Years ago when I was interviewing and auditioning for my current position as Cantorial Soloist at Temple Sings all the Time and Won't Shut Up, the rabbi at the time asked me what my feelings were about wearing a kippah and tallit. She (yes, she!) knew that I came from a Classical Reform Jewish upbringing where back in the day, outward religious prayer symbols like the kippah and tallit were frowned upon garb even amongst the men of the congregation. Neither my father nor my brother ever wore either, not even at my brother's Bar Mitzvah. I had never given much thought to the question until this particular rabbi asked it of me, even though it was once again becoming accepted practice within the Reform Movement for both men and women to don these ritual objects. She told me at the time that while she understood my discomfort with appropriating both as part of my own davening, she felt it extraordinarily important that I be seen on the bimah wearing them. She wanted the girls in our community to know and understand that they were equal partners in matters of prayer and ritual and what better way to role model that than by showing the two female religious leaders of the congregation appropriately attired for t'fillah. She was so concerned that I might balk at the request that she had it written into my first contract. That first High Holidays, as I set about putting on The Husband's Bar Mitzvah tallit which I had borrowed for the occasion, Younger Son, all of four years old at the time, said with pure innocence, "Look! Mommy is putting on her Cantor's costume!"
In truth, it did feel like a costume. It felt uncomfortable and disingenuous. After the Holy Days, the rabbi sat down with me and once again asked about my feelings on the subject. I told her of my concerns and she in turn made me a promise. She asked me to wear the tallit for a period of time, perhaps six months. If I still felt nothing we would talk again, but she was willing to bet that something will have changed. She spoke of the increased intimacy and enveloping warmth that I would feel wearing the tallit and kippah. She spoke of a more personal connection to prayer and a deeper and more spiritual involvement. And while my skepticism was acute, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. The following year my parents bought me my first tallit to call my own. I now own a half a dozen and I cannot imagine not wearing one.
Last evening, our latest crop of B'nai Mitzvah students (our seventh grade class) began their annual Tallit workshop. Over the course of the next few weeks, these young people will learn of the significance of the tallit, understand the importance of the tzitzit (fringes) and knots, and create their very own special and extremely personally designed prayer shawl. Boys and girls. Many of these kids will wear these very creations at their upcoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The girls never even think twice that they shouldn't be included in the ritual. The egalitarian nature of the practice is just understood amongst all.
So, it is with this history in mind that I feel great sadness when I read of the continual monthly struggles of Women of the Wall in Israel. For the past twenty-four years, these brave women (and many men who support them), have been gathering at the Kotel (The Western Wall) on Rosh Chodesh (The new month) for a service of prayer. They have been constantly harassed by ultra-orthodox men and women. They have been spit upon, insulted, projectiles thrown their way, tear-gassed, and detained and arrested by Israeli police all because they have had the gall to pray publicly as women, while also donning the tallit. It seems unbelievable in a country that prides itself on egalitarian practice and equality of the sexes, but control of the Wall falls under the auspices of the orthodox minority and they have invoked a much more fundamentalist observance over the years including; the erection of a mechitzah (partition between men and women), the ceaseless shrinking of the women's section, the enforcement of more modest dress for girls and women at the site (men show up at the Wall in shorts and tank tops, but that doesn't raise ire!), the compelling and enforcement of Kol Isha (the prohibition of men hearing women's voices), a ban on women reading from a Torah, and of course the ban on women wearing tallit. And even though the Wall IS NOT an orthodox synagogue, but rather a heritage and religious location significant to all Jews no matter their denominational practice, the Israeli Supreme Court has sided with the administrators of the site in this battle. So the Women of the Wall turn their tallitot into scarves slung across their throats, and they content themselves with a short monthly service at the Wall before moving away to Robinson's Arch to read Torah and pray as they deem fit, away from those who might take offence. But, still it isn't enough. Over the past few months the police involvement and harassment has been stepped up and these brave women have found themselves targeted. Last month on October 16, 2012, Anat Hoffman, director of the group, was arrested, strip searched, cuffed, shackled, and forced to lay on a bare jail cell floor. Her crime? She recited the Shema, the watchword of our faith, out loud at the Wall. She was interrogated and held without legal counsel, but never charged. In her own words....
What is the purpose of arresting a woman, interrogating her, collecting video footage of her every move, questioning witnesses and spending hours writing reports, if at the end charges are never made? I believe the purpose of this harassment and treatment is to wear down the leaders of our women's prayer group, to exhaust us into giving up our struggle for this rights.She continues....
If Women of the Wall are truly in breach of the law -- charge them. If they are not, stop arresting them, with release pending a 30- or 60-day ban on visiting the wall area or 5,000 NIS bail.
It is time to demand that the state of Israel act like a Jewish and democratic state. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis may be offended by the Women of the Wall practices. That is their legitimate right but it becomes dangerous and frightening when the secular Knesset, the secular courts and the secular police bow down to the ultra-Orthodox fears and demands, while imposing them in the public sphere.Today five more women were detained at the Rosh Chodesh service and one other arrested. And so it continues. You'd think that with the escalation of hostilities this week, this nonsense would take a backseat. Sadly, no.
I took on the mitzvah of wearing a tallit with great thought, study, and care. Over these past nineteen years I have stood proudly on the bimah and witnessed countless young women follow my lead. My rabbi was right all those years ago. She told me that I would personalize it; find a comfort in it that would lead me towards a more intimate model of prayer. I cannot and will not allow anybody to take from me that which I have fought so hard to embrace. That is why I stand with the Women of the Wall in their struggle for religious freedom and independence.
A prayer for Women of the Wall composed by Rahel Sharon Jaskow....
"May it be Your will, our God and God of our mothers and fathers, to bless this prayer group and all who pray within it: them, their families and all that is theirs, together with all the women and girls of your people Israel. Strengthen us and direct our hearts to serve You in truth, reverence and love. May our prayer be desirable and acceptable to You like the prayers of our holy mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Rahel and Leah. May our song ascend to Your Glorious Throne in holiness and purity, like the songs of Miriam the Prophet, Devorah the Judge, and Hannah in Shilo, and may it be pleasing to you as a sweet savor and fine incense.
And for our sisters, all the women and girls of your people Israel: let us merit to see their joy and hear their voices raised before You in song and praise. May no woman or girl be silenced ever again among Your people Israel or in all the world. God of justice, let us merit to see justice and salvation soon, for the sanctification of Your name and the repair of Your world, as it is written: Zion will hear and be glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoice, over Your judgments, O God. And it is written: For Zion’s sake I will not be still and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be silent, until her righteousness shines forth like a great light and her salvation like a flaming torch.
For Torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem. Amen, selah"