Rosh Chodesh Av 5772 – the first day of the new month of Av on July 20, 2012, and here I was, once again at the monthly worship of N’shot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem. The group meets every Rosh Hodesh (new month) to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, uplifting a beautiful chorus of women in this holy place. But more than that, their voices — out loud — are a form of social justice protest.
N’shot HaKotel have been meeting for a women’s prayer minyan every Rosh Hodesh for 24 years, to assert that this holy place belongs to all of the Jewish people, especially to women, who are otherwise forced to pray alone quietly in the women’s section.
In my previous experiences with N’shot HaKotel I have been struck by the intense police presence around the group. We’ve been told that we must wear our tallitot (prayer shawls) as “scarves” –not like a tallit, and we have enduring constant “shushing” from the police who try to keep the women quiet. There is a ubiquitous female police officer who videotapes every woman and every move of the group. Fortunately the surrounding police have almost entirely stopped the violence against the group that characterized the early years (from Haredi men and women.)N’shot HaKotel has also been a testing ground for legal actions to challenge the authority of the ruling rabbinical body over the public space of the Kotel, with increasing success in the rulings of the Israeli court.
Yet, on this particular Rosh Hodesh the mood was different. When our cab entered the gates of the Old City we encountered battalion after battalion of soldiers and police officers swarming near the Old City Police station and heading toward the Temple Mount on which the Muslim holy sites are found. Our cab driver told us why – it was not only our Rosh Hodesh, it was also the first day of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. There was concern about possible violence on the Temple Mount, at the Al Aksa Mosque or Dome of the Rock. Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, brings crowds of Muslim men to the holy sites, and this was an especially charged Friday. Thankfully, it was a quiet day and nothing happened. But the experience was noteworthy.
As N’shot HaKotel/Women of the Wall gathered slowly and quietly, most of us donned our tallitot/prayer shawls, and there was no one to stop us. Only the videographer female officer was evident. We sang out loud, and no officer stood in front of us commanding us to be quiet. The davenning/praying was not particularly beautiful or special. It didn’t matter; we were praying for equality by our presence and our voices. Our prayer was still real and important activism.
It was a relief to pray without heavy police presence surrounding us. It was a surprise and a relief to be nearly left alone by the Haredim who have created so much tension in the past. Ah, we could just pray. But I couldn’t help but feel conflicted about this relief. My friends and I felt that we, just a bunch of singing women, were simply inconsequential because of the concern about potential violence on the Temple Mount.
I worry a lot about the deep and difficult divisions between Jews over authority and control in Israel and around the world. But I also worry greatly about the deep and difficult divisions between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Arabs—where yet there is no peace. So my prayer for this month of Av, the month in which we observe the sad day of mourning for the destruction of both the first and second Temple (on the 9th of Av, this Sunday), is that we can bring about change in that reality too. I pray that our prayers and our activism move us toward a new Rosh Hodesh, when all Jews– orthodox, secular, and all in-between– can honor and respect each other. I pray that our voices will rise up in prayer to join together with our neighbors, to bring joy and gladness, peace and prosperity to all of us.
Imagine… all the peoples singing in praise and joy, in peace.