The Women’s Liberation organization was one of the major movements of the 20th century. Across the world, women objected to not being able to vote, to hold significant political office, and to not be recognized as equal to men in terms of their rights and prerogatives. That battle continues in countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. This new important status is now being sought in interesting ways in Israel and around the world where Jewish people are established. Jewish women are definitely a new force to be reckoned with.
A recent battle ground occurred in the space next to Jerusalem’s Western Wall (once called the Wailing Wall). Rabbi Shumuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites, has maintained that custom determines the practices at the wall in particular. However, a group of women are now challenging what is considered appropriate. Their defiance has brought legal consequences.
On February 11, during the service for Rosh Hodesh Adar, women showed up wearing the black and white tallitot (prayer shawl) worn only by men. If they had worn other colorful coverings of the same shape, there would have been no problem. When they tried to break custom, 10 women were immediately arrested, including Anat Hoffman, the founder of Women at the Wall or WOW. These women were protesting the control that the orthodox Jews have over the wall. And the battle was on.
One of the ancient arguments within Judaism has been about change. As Fiddler on the Roof told the world, tradition is a major element in Jews faith. How women conduct themselves at the wall was set when Israel captured the area. However, the women protest that the times are changing. They ask how does change occur in Israel if men are intransigent. They also protest that two-thirds of the space in front of the wall is held by men while women only received one-third. Answering the protest of the WOW group, Rabbi Rabinowitz argues that they are turning prayer into a protest. He objects to protesting before the Wall instead of in their synagogues. Anai Hoffman isn’t buying it. The battle goes on.
On the other side of the world, the Hassidic Chadbad Movement just completed a conference of 1,700 women who are emissaries from around the world. With conversations in French, Russian, English, and many other languages, these women gathered from as far away as Thailand to explore topics like improving schooling, coping with special needs children, relationships in their own families as well as coping with disappointments. While an extreme branch of the Chadbad group maintain that Rebbe Menahem Sneerson is still alive and in hiding, not so for these women who are mostly wives of rabbis. Their focus was on the here and now and fulfilling mitzvahs (good deeds) to make the world a better place.
These remarkable women raise children while focusing on the needs of other women around them. While the Hassidic movement is often considered conservative and prohibitive, one would find these women on the cutting edge of fulfilling the tasks that the Torah (Old Testament) assigns to women.
One might say wow! to them as well.
Make no mistake. The women’s movement does have a spiritual component.