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  • Women of, for, and at the WallA Performative Analysis of Gender Politics at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
  • Tanya Sermer (bio)

For more than twenty-five years the Western Wall in Jerusalem has been the focus of heated controversy over gender roles in Judaism, the character of public space in the city, and the relationship between religious and state authority. At the center of these controversies is the women’s prayer group Women of the Wall (WoW, Neshot Hakotel in Hebrew) and a group convened to work against them, the Women for the Wall (W4W).1 In this study, I examine performances by and of the WoW and the W4W through the lens of bodily practices and power relations, building upon theories regarding performativity, agency, and the material manifestation of discursive norms. By considering how governing authorities control movement, access, and bodily practices in order to impose a particular framework of gendered behavior, I look at how each group reclaims its voices and bodies to challenge and reinscribe gendered religious practice. I analyze how the WoW’s practices are affected and mediated by the presence of a large viewing audience (supporters, opposition, police surveillance, and the media), ultimately articulating a critique of liberal agency and the extent to which the uncritical valorization of choice and voice can distort scholarly perspectives across a range of cultural and religious contexts.

The central focus of Jewish religious geography is the since-destroyed Holy Temple, originally built by King Solomon more than two millennia ago at a location chosen by King David in what is today called the Old City of Jerusalem. Though the original temple is long gone, the rectangular base of the enormous Temple compound built by King Herod at the end of the Second Temple period [End Page 48] does survive. The Western Wall, called the Kotel in Hebrew (al-Ha’itu ‘l-Buraq in Arabic), is a part of the western retaining wall of this compound and is believed to be the site closest to what was once the Holy of Holies—the most sacred space in the Temple. The Kotel has therefore become the central religious and historical site in Jewish tradition. Men and women, locals and tourists, Jews and non-Jews congregate in this plaza for sightseeing, celebration, and worship. The area closest to the Kotel is divided by a barrier (mehitzah) into women’s and men’s prayer spaces in accordance with orthodox standards for gender segregation during prayer.2

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Fig. 1.

Division of space at the Kotel plaza and Robinson’s Arch area. January 29, 2010.

©Tanya Sermer.

Founded in 1989, the Women of the Wall is a group of Jewish women from across the religious spectrum, both Israeli and from around the world, who gather to pray at the Kotel every month on Rosh Hodesh, the festival of the New Moon and traditionally a women’s celebration. The group conducts its worship according to Jewish law, halakhah, but in a manner that does not resemble the individual, silent recitation that is normative for orthodox women. The Women of the Wall conducts its services in the women’s section of the prayer plaza using a Torah scroll, which ultraorthodox Jews forbid to be touched by women; wearing tallit (pl. tallitot) and tefillin, the prayer shawl and phylacteries traditionally worn only by men; and involving communal singing and recitation, prohibited by women in the presence of men, according to the dictum of kol isha—rabbinic laws that regulate whether or not and in which contexts men may listen to or hear the voices of women, the interpretation of which varies depending on history and community.3 [End Page 49] It is for the reason of kol isha that ultraorthodox women regularly “shush” the WoW, why the sections of the service with the most singing elicit the strongest opposition, and why men make noise—yelling, banging on tables, blowing horns (shofars) and whistles—to drown out their sound. The WoW has endured verbal and physical abuse at the hands of passionate ultraorthodox antagonists and has repeatedly sued the state for protection. Ultra orthodox women in the women’s section...


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pp. 48-74
Launched on MUSE
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