When Jerusalem and the Kotel, the ruins of the massive Western Wall that contain stones from both the First and the Second Temple, came under Israeli control in 1967, Jews for the first time since 1930 were again able to pray there. Finally in Jewish hands, but now controlled by the orthodox rabbinate, Jewish women have had to fight for the right to pray at the Wailing Wall as openly as Jewish men. On December 1, 1988, during the first International Conference for the Empowerment of Jewish Women, 70 women carried a torah scroll to the Wall, and Rabbi Deborah Brin led the prayer service. This action of civil disobedience would continue and come to be known as the Women of the Wall. Brin, today the religious leader of Nahalat Shalom, the Jewish renewal synagogue in Albuquerque, will speak on Sunday May 18, 11 AM, at the Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival screening of “Praying in Her Own Voice,” a documentary about the Women of the Wall, as the 26th anniversary approaches. (tickets $12, santafejff.org, 505-216-0672).
We interviewed Rabbi Brin about the continuing significance of, and her participation in, this momentous and historic civil rights moment in our time:
What is it really about today?
“What is the absolute essence of the thing? Are women equal in Judaism? The wall is a gender-segregated space, and women are not permitted to sing out loud because a woman’s voice is considered to be a sexual enticement, and they’re not allowed to wear tallis because a tallis is considered a man’s garment.
“So the question is, what is the status of women in Judaism, and what is the status of women at our holiest site? And when we went to the Wall in 1988 we went prayerfully and knowing that it was a protest in the genre of civil disobedience but we were doing it in the context of a worship service.”
Has there been another experience in your rabbinical life like that since?
“That experience brought together all of my skill sets - as a prayer leader, as a rabbi, running meetings, organizing, as a leader and a listener, plus my experience in peaceful demonstrations. I knew we had to have people on the periphery, because violence had broken out at a reform synagogue in Jerusalem when women were dancing with the scrolls.
“It used absolutely all of me at that point. When I left the Wall, as I was leaving, I really felt that I really, really was a rabbi now. That had been my trial by fire. Everyone was safe, we had done what we came to do. What the future would be we didn’t know, but looking back, it was the cue ball that set a lot of things in motion, that set the legal status of women in motion in Israel and the rights of women to pray where they want to pray.
“That really was a moment where lots of things rushed from the past through the present to that exact moment in time. It really was a tremendous amount of energy. I was keeping focus on the prayers for everyone, while the whole time the men were yelling horrible things over the mehitza (the partition there dividing the small women’s section away from the main area) - some of the American women might not have understood the modern Hebrew, what they were saying, but the men were telling us we were pigs, we were whores, we were horrible human beings – and all we were doing was praying. I kept going. No one was hurt that day. I led the prayer service . . . [others read the morning service and from the Torah]. . . and then I closed the service.
“And all the more so now, people talk about the Talibanization of Judaism. That is, referring to the power of the state and the ultra-ultra orthodox and how they control the Wall, and how they control what happens in Israel, and that this perspective on women is very problematic, and this perspective on Judaism is problematic for anyone that is not Orthodox.
Has Judaism always been so patriarchal?
“Judaism has always been patriarchal. We were challenging the whole patriarchal structure. Generally speaking, Jewish law has women in a subservient state. According to strict Jewish law, women are not competent to be witnesses, the idea of a woman rabbi is outrageous, and women do not count in a minyan. Simply, women are not equal. On the other hand, when you start getting down into Jewish law, it gets complex, what women are and are not allowed to do.
“I was ordained in 1985, at the Philadelphia Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I was one of the first 100 women rabbis.”
Were you the first openly gay or lesbian rabbi?
“I was not the first lesbian rabbi to come out. There’s a book, “Lesbian Rabbis – The First Generation,” I was not in that book because I was too terrified to write anything – I should have. I was the first gay or lesbian rabbi to, while serving, to come out and to receive a contract renewal rather than to be fired. This was at Darchei Noan, a Reconstructionist congregation in Toronto, CA. I was the only woman rabbi in the country of Canada, and only one of about ten women rabbis in North America that had their own congregation.
How did the issue of the minyan get resolved when your group of 70 women went to pray at the Wall in 1988?
“Rivka Haut, of blessed memory, who led Orthodox women in prayer groups in New York, wanted us to do a prayer service at the Wall according to orthodox tradition, and that’s what we did – we left out prayers that would only be done if you have a minyan.
“My father had died six months earlier and I wanted to say Kaddish. We had a long conversation about how could we do that – I was respecting their need to have it the way they wanted, and I wanted them to respect my need to say Kaddish.
“So, we figured it out. . .We’re good at that, parsing the Talmud. . We were able to come up with a legal, Halakhic solution to the dilemma: I would announce the prayer service was officially over, and those women who wanted to join me in saying Kaddish could do so.”
The Women of the Wall website legal timeline shows that over the next 25 years violence towards the women continued, many arrests took place and more women were hurt. In 2013 five women were arrested for carrying the Torah there and wearing prayer shawls. Israeli Judge Sharon Larry Bavly declared that the women were not disturbing the public order, should not be blamed for others’ behavior, and she ruled that women should be allowed to gather and pray together at the Wall. While they are not being arrested now, that has not quelled the ultra-Orthodox who continue to challenge them.
In the book “Women of the Wall,” which includes a chapter by Brin, editors Haut and Phyllis Chessler write in the introduction, “The Talmud (Yoma 9b) teaches that when Jews are not united, tragedy results: ‘In the Second Temple period, people occupied themselves with Torah, mitzvoth, and deeds of lovingkindness, so why was it destroyed? Because there was baseless hatred.’ It was not our foreign enemies who destroyed us, but our incessant internal conflicts. At a time of denominational and political strife, the Women of the Wall are proving that Jews can work and pray together and transcend our differences in a tolerant, even loving, way.”
This story first appeared in the New Mexico Jewish Link, May 2014, p. 6 by Diane J. Schmidt. Schmidt is a writer and photojournalist based in New Mexico. She recently was awarded 1st place, Enterprise Reporting, 2014 for her articles Con Man posing as Native fools Merchants, Media and "Who You Gonna Call? Ghostbusters?" that first appeared in the Gallup Independent newspaper, and then in expanded form in the Link, by the New Mexico Press Women Association. She also received Honorable Mention for her personal essays.