Barbara Sofer

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The Human Spirit: Religious times are a-changin'


May24, 2013


The accusations against the Women of the Wall grow more and more fantastic.

Even if you could or should rate another person's "prayer sincerity quotient," it would be hard to argue with their perfect attendance record of over nearly a quarter century, rain or shine, at 7 a.m. Still, every epithet is hurled at these women. They're also blamed for causing strife and trashing Israel's image because they have the audacity to pray. In a recent opinion piece in The Times of Israel, the Women of the Wall were also faulted for causing deleterious climate change.

I kid you not.

And just as the physical attacks become more dangerous, so the media attacks become more personal and dangerous, too. This has to stop. That means that the outrageous comments made about Women of the Wall and members of other streams of Judaism are evil talk, lashon hara, whether at your table or speaking as an authority on a so-called religious talk show. You don't have to join the Women of the Wall, agree with and support the Women of the Wall, or even like the Women of the Wall, to detest the tone of the discourse.

In contrast, the appearance of hundreds of non-violent women, many of them young, at the Kotel at 7 a.m. last Rosh Hodesh should be applauded. The participants in the Women of the Wall service must have been delighted to see that they had inspired so many women to come out early in the morning to celebrate Rosh Hodesh. According to media reports, the women – who unlike the Women of the Wall don't usually come to the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh – were actually protesting by filling the prayer area to prevent the Women of the Wall from coming up close – as if it matters who has orchestra seats at the Wall.

In other words, the protesters came to demonstrate and to be seen, not specifically to pray. Nonetheless, let's hope that some of those protesting took advantage of the setting and were uplifted by the poignant, emotional words of Hallel, even if they felt it too sensuous to sing the praises of the Creator.

For these young women, this may have been a maiden experience in taking part in a highly charged ideological demonstration. It must have been thrilling for them, too. I can still recall my own emotional participation in demonstrations on behalf of the Jewish people, around the same age as the seminary students. I wasn't in seminary, but these were seminal moments in my life. How could taking part in public protest not be empowering to the majority and even subversive to some? ONCE YOU empower women, you can never tell just what might happen. The world we religious Jewish women live in is changing, like it or not. The expressions are many and varied. For example, one unexpected manifestation is growing number of women who have rejected standards of modest religious dress – not to be immodest, but to be hyper-modest. The clothing they choose might be called "prioress garb" or "nun style" dress, but there are few prioresses these days, and many nuns have given up the old-fashioned habits for street clothes. Women themselves are out proselytizing for this increased cover-up.

It's no longer uncommon in Jerusalem to see Jewish women in capes or dressed with neck and forehead protected from view, a cloth version of a medieval knight's armor. And not just in Jerusalem. One of my daughters recently attended a religious class in Rehovot only to discover that it was a motivational talk for wearing multiple layers of skirts and tops and capes.

Another unexpected area of activism is the demand for greater access to ritual baths. Responding to a petition by the Center for Women's Justice and Kolech, both organizations created and run by Shabbat-observant Jewish women, the Supreme Court demanded a response from the Chief Rabbinate about why women using the mikve needed to pass muster before being allowed to use the facilities. As a result, policy has changed.

Though the official position of the Chief Rabbinate still remains that single women are prohibited from using the mikve, mikve attendants – the gatekeepers to our ritual baths – must desist from interrogating a potential tovelet, one who wishes to immerse. The rabbinate has declared that "no woman who comes to use the ritual bath should be asked any questions regarding her personal status and that the use of the ritual bath must not be made conditional on that status." Don't ask, don't tell is the new policy.

What's fascinating is examining who protested against exclusion from the mikve. The initial case was brought by two single women, at least one of whom wanted to immerse before the High Holy Days. There were other complainants whose choice of officiating rabbi was rejected by the rabbinate.

Still another Jewish woman wanted to use the mikve before she ascended in the group that prays on the Temple Mount. These women were petitioning to expand the use of the mikve, not to diminish it. Who would have guessed that single women, independent-minded women and strongly nationalist women would be grouping together to demand greater access to the ritual bath? Times are indeed changing.

Every year, tens of thousands of women, many whom are religiously observant, are impacted by misogynous rabbinical rulings related to their own divorces or those of their sisters, daughters or mothers. How long can we expect today's young women to tolerate such abuse? Their secular peers are already marrying abroad to avoid contact with threatening religious authorities.

I wish joy to all those women who were praying on Rosh Hodesh; as it says in Hallel, may each one fulfill her wish to be "a happy mother of children."

Still, no woman is immune to life's vicissitudes.

So bring them on. Let women by the thousands, those who pray silently and those who raise their voices in song, fill all the courtyards on the first of each month – a special women's holiday in perpetuity for rebelling against the men who wanted them to contribute to the Golden Calf. And let's leave judgment to the One whose praises we sing, Who is neither man nor woman, and Who demands that we act with respect even to those with whom we don't agree.




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