There was a big bar mitzvah ceremony underway on the first day I went to the Kotel, also known as the Wailing or the Western Wall, in October 2013. And although every bar mitzvah boy has (or had) a mother and two grandmothers and hopefully an aunt and a sister or two, the party at the Wall is entirely a men's event among the Orthodox Jews of Israel.The many women of this family, and other observers, crowded into the small women's section of the wall, and hung over the gender barrier to watch, like so many kids outside the bleachers of a baseball game to which they couldn't buy tickets.
The Kotel, a 187-foot section of an ancient wall situated on the western flank of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, faces a large plaza and is considered the most sacred site recognized by the Jewish faith outside of the Temple Mount itself. It has been a site for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War the wall came under Jordanian control and Jews were barred from the site for 19 years until Israel captured the Old City in 1967. Since that time, it has been under Israeli control and is reserved for Jewish observances of the faith.
It is within this relative security from non-Jewish competitors that the internal debate over who may participate in Jewish prayer at the wall, and how, has raged for much of the past 47 years.
Should the site be managed by Orthodox rabbis or by the State of Israel? Should only orthodox observances be allowed, or is there a place for reform and conservative practice as well? Is everyone okay with orthodox overseers positioning themselves in the plaza to tackle any visiting women who they deem to be immodestly dressed, with schmatas to wrap around their legs or shoulders?
More critically, do women have an equal right to pray? To pray in the manner that they choose, including the handling of the Torah and use of ritual objects (tfillin) and garments (tallit) traditionally reserved for men? These questions, notably raised by American Jews who feel they too have a stake in the answers, have brought the debates to fever pitch and resulted in protests, acts of violence and arrests in recent years. For 25 of the 47 years of Israeli control, a group called Women of the Wall has asserted the right of women to worship just as men do at the holy site, and taken it all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. But a recent decision by the new leadership of the WOW to cede control of the Wall to the Ultra-Orthodox sector and accept a “third site,” outside the Kotel, as an egalitarian prayer site, has caused a complete rift with the group’s founders. The new prayer area, dubbed Robinson’s Arch, is removed from the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, which means that touching those ancient stones – an integral part of the Kotel prayer experience – will not be available to worshippers there.
In this context, it is poignant to observe the women -- all the women -- who visit the Western Wall. Once you pass inside the gates of the Women's Section, you start to appreciate the many varieties of womanhood found in this place, unified only by their gender. Paradoxically, it is the reinforcement of their gender by the separation that allows all of them, no matter their age, class, station or nationality, to 'belong.' A kind of 'sisterhood,' if you will. Here, young girls join their mothers and observe the women they may become; elders ignore the younger women they once were, centered in the spiritual quest of later life.
In the ancient crevices of the wall, already crammed with notes and prayers from times past, they find impossible spaces into which they press their fervent requests of the divine.
These pictures speak, I hope, to how personal the act of prayer is, and how powerful a comfort the repetition of custom. They reflect on the meaning each woman seeks during her time in this historic place, and the spiritual passion that is a genuine part of the female experience.
Photos by Laura Paull, 2013.
For further information on the campaign by WOW founder Bonna Devora Haberman to maintain women's rights to pray with Torah, tallit and tefllin at the Women's Section of the Kotel, visit http://bonnadevorahaberman.wordpress.com/blog/. For divergent opinions, see news sites reporting on the conflict.