Praying for Justice at the Western Wall
By Amy Eilberg • Minneapolis StarTribune
The truth is, I didn’t particularly want to go to the service/demonstration at the Western Wall/the Kotel in Jerusalem on the morning of December 18th. The contemplative in me has difficulty mixing political demonstration with prayer at holy places. I always feel alienated by the distinctly unequal separation of men’s and women’s sections at the Wall. But when I approach the Kotel, I want to be silent and alone amidst the crowds. I want to get as close to the wall as I can, go inside and see what prayer needs to emerge from within me at this holiest of Jewish places.
I knew that it wouldn’t work for me to mix my feminist activism with trying to pray the morning service for Rosh Hodesh (the first day of the month, a day of special meaning for Jewish feminists). But I also needed to be there. The Women of the Wall have been holding prayer services at the Kotel since 1988, often with violent opposition from ultra-Orthodox men at the site. This month, the last day of Hanukah and the first day of the month of Tevet, a special call had gone out encouraging women to come, in protest of last month’s arrest of an Israeli medical student for wearing her prayer shawl visibly in the women’s section of the Kotel. The group’s agreement with the courts was that we would wear our prayer shawls under our coats and not read from the Torah in the area of the Kotel. Coordinators intended to push the rules just a little. Communities all over North America had even organized their own Rosh Hodesh services in solidarity. I could not absent myself.
The weather was miserably cold and rainy. Huddled together trying to hear the beautiful voice of the woman prayer leader and shield ourselves from the rain, we gathered, our tallitot/prayer shawls not completely hidden beneath our coats. Within minutes my raincoat and shoes were soaked through and my umbrella had broken in half, now useless against the rain. I prayed the service from memory so as not to get my prayer book ruined by the rain. Truly, though I sang along, I was unable to pray.
From the men’s section came the powerful sound of many ultra-Orthodox men shouting threateningly, “You should be ashamed of yourselves!” “Leave this place” “You are profaning the sacred place!” “There is a church for you over there!” And many, many repetitions of the single word, “Filth!”
Years of political wrangling with the courts had not been for naught. The police were out in force before the service began at 7 A.M. But for once, instead of blaming the women for inflaming the men as had happened in the past, the police were clearly there to protect us. The senior officer confronted our chairperson, recognizing that she was pushing the boundaries of the legal agreement. But when the men began to approach us, now screaming from behind and above us, the police placed themselves between the men and us, physically shielding us from their threatening presence.
Some of the women seemed to be in prayer, their eyes tightly closed, drenched prayer books in hand, singing out the words of the prayers in full voice. I don’t know how they could pray in the midst of this, surely not the words of praise to God that filled the morning service. At least when we reached the Hallel, the special section of psalms of praise recited on Rosh Hodesh, the liturgy led us through words that I could sing with fervor. “From the depths I have called out to You, O God. You have answered me in wide expanse.” “Oh God, save us. Oh God, vindicate us.”
God save us from the extremists that afflict all communities. God save us from the violence we inflict on one another. Dear God, heal the violence in all of our hearts, and bring special blessing to all those who pray for justice and peace.