In an otherwise uneventful week, Karen and I attended our first "Women at the Wall" service. Women of the Wall is a group of women who meet at the Western Wall every month on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new Hebrew month) for prayer and a Torah service. To those unfamiliar with this organization or who have never been to the Western Wall, it sounds simple enough. But it is actually very controversial, so controversial that there are about a dozen armed guards devoted to protecting the women. More on the specifics of the controversy in a moment. While I was certainly thankful for the guards' presence, I find it rather sad that Israel has to devote resources to this, of all things, when there are border infiltrations and flotillas and rock throwers to worry about.
By court order compromise, the women's service begins in the women's section and then continues with the Torah at another section of the same wall about 50 meters away called Robinson's Arch. Robinson's Arch is secluded and lovely with excavations surrounding it on all sides, and many non Orthodox Jews choose to hold their Bar/Bat Mitzvah there. While it is part of the same wall and provides a beautiful setting, it doesn't quite evoke the same feeling for some people as the Western Wall, so not everyone is happy with the arrangement. Still, things actually went quite smoothly this time around (you didn't read about it in the papers, right?).
In addition to the guards, there was a very fervent, enthusiastic minyan of young men praying right next to the Women of the Wall in the back of the men's section on the other side of the mechitza. They were extremely boisterous and broke into ecstatic lai lai's every few minutes. It was unclear to me whether they were doing it to spite the Women of the Wall or in kahutz with them in order to deflect some of the attention away from the women and onto themselves. I saw some of them communicating across the mechitza, so I suspect it was the latter, but I couldn't honestly tell. All in all, I was moved by the dedication and beauty of both the men's and the women's services that morning.
So, why is a group of women praying relatively quietly at the Western Wall controversial at all? It is controversial because the Western Wall actually functions as a very traditional Orthodox synagogue. This means that there are separate sections for men and women, and while the men pray in groups and read from the Torah there all the time, women are expected to pray only privately or quietly so they do not distract the men. They are also not allowed to take out the Torah in the presence of men. In traditional Judaism, men are obligated to pray, while women are seen as on a higher spiritual plane already. While women are certainly encouraged to pray, anything that distracts the men from their obligatory prayer (and a woman's potentially licentious voice is seen as just such a distraction) is viewed as a potential problem. I am not endorsing this rationale, but I both respect and understand it, and I have very mixed feelings about the whole thing, as does Karen.
I don't know anyone who would go into an Orthodox synagogue and try to violate its laws or customs, so I understand why the Women of the Wall are disturbing to some. On the other hand, the Western Wall is a national/international symbol to Jews of all denominations and stripes. In fact, it wasn't an Orthodox synagogue when it was first recaptured from Jordan in 1967. So the Women of the Wall do their thing each month, trying to stay in the back of the Women's section in order to be respectful of the women in the front who don't like what they are doing, and to say that it has not always gone smoothly is quite an understatement. The Women of the Wall have been shouted at, cursed at, spat upon, and even had chairs thrown at them. Thugs come in all religions, denominations, and genders. Hence the need for guards. Even though it was at 7 AM, I really wanted to go both to observe and be supportive of the Women at the Wall and what they are trying to do. It was an important, meaningful experience.
Shul of the Week--Yedidya
We spent much of our Shabbat with our good friends the Greybers from Camp Ramah, including doing a sleepover exchange where Micah went to their house and their middle son, Benjamin, slept over at ours. The boys are so much happier when they are with other kids and away from each other for a while. Yedidya is a very modern Orthodox synagogue. I say very because the mechitza is very small, and the Torah is passed to the women's section and carried by a woman (Karen got the honor this week), things that are not allowed in every Orthodox synagogue. I had an Aliyah. This week was a very long Torah portion, but it was a pleasant service, with very knowledgeable people lending their voices and enthusiasm to the service. It was not as spirited or raucous as Kol Rina or Mizmor l'David, but compared to virtually any synagogue in America, it is kavanatically (that's a made up "Heblish" word meaning with intention) superior. I pray that I can bring some of that back with me without disturbing the comfort level of our own congregation.
Wine of the Week--Yatir Shiraz 2007
Yummy. Smooth, blackberry, plum-like flavor with very mild spice. This is a lesser known Israeli wine from the Judean Hills outside of Jerusalem, and it costs a little more, but you can get it from kosher wine websites in America. It was a 93-94, tied with Psagot for the best I've tried yet.
Next week, Shavuot and a trip to the North.