devoted student of Torah, I certainly did. It was so much more pleasant to stand quietly among the “haves,” assuming that I was welcome. But, had I opened my eyes, I would have seen that I was welcome to pass only if I was willing restrain my voice. Now that I call Israel my home and count myself a member of the progressive, pluralistic Kibbutz Hannaton, I regret that I have lost my opportunity to stand with these women, to take up this cause. Their work is not yet complete, and gathering as women in the newly created egalitarian section, lacks the symbolic power of their former struggle. We will all have to find new venues to continue to spread their simple message. The Jewish world, and the world at large, will not be complete until women’s voices — indeed all voices — can be heard.
Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, a spiritual memoir inspired by her life in the north of Israel. She blogs about the complexity of life there at www.herisrael.com.
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Rabbi Sara Brandes was born in Los Angeles and received her rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She worked as an educator, yoga instructor, hospital chaplain, and director of the Neshama Center and Mikvah before moving with her family to Kibbutz Hannaton in Israel.