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Reviewed by:
  • Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site
  • Susan Sered
Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site, edited by Phyllis Chester and Rivka Haut. Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003. 429 pp. $34.95.

Composed of the reflections of more than thirty women who have been involved with Women of the Wall, this volume serves both as a rich introduction to the political and halachic issues at stake in the on-going struggle of these women to pray as a group at the Kotel in Jerusalem, and as a platform for the women to share the spiritual and emotional insights that bring them to the Kotel despite the best efforts of the Israeli rabbinate and government to keep them away.

The volume is divided into four sections: "Women Who Pray at the Kotel: In Their Own Words," "Legal and Political Analysis," "Denominational View," and "Halakhic Theory and Ritual Objects." Complementing the eclectic essays, a collection of photographs of Women of the Wall taken at the Kotel are included as well.

Women of the Wall chronicles how a group of women have held onto a vision of peace, equality, and spiritual fulfillment in the face of traditional biases and current violence against women. Adamant about both the holiness of the Wall and their right to pray there, the Women of the Wall repeatedly choose the path of non-violence and of [End Page 182] religious and cultural pluralism. Bonna Haberman in the opening chapter "Drama in Jerusalem" writes: "We had no intention of degrading ourselves by participating in cursing and shoving. Our vision was to share the sacred space, honoring the dignity and beauty of multiple Jewish communities of prayer." This vision echoes clearly throughout the volume.

The more personal essays are, to my mind, the most compelling, with the authors eloquently recounting their experiences of exaltation and terror at the Wall. In "A Wall That Matters and Others That Don't," Shulamit Magnus recalls the rocky history of her own relationship to the Kotel. Magnus explains why, until she was invited to join Women of the Wall, she had stopped visiting the gender-segregated Kotel on her trips to Jerusalem. "I was there [at the Kotel] and a bar mitzvah happened, and I saw the mother of the boy straining from a chair on the women's side, attempting to see and hear what was going on, on tiptoes and with craned neck. . . . To see degradation at a place of ultimate spiritual connection was too painful a contradiction and perversion. To have to choose between fullness as a Jew and self-respect as a woman, to have to bifurcate that which is whole and interwoven, felt like an act of inner violence."

Several of the essays document the overt violence committed against Women of the Wall, and the Women's complex reactions to it. Rebecca Schwartz in "Turning Point" writes: "Just as I was getting into the service, the assault began. Over our leader's voice I had heard yelling and shushing from the beginning, but when objects started flying over the mechitzah, I realized how much trouble we were in. The young woman in front of me collapsed at my feet as a chair crashed into her head. A police officer tossed a canister of tear gas into the attacking mob, but an old man wrapped himself in his prayer shawl, picked up the canister, and threw it directly into our midst. . . . On that day a Jewish feminist was born."

The passage I found most moving in the volume closes the essay "Tzitzit and Tefillin at the Kotel." Haviva Ner-David tells of a beggar woman who had been coming each month to the Women of the Wall's Torah service to ask for money. One month the Women are inspired not only to invite her to join them, but also to give her the honor of asking her to help dress the Torah scroll at the end of the reading. "After all these years of watching us, this woman seems to have finally learned not only to tolerate us but to appreciate us as well—enough to...


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pp. 182-184
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