I was born in 1972. This was the year that the Ms. Foundation for Women released its ever-popular recording of feminist songs and stories for children. It was also the year that Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi, was ordained at the Hebrew Union College. Both of these events have been very influential in my life.
Thirty-three years later, in the spring of 2006, as an ordained rabbi pregnant with my second child, I led a group of 15 women from Temple B’nai Torah’s sisterhood to Israel. We of course visited the Kotel — the holiest site for the Jewish people. It was Friday evening and the women wanted to pray. I stood there absolutely terrified to do what I do best — lead people in Jewish prayer and study. How could I tell these women, their faces so peaceful and eager to connect with this holy site, that it was not safe for us to pray together at this site? The Kotel is the symbol of the survival of our people; the remnant of the place our ancestors believed housed the shechina — God’s feminine presence on earth — and I was trembling with fear of being attacked for offering song and prayer.
We did pray the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers but I was practically mute with fear. Would someone attack us, throw chairs on us, spit on us? We were told to cover up by a member of the modesty patrol. As men strolled into their section (twice the size of the women’s) with shorts and t-shirts we were told that the loose weave of one of the sisterhood members’ long-sleeved sweater was too wide — it showed too much skin. Black shawls were offered. We looked like we were in mourning.
My fear has transformed into anger, indignation and, slowly over the past few years as I remember this experience and hear news of the increasingly rigid oppression of women at this site, into rage.
According to the Talmud, the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam — baseless hatred. Yet the fear and threat of violence against women attempting to express their love of Judaism and commitment to God has made the Kotel the epicenter of sinat chinam in the Jewish world. Vigilante acts of intimidation and violence by those who frequent the site coupled with state-imposed segregation and suppression of religious acts have turned this holy site into a battleground.
There is a photograph of the wall before 1948 that clearly shows men and women praying side by side at the Kotel. Yet just a few weeks ago on Rosh Chodesh Av, Anat Hoffman, the head of the Israel Religious Action Committee and a leader of Women of the Wall, was arrested for simply carrying a Torah in the vicinity of the kotel. Women have been harassed and arrested for the simple act of praying out loud at the Kotel. The Israeli Supreme Court upheld a law that prohibits women from reading Torah at the Kotel.
Isaiah 56:7 reminders us that this site is a place for all people to worship and express joy — “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” There is room in this world, and especially in what we consider to be the House of God, for all of us to find the space to express our love for God and our connections to our communal past.
The ultra-Orthodox should be free to practice in their own way, but their practice should never restrict that of the millions of liberal Jews in this world who have found a healthy modern expression of their ancient faith. We are not going to go backward. The values brought to the Jewish people through emancipation and the progress we have experienced through our access to modernity have made us who we are today: Tolerant, expressive, creative, influential, generous, bridge builders and yes, egalitarian.
My entire lifetime has been framed within this context. It is absolutely unthinkable that we would go back to a time where Jews are forced to experience, even for a few minutes, a pre-modern existence blind to the gifts of pluralism and democracy. Our holiest site must be a place where the beauty of our diversity is on display for all of us to see and experience and enjoy. The Kotel must be a house of prayer for all people.
This winter my husband, Rabbi Seth Goldstein, and I will be leading a family trip to Israel for people of all ages and abilities. Our two young sons will be joining us. I will load “Free to Be…You and me” on the iPod for the trip and I will take them and the whole group to the Kotel. I will try to be brave as I continue to do what I do best — lead people in Jewish prayer and study. And I will try to transform my rage into courage for the sake of my sons and all Jewish children.
They need to see me lead people in prayer at our holiest site. They need to know that this ancient wall and our ancient people have survived all these years through so much violence and oppression so we can continue to pass holiness to the next generation. I am passing holiness to my sons through a Judaism filled with ancient stories coupled with modern values. I am passing a Judaism that carries with it a vision of a world truly mended, a world where men and women can bring their gifts to God’s altar through the authentic living of their lives. This is the Judaism I inherited and the Judaism I pass on.
“There’s a land that I see where the children are free
And I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are
Take my hand, come with me, where the children are free
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll live…
And you and me are free to be you and me.”