These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Women and Walls

Posted on July 10, 2011 by Mary Brett Koplen

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Mary Brett Koplen, Pardes Summer learner, shares her Rosh Chodesh experience with Women of the Wall. For more of Mary Brett’s writing or to see her original post, visit her website: Where the Gnome Goes (A Traveling Blog).

At 6:15am, I am showered and partially coffeed. I stand on a Jerusalem street corner with my roommate Riki. We move east to the Old City, to the streets of stone, to the Western Wall. I am talking too fast. I am moving in dance. I have been thinking about this for a long time.

This in not my first visit to the Wall. Four or five times, I’ve made the treck through the Old City, the voyage through the medal-detectors. Four or five times, I’ve touched the wall. I’ve written prayers and song lyrics on little pieces of paper, pushed them into overstuffed spaces between stones. I have known that all paper ends in soggy messes on the ground, but still I tried. Pushed myself to some tangible relief of prayer.

*     *     *

I have never celebrated my Judaism with much attention to place, and therefore places with their physicality and unwillingness to move have always disappointed me. I waited for something when I first visited the Wall, stood there in the women’s section, looking around at lips that moved soundlessly, when on the other side of the dividing wall, men danced and men sang. From the silent side, it is difficult to disprove the power of a wall. So I looked straight ahead, brought prayers to my lips, and attempted to drown out the silence.

Later I heard of Women of the Wall: an organization that seeks to educate and empower women to not only receive words of Torah, but to speak them at the Holiest of Jewish places. Their aim is not to take over the Western Wall, but to share it. They offer one on-site Torah service per month, on Rosh Chodesh, the Biblical feast of the full moon, the monthly holiday of Jewish women. They sing Shacharit (the daily morning prayers), then march slowly to the southern wall, the nearest place women are permitted to read Torah.

*     *     *

When Riki and I arrive, we recognize the Women right away. There are two of them, standing next to the gate, and one little Torah held tightly in its protecter’s arms. It is the most beautiful Torah I have ever seen. The women tell us Shacharit has already started, but if either of us would like to stand with the Torah for a little while, it would be a great help. It isn’t something I have to think about. Suddenly, praying vocally at the Wall isn’t as important as standing here guarding this little Torah. I say yes, and take my post next to the woman with the Holy Scroll.

I am nervous for people’s reactions. The Women of the Wall have been arrested. They have been pelted with water and stones and words. But today the air is calm. The men won’t look at us. They whip-lash their necks in the other direction, pay close attention to the cloudless sky, walk past us shoving their shoes into the ground. They move quickly. Women yell, “this isn’t the place;” women yell, “go find a shuel that will take you;” women yell, “not at the Wall, not at the Wall.” Women whisper, “Is this a Torah service? May I join?”

“Chodesh tov,” we smile to all of them, equally.

*     *     *

I am standing with the Torah for 15 minutes, when a woman with frayed sleeves approaches us. Age points the tips of her shoulders down, and her head is covered in a many colored tichel. “Sefer Torah?” she asks in a thick accent whose words I barely recognize. “Ken,” we say. Her face breaks into a smile that drips from her eyes, then she is talking in excited Hebrew, throwing her hands into the air, and the woman I am standing with is nodding and saying, “ken, ken, ken.” I watch as this woman, tears on her face, reaches out for Torah, kissing it, burying her face in its cover, then quickly she pulls herself away and disappears.

There is a stillness I sense, and I know I have been holding my breath. I hear someone say, “That may be the closest that woman’s ever been to Torah,” my face is damp, but I can’t remember crying.

“My arms are giving out,” says the woman I am standing with, “would you mind?” She lifts the Torah towards me. I hesitate for a moment, shying away from this thing that I’ve been craving. There is no thank you, I can offer. I look at her, my face damp, and she smiles. For a moment, the Torah is between us, and we are both lifting Her. Then I feel the full weight of Moses in my arms. I bend my knees, shift from right to left, left to right. “You’re dancing!” someone says, and then she’s laughing, and I am laughing too. “Just in time,” she tells me. From the gate I see women– wrapped in teffilin, drapped in tallit, crowned with kippot, and they are all singing as they come closer, come closer:

עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה

The Lord is my strength and my might;

He is my deliverance.

They surround me: women and men; young and old; Iraeli, European, African. They look to me for something. “You have the Torah,” a woman says. “You lead.” I look at her, not sure if I’m understanding. “Walk slowly,” she says. “Be a presence.”

*     *     *

For 20 years I’ve been walking, but never have I walked with so much intention, propelled by the energy of these women, my feet move themselves. It isn’t a far walk to Robinson’s Arch, the southern wall just on the other side of the women’s section. It is, perhaps, less holy than it’s western sister because it’s farther from the Temple’s center, it’s smaller, and was never canonized into Jewish prayer. It is also the nearest place that allows women to read from Torah, allows men to pray with women, with not threat of arrest. Even though it may be less holy in a technical sense, my company brings what our space is lacking. Today, I feel a level of holiness I have never experienced before.

I walk the Torah scroll to a table that’s been erected for our purpose, stopping often when someone reaches out to kiss the text I hold. I place her down gently. I notice how delicate and young this Torah looks– like a newborn– but there is nothing new about this. Our tune shifts to Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life, the same processional troupe I have sung since my childhood. The same song my family sang before I was here. I don’t notice how hard it was to place her down until she isn’t in my arms anymore.

Without the Torah, my hands shake. My feet feel parted from the ground. The currant of energy I am surrounded in pushes me to where I am supposed to be. I find Riki and wrap my arms around her shoulders, needing to hold onto something, and believing fiercely that holiness must come from people. I have always had an easier time believing in humans than believing in God, but I’m not sure I see a distinction anymore. I turn to Riki to tell her this. Words fall out of my mouth, become sounds, and stop existing. I breathe. The singing stops when the first woman is called to the Torah. We hush ourselves, wait in this presence. And the words of Torah come.

Mary Brett Koplen Walking with the Torah