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Women From the Diaspora and Of the Wall: An Ethnography on Jewish Ritual Innovation By Adriel Borshansky

Introduction Because we dont consider ourselves a minyan (a group of Jewish men that constitute a group and make it eligible to perform an official prayer service), we dont say things that would normally be recited only in a minyan. That means no Kaddish, no Barkhu, no repetition of the Amidah.1 In this we are no different from most Orthodox womens prayer groups, although our members are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, and everything in between After Shakhrit (morning) we go into Hallel2, and each time, our leader cautions the others about getting carried away. Singing full-voice here could get us into trouble, even though by this time theres more than enough noise from the mens section and the neighboring construction to drown out any sound we make After Hallel we leave the womens section of the Kotel.3 Theres a last-minute replacing of siddurim; some women go close to the Kotel for a moment and then rejoin the group as we walk to a site in the Jewish Quarter for the Torah reading. Under the open sky we spread a specially made silk cloth over the raised stone structure that we use as a bimah (elevated platform for the leader of the prayer service), and we place the Torah upon it, wrapped in its woven cover and a tallit. It is there that many women get to see the inside of a Torah scroll up close for the first time. Our gabbai (assistant who manages the service) asks the group, Is there anyone here who has never received an aliya (the chance to get called up to the bimah to read from the Torah)? Five years ago there were several in each group; now there are almost none The Torah reading progresses, and as with Rabbi Shlomos davening, the Mi Sheberakhs are personalized. The gabbai makes sure to find out a little bit about each olah and asks for appropriate blessings for her. We respond with an enthusiastic Amen. Now its time for Musaf, Psalm 104, Alenu. Then we greet friends, meet new people. One member passes around a mailing list. We hear divrei Torah, updates on our Court case.4 The above passage is taken from Rahel Jaskows personal account of a typical prayer service with the group that calls itself Women of the Wall. Once every month, at the Kotel in the old city of Jerusalem, Israel, the group meets to perform a service like the one that Jaskow Kaddish, Barkhu, and Amidah are Jewish prayers Hallel is a Jewish prayer 3 The Kotel is an important site for Jewish prayer in Jerusalem, Israel. It is the remains of ancient Israels Second Temple, on which the Temple Mount stood. 4 Bonna Devora Haberman, Women Beyond the Wall: From Text to Praxis, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1997): 38-40.
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describes. For over twenty years now, Women of the Wall have generated passionate debate in the Jewish world. The movement has spurred American and Israeli Jews in particular to ask tough questions, such as: How should women practice Judaism at the Kotel? Is Women of the Walls prayer service (such as the one described above) acceptable? Women of the Wall deserve academic attention simply because of the fierce controversy, passion, and concern that the group has generated. Moreover, the movement is a kind of lens that the field of religious studies can use to look at Judaism as a whole. Many of the questions that Women of the Wall raise pertain not only to the movement, but also to broader issues. Women in Judaism, Jewish ritual innovation, and Israel-Diaspora relations are three examples of broader issues that Women of the Wall implicate. Jewish studies, and by extension, the field of religious studies, can gain valuable insights into the world of Judaism by studying Women of the Wall. In this paper, I approach Women of the Wall from two specific angles. First, I draw connections between the movement and a particular subset of religious studies: ritual studies. It is fitting to frame this study as one that is concerned with ritual because Women of the Wall emphasize practice, placing particular importance on a set of rituals. Ritual theorist Catherine Bell provides an understanding of ritual that both applies to and does not apply to Women of the Wall. The movement not only illuminates, but also is illuminated by, the field of ritual studies. Second, I approach Women of the Wall from an ethnographic angle. This paper is chiefly focused on bringing out the views of the women participants themselves. Some work has already been done to bring out these womens voices (the movement itself has produced films, blogs, and a book about the womens experiences5), but there is still much room for academia to do ethnographic work on the topic. Focusing on the women themselves is important because these Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaisms Holy Site, edited by Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut, is a compilation of essays and stories from participants in the movement.

women are real people engaging in real, lived practices. To understand Women of the Wall, scholarship must seek to understand the lives, views, and experiences of the women who constitute the movement. Researching the complex ways in which Women of the Wall understand themselves reveals that this movement is deeply contextual. Participants in the movement are concerned with the particularities of its specific location in the Jewish world (grounded in time and space). The womens views weave together a complex fabric of self-understanding that draws together history, geography, and custom. This fabric is made up of many different threads, of different textures and colors (each of the women is unique, and so they present their views in unique ways). And central to my overall thesis is the fact that the groups self-understanding consists of two main tensions. First, although Women of the Wall emphasize the groups legitimacy according to Jewish law, they also want to show that Jewish law is open-ended. Therefore, they assert their legitimacy on non-legal grounds as well. Second, Women of the Wall have a two-sided understanding of their movement: on the one hand, they see the movement as authentically Jewish, but on the other hand, they see it as new and innovative. In terms of the fabric metaphor, Women of the Walls views run in two opposing, yet intertwined, directions. Views from within Women of the Wall (from now on referred to as WOW) suggest tensions and particularities involved in the groups practice. The movement is not a uniform body that asserts a singular argument in favor of changing Jewish practice at the Kotel. Rather, it constitutes a rich fabric of views that are grounded in time and space. In concluding that WOW is deeply contextual, I am drawing upon the work of ritual theorist Catherine Bell. Bell writes that there are four features of practice:

Practice is (1) situational; (2) strategic; (3) embedded in a misrecognition of what it is in fact doing; and (4) able to reproduce or reconfigure a vision of the order of power in the world, or what I will call redemptive hegemony.6 In this particular movement, Bells first two features of practice really work. As my thesis argues, WOWs practice is situational in that it cannot be properly understood outside of its specific context. WOWs practice is also strategic: whether self-consciously or not, the women in the movement activate strategic practices based on their context and their groups goals. Bells third feature of practice does not really apply to WOW. WOW is too aware of itself and its goals to be embedded in a misrecognition of what it is in fact doing. Finally, Bells fourth feature of practice works in some ways but not in others. On the one hand, WOW engages in ritual innovation that reconfigures womens roles in the Jewish world, but on the other hand, WOW participants are still attached to hegemonic and traditional practices at the Kotel. WOW provides a counterexample to Bells third feature of practice, but even so, the movement exemplifies Bells overarching argument that ritual is contextual. Because my approach to studying WOW is ethnographic in nature and concerned with bringing out the voices of WOW participants, I used social-scientific methods to research the topic. I conducted phone interviews with nine women who have either participated in WOW in the past or continue to participate in it today. I found the women both by reading materials published by WOW and by asking participants to direct me to other women in the movement. Interviews lasted anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour. In the interview, I asked the interview participant various questions I had prepared. I also let the interviews evolve into conversations, in which I asked questions that responded to statements from the interview participant. Therefore, my methodology could be conceived of as qualitative social-science. In addition to interview Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 81.

research, I relied heavily on Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaisms Holy Site, edited by two prominent WOW activists, Rivka Haut and Phyllis Chesler. This book brings out the experiences, views, and voices of many women participants in the movement. Finally, I used academic articles and books for supplementary research and historical background information. Chapter 1 begins with the history of American Jewish womens activism and goes into a brief sketch of Women of the Walls history. Chapter 2 introduces the nine women I interviewed, giving a sense for who they are, how they match, and how they differ. Chapter 3 describes the various ways in which WOW participants see the movement as authentically and traditionally Jewish. Finally, Chapter 4 contrasts Chapter 3 by describing the ways in which WOW participants see the movement as new and innovative.

Chapter One: Historical Backdrop Feminist Judaism in America Popular representations of Women of the Wall portray it as a movement that began with a kind of haphazard, spur-of-the-moment idea in 1988. The small group of founding women may have been acting out of a sudden burst of activist spontaneity when they started the movement, but they were also carrying out an idea that had been developing for a long time. Feminist Jewish activism has an extensive history, particularly in the U.S., from where the movements founding members hail. This long and dynamic history is an important contextual piece of WOWs overall story, as Women of the Wall can be conceived of as being connected to even a product of a broader American feminist Jewish milieu. Even before specifically feminist Jewish modes of expression emerged in America, the country proved to be a place that valued Jewish freedom and diversity. As the immigrant Rebecca

Samuel explained in a 1791 letter to her parents in Hamburg, Germany, in America, anyone can do what he wants. There is no rabbi in all of America to excommunicate anyone.7 A sense of freedom and diversity characterized early American Judaism. Consequently, as Jonathan Sarna writes, in the early decades of American history, There were almost as many Judaisms as there were individuals.8 In this early American context, where a plurality of Judaisms could flourish, feminist Jewish modes of expression emerged. Women began to benefit from the spirit of freedom in American religious life as early as the turn of the 19th century, when women sought new opportunities within the synagogue. At the Shearith Israel synagogue in New York, for example, the congregation abandoned its controversial status-based system of assigning and rating seats for both sexes.9 Subsequent to these reforms in Shearith Israels congregation, the number of seats for women increased, women came down from the gallery to sing as part of a mixed choir, and women gained heightened visibility. Shearith Israel exemplifies the general American emphasis on religious freedom. In addition to logistical reforms within the synagogue, American Jewish women gained access to other institutionalized avenues of religious expression that had long been unavailable to them. The Female Hebrew Benevolent Society was founded in 1819; the United Order of True Sisters (a kind of Bnai Brith for women) was established in 1846; and the Jewish Sunday School movement developed, opening up teaching as another vocational role for Jewish women within their circumscribed religious sphere.10 These kinds of women-oriented Jewish organizations and movements gave women new opportunities and helped plant the seeds for a greater flowering of feminist Jewish expression. Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 45. 8 Ibid., 46-47. 9 Ibid., 47. 10 Sarna, American Judaism, 50.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, women contributed heavily to an American Jewish awakening. Women became increasingly responsible for religious education and by 1869, most American Jews receiving a formal Jewish education likely learned most of what they knew from female teachers.11 These new teaching responsibilities motivated women to educate themselves more fully in Judaism, beginning a long process of gender equality in the field of Jewish education. Around this same time, in 1860, Hadassah, the Womens Zionist Organization of America, formed to provide women with the opportunity to participate in social, medical, and educational philanthropy.12 In the early decades of the twentieth century, women began to find traction in an effort to gain ritual equality. The 1920s saw the emergence of Bat Mitzvah celebrations (the first known one was in 1922).13 Thereafter, the ritual spread, and by the 1940s, Bat Mitzvahs were commonplace.14 In the early decades of the 20th century, women also made gradual but substantial progress on the issue of mixed seating. By 1947, a survey of congregations led by graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary reported that, a general practice in nearly all of our congregations was that they permitted mixed pews.15 The emergence of Bat Mitzvahs and mixed pews are two examples of womens steady progress towards the goal of acceptance into traditionally maledominated rituals. In the 1970s and 1980s, American Jewish feminists made momentous strides, particularly in the realm of ordination and education. In 1972, a group of feminist activists from the Jewish organization Ezrat nashim showed up at an annual Rabbinical Assembly convention to present Ibid., 139. Ibid., 143. 13 Bat Mitzvah translates to daughter of the commandments and is modeled after the male coming of age ritual, Bar Mitzvah. 14 Ibid., 287. 15 Ibid., 242.
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a series of emphatic demands.16 The fight for American Jewish gender equality occurred most notably around the issue of ordination, which became highly contentious in Jewish communities all across the country. Men had exclusive access to ordination at this point, and the notion of a female rabbi was considered revolutionary. The question of womens ordination had been provoking debate in American Reform communities since as early as the turn of the twentieth century. In the absence of widespread support or urgent motivation, even Reform rabbinical seminaries in America decided to play it safe and maintain ordination as a male privilege.17 Finally, in 1968, Sally Jane Priesand entered the rabbinical track of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Priesand gained the support of her college president and top Reform movement leaders, gained media attention, and even gained significant public support. In 1972, she became Americas first woman rabbi in 1972. Two years later, the first Reconstructionist woman rabbi was ordained, and soon thereafter, female ordination became widely accepted in Reform and Reconstructionist communities. In the Conservative movement, womens ordination took longer to establish itself. The United Synagogue (the lay-dominated synagogue arm of the conservative movement) put forth three demands in a strong statement for gender equality in public ritual. By the late 1970s, the Jewish Theological Seminarys chancellor, Gerson D. Cohen, changed his views on the issue and became, in his own words, passionately in favor of ordination of women.18 Soon thereafter, Conservative womens ordination gained wider acceptance. Womens ordination was a crucial part of the feminist Jewish movement on the whole: Women now led worship services and read from the Torah on par with men, and having had their consciousness raised by the womens movement, they became newly sensitized to language issues.19 Womens Sarna, American Judaism, 339. Ibid., 340. 18 Sarna, American Judaism, 342. 19 Ibid., 343.
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ordination was part of a larger movement in which women were gaining increased access to Jewish education. Even in Orthodox circles, the 1970s and 1980s saw tremendous increases in womens Jewish education. As a result of these educational developments, Orthodox women no longer had to rely on men to expound Jewish law for them; a growing number could study the primary sources of their faith themselves.20 Womens new positions as educated and sometimes ordained Jews enabled them to promulgate their own prayer books, thus activating their feminist values from positions of religious authority. Ordination and education were central issues to the feminist Jewish movement in the 1970s and 1980s because as more women became ordained rabbis and became included in Jewish higher education, they gained increased erudition and power with which they could address gender issues. Important though the issues of womens ordination and education were, Jewish feminist activists of the 70s and 80s were also deeply concerned with ritual both in terms of allowing women to partake in traditionally exclusive rituals and in terms of formulating new ones. This ritual aspect of the feminist Jewish movement in America is particularly relevant to understanding Women of the Wall because of WOWs emphasis on practice. Perhaps WOW didnt really begin in Jerusalem in 1988, but in America in the late 1970s. Lynn Gottlieb, one of the earliest female American rabbis, writes that in the late 1970s, a group of feminists organized the first meeting of Banot Esh (Sisters of Fire), where they initiated the retreat by praying a traditional service.21 This kind of feminist practice, whereby women enacted a traditional service on their own (which traditionally would have needed the presence and leadership of men), became a hallmark of the feminist Jewish movement. The fervor around practical feminist innovation was aided by the concomitant development of Jewish catalogs. The Ibid., 344. Vanessa L. Ochs, Inventing Jewish Ritual (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2007), 19.
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First Jewish Catalog, for example, first published by The Jewish Publication Society in 1973, documented emerging Jewish rituals and promoted the creative spirit that would lead to more.22 Ordination and formal Jewish education were not even prerequisites for feminist activism anymore. Women from all denominations and levels of Judaism engaged in a process of innovating the way the religion was practiced. As this process of feminist ritual innovation developed, it took two distinct forms: allowing women to partake in exclusively male rituals and formulating new womens rituals. Vanessa Ochs describes these two as adaptation and creation: In creating new rituals, Jewish feminists have alternated between two approaches: adaptation of existing rituals and creation of new ones. In adaptation, the Jewish practices men have traditionally performed are made available for women Instead [of adopting existing rituals], they have [also] proposed creating distinctively female alternatives, derived from insights and practices that emerge out of the lives of Jewish women.23 Adaptation of existing rituals was a major theme of womens Jewish activism: the number of synagogues that called women up to the Torah rose dramatically, many women began to wear prayer shawls (a practice traditionally exclusive to men), and some synagogues even elected female presidents.24 Even in many Orthodox communities, Orthodox women began adopting male practices such as donning prayer shawls, celebrating the bat mitzvahs of their daughters, and dancing with the Torah on the holiday of Simchat Torah. Women from all kinds of Jewish communities gained new access to rituals that had long been the exclusive purview of Jewish men. In addition to feminist ritual adaptation, Judaism in America also saw feminist ritual invention, as women formulated specific rituals for events and experiences in womens lives. Sarna writes, Where female equivalent ceremonies did not commonly exist rituals were either Ibid., 39. Ibid., 47. 24 Sarna, American Judaism, 342.
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formulated from scratch or laboriously recovered from the recesses of Jewish tradition.25 Practices that are now considered commonplace emerged out of womens innovative efforts to create new prayers and rituals for women. Womens mikveh (ritual bath) rituals gained popularity, feminist seders (ritual dinners) on Passover became customary, and, perhaps most important for the history of Women of the Wall, gatherings of women to celebrate Rosh Chodesh (the new moon) became popular. Rosh Chodesh womens prayer groups also popularly known as womens tefillah groups26 became central to feminist Jewish practice. Moreover, many members of Women of the Wall were active in these kinds of groups prior to (and at the same time as) their participation in WOW. In fact, leading members of the movement articulate their WOW activism as directly stemming from WTGs: In most modern Orthodox communities throughout the world Orthodox women regularly gather in women-only groups in which they perform exactly the same activities that are currently prohibited to women in Israel at the Wall. It is these halakhically permitted activities that we seek to have legalized at the Kotel today.27 This excerpt, taken from Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaisms Holy Site, by Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut of WOW, illustrates two connections between WOW and its historical backdrop. For one, the passage includes the argument that WOWs activities are halakhically permitted, indicating Hauts and Chesslers high level of halakhic fluency and Jewish erudition. And secondly, this passage indicates the direct connections between Women of the Wall and womens tefillah groups. Women of the Wall emerged out of a broader feminist Jewish milieu that developed from colonial-era America and accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, the recent wave of Ibid., 343. Rosh Chodesh groups are the same as womens tefillah groups. I will usually refer to them as womens tefillah groups or WTGs. 27 Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaisms Holy Site, ed. Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003), xxvii.
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feminist Judaism, which emphasizes ordination, education, and ritual innovation (especially in the form of womens tefillah groups) helped make WOW possible. A Brief Sketch of WOWs History In addition to being part of the dynamic history of feminist Judaism in America, WOW has its own dynamic history: it has evolved, grown in size and scope, and struggled through major legal battles with the state of Israel. These pieces of historical background information are critical to understanding WOW because they contextualize the participating womens experiences in the movement. In December 1988, the first International Conference for the Empowerment of Jewish Women was held in Jerusalem under the auspices of the American Jewish Congress. Rivka Haut, an active member of one of the earliest womens tefillah groups in Brooklyn, New York, was asked to speak at the conference. She wanted to actually enact the change she wished to see in Jewish practice, so she approached several other women at the conference (Bonna Haberman, Norma Joseph, and Deborah Brin among them) to ask them if they would join her in running a womens prayer service at the Kotel. Surprised and excited by Rivkas audacity, the women agreed to the idea, and on Wednesday of the conference week, this small group of women gathered in one hotel room to discuss the details of their plan for a service at the Kotel. Having told many of the other women at the conference about their idea, the next day they took approximately seventy women (in buses that they rented) to the Kotels womens section to pray and read the Torah aloud together.28 The service started out smoothly, but soon an elderly woman noticed the women and began to yell at them to try to get them to leave. Some men noticed the commotion from across the mechitzah and soon they too began yelling at the group, shouting harsh and

Women of the Wall, xix.


harassing words at them. Feeling that they were in danger and that their service was getting disrupted, the women decided to back away from the Wall. After the service, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz, the administrator of the Kotel at the time, said, Although the women have done nothing against Halakhah, religious law, what they have done is not accepted in the community of Israel.29 Despite verbal harassment from ultra-Orthodox men and women at that first service, the leading women in the movement walked away from the experience proud of what they had done. They invited additional women to join them for future services and borrowed a Torah scroll from an Orthodox learning institution. The year 1989 saw the beginning of their monthly prayer celebrations of Rosh Chodesh at the Wall, and on Rosh Chodesh Tevet, Women of the Wall was officially born.30 WOW has engaged in a long process of legal battles with Israel over the rights to partake in certain practices at the Wall. The movements practical mission is to allow women to engage in the following activities at the Kotel: praying aloud in a group; singing prayers; wearing tallitot (prayer shawls); wearing tefillin (phylacteries); blowing a shofar (ritual rams horn); carrying or chanting from a sefer Torah (Torah scroll).31 Importantly, WOW does not challenge the existence of a mechitzah at the Kotel, and the services are non-minyan services, so that all Jewish women, including the strictly Orthodox, may feel comfortable joining the group in prayer.32 In 1988 and 1989, when the womens group first came to pray in these ways at the Kotel, there were no legal rules governing the ways that Jews should practice at the Wall. After particularly threatening confrontations between the women and ultra-Orthodox men, WOW filed a petition to the government of Israel to ask for protection. By this time, a group of diaspora women
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Ibid., 3. Ibid., 4. Women of the Wall, xxvii. Ibid., xxvii.


(including Rivka Haut, Bonna Haberman, and the rest of the founding members) had formed the International Committee for Woman of the Wall (ICWOW) so that even if they were not actively participating in prayer services at the Kotel, they could help the movement in more of a supportive role. The government denied ICWOW and WOWs request, citing halakhic opinions that ban WOWs practices. In 1991, ICWOW and WOW teamed up to appeal the Supreme Court for the legal right to conduct WOW services at the Kotel. The Supreme Court split its 1994 decision. Subsequently, over the next few years, ordered a series of largely unsuccessful commissions to resolve the issue. The commissions (first the Mancal Commission and then the Neeman Commission) repeatedly failed to meet their deadlines, yet the government kept giving the commissions six-month extensions. Meanwhile, praying aloud with Torah and tallit in the Kotels womens section remained a crime that was punishable by imprisonment and/or fine.33 In May of 2000, to all of the womens surprise, the court granted women the right to wear prayer shawls at the Kotel, pray aloud, and read from a Torah scroll as part of the service. However, soon thereafter, government parties submitted several bills to override the Supreme Court decision, including one that would make communal prayer by women at the Kotel punishable by a fine and seven years in prison. In the early 2000s, the Supreme Court and the government repeated the cycle that began WOWs legal ordeals in the 1990s. The court would order the government to find a solution, but the government would procrastinate.34 In 2005, a panel of nine judges ruled against WOW, five to four. As a result, Israeli law does not permit WOW to pray in their manner. Those women who do so anyway are subject to a fine and up to six months in jail. Currently, the Kotel is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and a special force led by Chief of Police of the Kotel. WOW members still meet, though. Every
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Women of the Wall, 369-371. Ibid., 377-399.


Rosh Chodesh, they complete the shacharit service and Hallel in front of the Wall and then go to Robinsons Arch (a nearby archaeological area) in order to read Torah and conclude the service. WOW participants also read the Scroll of Esther at the Kotel every Purim; they read the Book of Lamentations every Tisha bAv; they conduct Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for Jewish girls at the Kotel; and they sponsor seminars, lectures, and retreats.35 Although these legal battles have been hard-fought from WOWs perspective and they have weighed heavily on the spirits of the movements participants, the group has continued to be active at the Kotel nonetheless. In 1989, soon after the founding of the group, American Jewish leaders in the movement helped the group raise funds for a Torah scroll that WOW could use in group prayer services.36 The group continues to use this same Torah today. Despite periodic incidents in which the members of the group have been physically attacked and even dragged away from the Kotel37, they have persevered. In 1997, Bonna Haberman reflected fairly positively on the groups progress: Since January 1989, there has been a womens prayer celebration of Rosh Hodesh every month at the Wall. Due to our adherence to the Israel Supreme Courts interim decision requesting that we uphold the status quo ante, we begin our morning prayers at the Kotel without prayer shawls. For the Torah reading we adjourn to an archaeological garden above the Kotel plaza, where we are uninhibited by the courts censorship. There we rejoice, wearing our prayer shawls and singing with full voices.38 Since the time of the writing of that passage, WOW has continued to go to the Kotel every Rosh Chodesh. In fact, Haut and Chessler write that in February of 2002, we actually experienced what we have longed for WOW prayed aloud and read from a Torah scroll at the Kotel, before the ancient stones.39 Ibid., 380-391. Women of the Wall, xxxvii. 37 Ibid., xxxiii. 38 Bonna Devora Haberman, Women Beyond the Wall: From Text to Praxis, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1997): 15-16. 39 Women of the Wall, xxxiii.
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WOW is a self-described grassroots organization that relies on participation from all sorts of women activists (from American Jewish women leaders who advise the group, to Israeli women who pray every month on Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel, to North American Jewish women who make WOW prayer at the Kotel an important part of their visits to Israel). Many participants in the movement feel pessimistic because legal stalemates, political resistance, and patriarchal customs seem like such formidable obstacles to WOWs goals. Even so, by some measures, the group has already succeeded in creating a community of Jewish women who actively pray at the Kotel. The group continues to fight in the legal, political, and cultural arenas for the right to pray as they wish. WOWs dynamic history, as well as WOWs connections to the broader American feminist milieu, provides helpful background information. This historical backdrop is helpful not only because it establishes WOWs place in history, but also because it introduces the context in which many WOW participants understand their activism. Women of the Wall are concerned with history. They articulate their views with regard to historical evidence, such as WOWs relationship to the larger womens tefillah network, its multi-denominational roots, and its legal battles (especially halakhic debates). In the same vein, Chapter 3 will introduce the women whom I interviewed. Just as this chapter has done, Chapter 3 will help to both set the stage and to step into the shoes of WOW participants themselves.

Chapter Two: Interview Participants Before making the more substantive analyses of my interviews, I will introduce the women themselves. Each of the nine women whom I interviewed has a unique story worth telling. They are all American women, with the exception of Deborah Brin and Norma Joseph, who are both


American and Canadian. To be sure, these women have all spent significant time in Israel, but they are distinctly North American, diasporic Jews.40 The women ranged in age from about 40 to about 70. Partly because of their different ages and the different stages they are at in their lives and careers, these nine women have varying levels of active commitment to the movement. Some continue to be active leaders in WOW, while others have long since distanced themselves from it. They each have different relationships to Judaism, in terms of how she understands the religion as well as how she practices it. The Kotel, for example, has great religious significance to some of the women, while others see it as just another place to pray. In this chapter, I highlight the diversity and richness of this group of nine women. I also conclude with some of the ways in which the women are very similar to each other. This detailoriented depiction of the women themselves is valuable in its own right, as each of these womens stories is special. It is also crucial for understanding WOW because it places the womens lived realities at the heart of my thesis. Scholarship on WOW has a responsibility to contextualize these womens participation because the women themselves view their activism as deeply contextual. The womens participation in WOW is not an abstract topic up for debate, but an integral part of their lives. As such, in order to understand WOW as a whole, scholarship has to begin with an understanding of the people who constitute the movement. Childhood Experiences with Judaism Most of the study participants were heavily involved in Judaism at young ages. In my interviews, they talked about their Jewish upbringings, their families, and the ways that their Judaism has evolved over time since childhood. In some cases, the womens comments and anecdotes about childhood experiences with Judaism made it clear that those experiences either The term diaspora or diasporic connotes Jews living outside of the state of Israel.


connect to their participation in WOW. Miriam Benson, for example, said that she grew up in a Conservative family, one in which egalitarianism was always entrenched.41 Egalitarian Jewish ideas play an important role in WOWs mission, as WOW aims at equitable practices between men and women. Bensons egalitarian-leaning family predisposed her to the kinds of thinking that is so foundational for Women of the Wall. Deborah Brin also hinted at this same childhood launching of Jewish ideas when she mentioned that she grew up in a liberal Conservative community in Minneapolis.42 Her self-awareness of having grown up in a specifically liberal Jewish community indicates that progressive Jewish values have played a role in her life since an early age. Vanessa Ochs also suggested that in general, the relationship between a daughter and her mother is crucially formative for the development of girls Jewish beliefs and practices. There is a great deal of diversity amongst the childhood stories of the nine interview participants. Benson, Brin, Ochs, and others shared stories of real connection between their childhood and their participation in WOW. However, some women did not have those same childhood-WOW connections. Rahel Jaskow, for example, was not raised Jewish, in the conventional sense, at all: I started observing Judaism out of free choice in my teens and early twenties,43 she said. Miriam Benson also had a different path from childhood to WOW-hood than that of Benson, Brin, and Ochs. Benson was raised in a Conservative family where egalitarianism played a role, but then later in life, she became part of a Reform congregation in Israel.44 Benson and Jaskow were both informed by Judaism as they were growing up. However, they took somewhat atypical paths from childhood experiences with Judaism to participation in WOW.
41 42 43 44

Miriam Benson, interview by author, phone, January 1, 2012. Deborah Brin, interview by author, phone, February 14, 2012. Rahel Jaskow, interview by author, phone, January 31, 2012. Miriam Benson, interview by author, phone, January 1, 2012.


Identifying (or not identifying) with Denominations In trying to map out the demographics of my nine interview participants, I initially hoped to lay out a kind of numerical breakdown of the different participants denominations of Judaism. However, this task soon proved more challenging than I had anticipated. The women often reacted uncomfortably to my asking what denomination do you identify with?, and often responded with ambiguous, convoluted answers. Vanessa Ochs preferred not to answer the question at all, saying that she didnt think that kind of information is relevant to my researching Women of the Wall.45 Rahel Jaskow told me she has no denomination.46 Susan Aranoff had to think about the question for a few moments before saying, I have to say I'm flexodox. I'd say I'm a halakhic Jew - I'm so disturbed by Orthodox rabbinic leadership.47 These kinds of answers worked against my efforts to neatly categorize each participant into one particular denomination of Judaism. Some of the women were more concrete about their denominational alignment. Rivka Haut was the most concrete with her response, as she stated matter-of-factly that I identify as Orthodox.48 Others articulated their denominational identity with precision, but their responses still rang of a kind of trans-denominationalism (a combination of denominational affiliations). Rayzel Raphael said, Well, I'm Reconstructionist ordained, but now I'm Renewal, which, to me, is much more creative-arts based."49 Similarly, Deborah Brin also straddled the two related but distinct denominational identities of Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism: I was ordained Reconstructionist, identify as Reconstructionist, and serve as the rabbi of a Renewal community in Albuquerque."50 Even Norma Joseph, who identifies as clearly Orthodox, admitted to a kind of
45 46 47 48 49 50

Vanessa Ochs, interview by author, phone, February 6, 2012. Rahel Jaskow, interview by author, phone, January 31, 2012. Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012. Rivka Haut, interview by author, phone, February 15, 2012. Rayzel Raphael, interview by author, phone, February 9, 2012. Deborah Brin, interview by author, phone, February 14, 2012.


fluidity to her denominational identity. She responded by saying that she is Orthodox, but Im a crazy Orthodox because I'm pluralist and respecting and free-thinking.51 Even some of the women who identified with a particular denomination suggested that their Jewish identity is somehow trans-denominational. Many of the women responded tenuously, or intricately at best (such as Raphael, Brin, and Joseph), and made it clear that my initial statistical approach would be an ineffective way of capturing the participants denominational complexities. In addition to the theme of individual women affiliating with some combination of denominations, the group as a whole identifies as multi-denominational. In other words, although WOW has many Orthodox roots, participants can identify in any way they choose. Susan Aranoff told me, "Multi-denominationalism has been such a hallmark of our group.52 As I will bring up in ensuing chapters, WOW participants champion the groups denominational diversity. They embrace the challenges involved in reconciling all of the denominational backgrounds represented in the movement and take pride in their ability to unite across denominational borders. Current Practices It is important to note that many of the interview participants talked about their participation in womens tefillah groups, or Rosh Chodesh groups (womens prayer groups that meet on the last Saturday of every month in honor of the new moon). Rayzel Raphael actually helped found a womens tefillah group with Bonna Haberman (an influential leader of WOW who I did not get a chance to interview) and others, and continues to be active in that community.53 Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut were in a womens tefillah group in Brooklyn, New York together, along with about 50 or 60 other women, for many years. For Aranoff, this was their chance to
51 52 53

Norma Joseph, interview by author, phone, February 4, 2012. Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012. Rayzel Raphael, interview by author, phone, February 9, 2012.


pray in a group, not behind a separation wall.54 Not all the women noted participation in womens tefillah groups, and former participation in one is in no way a prerequisite for participation in Women of the Wall. That said, Norma Joseph told me that Women of the Wall is one particular outgrowth of these prayer groups.55 The women who are active in womens tefillah groups make direct connections between their part in WOW and their broader Rosh Chodesh womens prayer involvement.

Significance of the Kotel The Kotel is undoubtedly a central component of Women of the Wall, but the women differ in how they understand the Kotels significance. To be sure, many of the women I interviewed emphasized the Kotels importance to Jewish people in general. However, this emphasis was usually devoid of emotional attachment to the Wall. It was often more of an intellectual nod to the fact that the Kotel is significant in Judaism. Norma Joseph, for example, said, It [Kotel] became very important for me when I brought my mother there, but it's not that special to me.56 It is only the Kotels meaning to other people that makes it important to Joseph. Even Rivka Haut, who initially came up with the idea of doing a womens prayer service at the Kotel, denied any sort of sacred relationship with the Wall: In terms of holiness, I don't know what that is or how to locate it (I can access God in New York just as well), but when you realize that so many people have stood there in real life or in their dreams It has its roots in most Jewish souls.57

54 55 56 57

Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012. Norma Joseph, interview by author, phone, February 4, 2012. Norma Joseph, interview by author, phone, February 4, 2012. Rivka Haut, interview by author, phone, February 15, 2012.


For Haut, the Kotel is insignificant for Judaism as a whole, but it doesnt evoke holiness or for her on a personal or spiritual level. Joseph and Haut care about the fact that the Kotel is meaningful to other Jews without sharing in that spiritual connection with it. In many cases, this de-emphasis on the Kotels holiness seems to come from the fact that the women feel alienated by conventional practices at the Wall. Deborah Brin, for example, said, Emotionally, it does not evoke holiness in me - it invokes anger and pain in me at being unequal and oppressed.58 Brin and others feel more than ambivalence towards the Walls supposed holiness; they feel angry about being excluded from the Wall. Vanessa Ochs, for example, said, To me, the Kotel is a kind of monument or national spot, even a kind of idolatry, though maybe if women had been included it would be different.59 For some women, especially Brin and Ochs, the Kotel is a symbol of womens alienation, so they intentionally de-emphasize its holiness. Although Ochs, Joseph, Haut, and Brin all feel that the Kotel lacks some sort of inherent holiness for them, one interview participant, Raphael Rayzel, felt differently. Rayzel began to open up when I asked her if there is anything especially meaningful about the Kotel: I like the Kotel most at midnight, where the divine feminine presence is palpable. The rocks speak to me. I hear music. One night at the Wall, I heard the words "Holy mother," being spoken to me. Then I heard the word "Shechinah" [divine presence of God]. Then suddenly I heard a song about the Holy mother I learned this song and sang and recorded it on CD.60

Deborah Brin, interview by author, phone, February 14, 2012. Vanessa Ochs, interview by author, phone, February 6, 2012. 60 Rayzel Raphael, interview by author, phone, February 9, 2012.
58 59


Compared to the other women who placed little emphasis on the Kotels holiness, Rayzel actually emphasized her reverential experiences at the Wall. This issue serves to show another way in which the women participants whom I interviewed differ. In this case, most of the women had an intellectual appreciation for the Kotels significance while lacking an emotional attachment to it, while Raphael Rayzel proved to be an outlier as the one participant who expressed a deep spiritual connection to the Kotel.

Other Forms of Activism For many of the women participants whom I interviewed, Women of the Wall is not their sole activist focus. As Vanessa Ochs told me, Many are political activists in other parts of their lives.61 As I mentioned earlier, many of the interview participants have been involved in womens tefillah groups in the U.S., and many of them have other causes to which they are devoted, some of which relate to WOW, others of which are more disconnected. Raphael Rayzel stood out as perhaps the most active in terms of feminist Jewish activism outside of Women of the Wall: I havent only chosen WOW. I've been meeting with B'not Eish (and "Sisters of Light") for thirty years to discuss Jewish feminism. I make music as a form of feminist liturgy, I do interfaith outreach, and I lead interfaith services.62

Rayzel had just left an interfaith funeral service that she had led when I interviewed her, and she was insistent that I understand the full breadth and depth of her feminist Jewish expression. Similarly, Deborah Brin talked about her feminist Jewish activism in Canada. As a
61 62

Vanessa Ochs, interview by author, phone, February 6, 2012. Rayzel Raphael, interview by author, phone, February 9, 2012.


female rabbi, she had to fight for recognition: At one point I was the only female rabbi in Canada (while living in Toronto), which was really tough. I would show up at board meetings just to let the male rabbis know that I existed But their attitudes never changed."63 Brin and Rayzel made it clear that WOW was just one manifestation of their feminist Jewish activist ambitions. Several of the women I interviewed mentioned womens divorce rights (and debates over Agunah [anchored married woman]). In particular, Norma Joseph, one of WOWs top leaders and advisors, emphasized the issue of agunah. She said that even for many WOW activists "[womens prayer rights at the Kotel] wasn't a central issue. We [WOW activists] had our own prayer groups and we had other issues like divorce rights. For me, divorce rights are a much higher priority.64 The issue of agunah is a major ongoing debate, especially in Israel. Susan Aranoff, who now lives in Israel, talked about the importance of activism around the issue of agunah as well as other Jewish womens issues, such as girls getting spit at on their way to school, gender segregation on public buses, and womens visibility on posters.65 Clearly, womens prayer rights at the Kotel are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Jewish womens issues. Norma Joseph even suggested that the general public has ignored Women of the Wall precisely because it addresses such a specific manifestation of a much larger complex of issues. Many of the women I interviewed are in touch with this reality and choose to engage in Jewish feminism in a variety of ways that are not limited to or exclusive to WOW.


Deborah Brin, interview by author, phone, February 14, 2012. Norma Joseph, interview by author, phone, February 4, 2012. 65 Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012.
63 64


While there is difference amongst these interview participants, they are also uniform in many ways. For one, they all come to WOW with the same foundational belief that women should be allowed to engage in many of the same rituals that men perform. These women may differ in their grounds for believing so, but they all agree with WOWs practices and see womens ritual equality as a good thing. Second, they are predominantly white, Ashkenazi Jews from North America.66 To be sure, each womans background is unique, but they share this common overall identity. Third, these interview participants all share a high level of erudition. All of them have bachelors degree; four of the women are published professors (not including Rivka Haut, who is not a professor but is published) and two others are ordained rabbis; and the majority of them are exceptionally active leaders in Jewish communities in North America, which at least suggests that they are learned in Judaism. Finally, these women predominantly have relatively high economic statuses. Their high levels of education, their ability to travel to Israel to participate in WOW, and their ability to be devote time to Jewish activism at home all indicate that they women are wellsupported financially.

Each of the nine women whom I interviewed has a unique background and a particular perspective. Diversity is a major motif of this chapter: the women claim different denominational affiliations, they express different attitudes towards the Kotel, et cetera. At the same time, there are important values and attributes that bind these women together, just as there are important values and attributes that bind the broader WOW community together. This chapters introduction to nine WOW participants has been anything but comprehensive. I have brought out key Ashkenazi Jews generally descend from Central, Eastern, and Northeastern Europe.


examples, anecdotes, and themes that merely serve to introduce these women. Chapters 3 and 4 will pick up on these womens views, as well as the views of many other WOW participants who I did not get to interview, on WOWs practices.

Chapter Three: Seeing WOW as Authentically Jewish In this chapter and the next one, I unpack the ways in which Women of the Wall conceive of their practices and their movement as a whole. As my thesis argues, WOW participants understand the movement in numerous, contextual ways. Their views weave together a rich fabric that fits together despite tensions between some of the different strands of argumentation. In this chapter, I focus on a set of views that run in the same general direction. These views, ideas, and arguments are all directed at understanding WOW as authentically Jewish. Many WOW activists address their groups commitment to Jewish values. One of the Jewish values the women emphasize is halakha: they bring in arguments about Jewish law in order to defend their practices as authentically Jewish. They also commonly bring in arguments about history, custom, and precedent in the Jewish world. These kinds of arguments are not so much about legality and halakhic permissibility as they are about showing that WOW is not as radical as its critics make it out to be. In fact, while some women defend WOWs halakhic legitimacy, others de-emphasize the role of halakha in these debates, saying that halakha is too subjective for any kind of authoritative decision about WOWs legal permissibility. All of the views presented in this chapter portray WOW as a movement that is authentically Jewish and rooted in tradition. Moreover, these ideas highlight how deeply


contextual WOW is. WOW participants dont just rely on legal arguments to defend their rootedness in Jewish tradition. They also rely on context-related arguments, such as those based on historical precedence, custom, and contemporary Judaism. Jewish Devotion WOW activists emphasize that their involvement in WOW is passionately Jewish and devoted to the highest of Jewish causes. In my interviews, as well as in other contexts, the women illustrate their Jewish devotion by arguing that they act in the name of Jewish causes, that they activate the most holy elements of Judaism, and that they maintain strict devotion to orthodoxy. WOW participants consistently make pleas to their audience to understand that their movement is in the name of Judaism. Norma Joseph includes this powerful statement in her chapter on Listening to Womens Voices in Prayer: We wish to participate! Not to rebel or remove ourselves from community. We wish to give voice to our spiritual/religious commitment. Our presence at the Kotel is an act of religious enhancement; a means to further participation and expression of faith.67 Joseph wants to make it clear that her actions, and those of her WOW comrades, are for the sake of the Jewish cause. To express this commitment to Judaism, she frames WOWs actions in deeply religious language, invoking her devotion to prayer, and to heaven. She writes, these women [WOW activists] chose to further their ritual practice and deepen their understanding of prayer. Their actions, like those of their biblical foremothers, are for the sake of heaven.68 WOW participants further argue their commitment to Judaism by presenting their movement as an activation of some of Judaisms most essential, sacred features. For instance, Karen Erlichman describes her experience at a WOW prayer service at the Kotel by invoking important, sacred Jewish symbolism. She writes, We created our own mishkan (Tabernacle) in
67 68

Women of the Wall, 297. Women of the Wall, 309.


our circle that morning at the Wall.69 A mishkan is a deeply-rooted Jewish symbol for a dwelling place sometimes taken literally as a Tabernacle for God. This choice of words is a powerful suggestion of WOWs prayer groups sacred, Jewish nature. Erlichmans description is particularly evocative here because of the fact that mishkan is commonly associated with the concept of shekhinah, the divine feminine presence. Thus, her statement not only likens WOWs prayer group to an ancient, holy symbol of Gods presence, but also brings into focus the notion that femininity shares in the power of that sacred symbol. Much like Erlichman, Rahel Jaskow and Vanessa Ochs both discuss essential features of Judaism in the context of WOWs activities. In my interview with her, Jaskow emphasized the collective nature of WOWs prayer services as a way of showing how Jewish WOW really is. She told me, In Judaism, collective prayer is much more powerful, its the highest form of prayer, and Judaism focuses on prayer.70 For her, praying with like-minded people is one of the most rewarding aspects of participating in WOW, and that collective prayer reminds her of Judaisms celebration of communal prayer. Vanessa Ochs focused on the very act of praying, whether in a group or as an individual. She sees WOW as an expression of Judaisms essence because prayer is at the heart of what it means to be Jewish: In many ways, this isnt really innovation. Jews pray, its what they do.71 The symbolism of the mishkan, Judaisms celebrated collective form of prayer, and the very act of prayer are three examples of essential, sacred features of Judaism that WOW participants have invoked in describing the movement. Finally, WOW activists express their movements highly Jewish nature by asserting that WOW maintains strict adherence to orthodoxy. Even though the group prays as a collective, they face halakhic issues with regard to the way they define their prayer service and which prayers they Women of the Wall, 102. Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012. 71 Vanessa Ochs, interview by author, phone, February 6, 2012.
69 70


can actually recite. According to many orthodox authorities, women do not count as part of a minyan (a group of Jewish men that constitute a group and make it eligible to perform an official prayer service). WOW leaders make it clear that they observe this gender distinction when it comes to group prayer. Rivka Haut, for example, told me, The women at the feminist Jewish conference in Jerusalem in 1988 were largely orthodox, so we refrained from calling ourselves a minyan. We still did Haftarah and Torah readings, but we were not a minyan.72 Some folks call the WOW prayer group a kahal (congregation) while others use the term tzibur (collective) to describe them.73 As Haut alluded to, because WOW leaders generally do not consider its prayer group to be a minyan, they are very careful to follow the proper prayer observances that come with being a non-minyan group. They refrain from reciting certain prayers out loud: Some women in the early years of the group didnt count women as part of the minyan, and so wouldnt read aloud in the barachu and other prayers.74 Here, Benson draws attention to WOWs disciplined adherence to the orthodox conventions that apply to non-minyan prayer groups. Since orthodoxy has a strong air of authenticity, these kinds of statements from WOW members frame the movement as one that sticks to the highest, most authentic values of Judaism. WOW participants consistently emphasize their deep level of Jewish devotion. They present themselves as committed Jews who act in the name of the Jewish cause, activate some of the most holy elements of Judaism, and maintain strict adherence to orthodoxy. These ways of articulating the movement enhance WOWs claim to halakhic legitimacy (a claim that the next

Rivka Haut, interview by author, phone, February 15, 2012. This issue has developed as a long-standing debate within WOW, and the group is not united around one particular position. There are some women, especially those who come from non-orthodox denominations, who argue that the women do count as a minyan. 74 Miriam Benson, interview by author, phone, January 1, 2012.
72 73


section describes). WOWs activities are not only permissible according to Jewish law, but they are also characteristic of exalted Jewish values. Halakhic Legitimacy The WOW community is rife with arguments that defend WOWs practices as halakhically legitimate. In her analysis of WOWs rhetoric, Susan Sered illustrates that WOWs written statements repeatedly emphasize expert orthodox halakhic approval of what the women are doing.75 As my findings show, halakha is not the only source that WOW participants look to for support of their practices, but it is certainly an important one. In my interviews, the women consistently mentioned that WOWs activities are halakhic or halakhically permissible. Rivka Haut was most outspoken about the groups halakhic legitimacy, perhaps because she is exceptionally confident in her knowledge of and understanding of Jewish law. She told me, We did not intend to make any waves at all. We read the laws, and even under strict halakhic law, these activities were permitted.76 WOW activists argue that the customs at the Kotel are based on misunderstandings of halakha. In their view, when one really examines the law, one finds that women are allowed to do group Torah reading services: For so many centuries, women and Torah scrolls have been physically separated, not for halakhic reasons but because of underlying fear and disgust at womens bodies. WOW shows the fallacy of this reasoning.77 When Rivka approached me with the idea of doing a group Torah reading service at the Kotel, I thought, Why not try it? We wouldnt be violating any halakhic rules or anything.78

Susan Sered, Women and Religious Change in Israel: Rebellion or Revolution, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring, 1997): 11. 76 Rivka Haut, interview by author, phone, February 15, 2012. 77 Women of the Wall, 28. 78 Norma Joseph, interview by author, phone, February 4, 2012.


There is a significant legal text that reveals that women were counted among those who were called up to read from the Torah in public.79 In addition to making direct assertions about WOWs halakhic legitimacy, interview participants often cited other sources as ascribing halakhic approval to the group. Many of the women brought up this statement from an Israeli authority at the Kotel: What you do, the way you pray, is halakhically acceptable and is okay anywhere in the world but here. Referencing this quote is a way of showing that even some who opposed the movement admitted that Jewish law permits WOWs form of prayer services. Nearly every interview participants made some sort of assertion about WOWs activities being halakhically permissible. Prominent WOW activists have emphasized the issue of halakhic legitimacy in writing as well. For example, in her chapter about WOWs legal action against the Israeli Supreme Court, Susan Alter writes, We wanted to explain our intentions to conduct a prayer service strictly according to Halakhah.80 Authors of the various chapters in Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaisms Holy Site consistently reiterate the point that womens prayer services at the Kotel are as acceptable and desirable to the God of Israel as the prayers of men.81 In other words, this is not just a feminist reform movement: this is a movement in accordance with Judaism that prays according to Gods will. Susan Sered frames this theme of halakhic legitimacy as a way for WOW to sell their movement as a rebellion (as opposed to a revolution). In Sereds vocabulary, a rebellion comes from within Judaism and assumes Jewish values, whereas a revolution seeks to change Judaism from the outside. WOW presents itself as lying clearly in the rebellion camp, in that they accept halakha and see themselves as part of mainstream Orthodox Judaism. Moreover, Sered points out Bonna Devora Haberman, Women Beyond the Wall: From Text to Praxis, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1997): 27. 80 Women of the Wall, 134. 81 Women of the Wall, 280.


that their [WOW activists] legal documents focus on halacha and not on sex discrimination.82 Indeed, in my interviews, the women rarely presented feminist arguments, but often presented the kinds of halakhic arguments that I discussed earlier. This favoring of halakhic grounds over feminist grounds for WOWs legitimacy suggests that the women see their groups halakhic acceptability as central to their group identity. They are willing to forego feminist arguments in order to drive home the message that their movement is halakhically legitimate, and therefore authentically Jewish. The Open-ended Nature of Halakha To be sure, Women of the Wall often rely on halakha for legitimacy. However, participants also emphasize a very different view of their groups relationship to halakha. This view understands halakha as a very subjective and unreliable source, and wants to stress that Jewish laws open-endedness gives WOW its legitimacy. Although some WOW participants say that WOW is legitimate because it has direct and concrete approval from reliable halakhic sources, other women articulate a very different argument: they assert that WOW is legitimate because no one interpretation of halakha is more correct than any other. Many WOW participants articulate halakha to be an open-ended source. With regard to the issues of mechitzah, kol ishah83, and minyan, they readily admit that the movement has faced major internal questions about how to interpret the law. Firstly, Norma Joseph spoke to me about disagreement within the movement about the issue of the Kotels mechitzah (physical barrier separating men from women). There was a broad spectrum of views about the most proper way to pray. Joseph said, There were women who had vowed to never pray behind a mechitzah, and so Susan Sered, Women and Religious Change in Israel: Rebellion or Revolution, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring, 1997): 12. 83 Kol ishah is a prohibition against men hearing or being in the presence of a womans singing voice.


didnt want to go. There were others who wanted to do it orthodox and not even use the Torah.84 Even among Orthodox women, there was disagreement about what the law says about women reading from the Torah. This issue suggests that halakhic authority on the mechitzah and how to pray is open-ended. Another example of the open-ended nature of halakhic interpretation in WOWs internal debates is the issue of kol ishah. Norma Joseph delves into a long discussion about the complex debates surrounding kol ishah before concluding, Contemporary responsa have redefined the category and characteristics of kol ishah. The topography of this legal map is open for investigation and implementation.85 Legal deciders and commentators have established all sorts of interpretations of what halakha really says about men hearing women sing, and what even counts as singing. Joseph brings this up as a way of highlighting the openness of halakha to investigation and implementation. Lastly, WOWs views on the issue of minyan are just as convoluted as those on the issue of mechitzah and kol ishah. Although the group has generally decided that they do not constitute a minyan, and so refrain from reciting certain prayers, there are many divergent views on this issue within WOW. Norma Joseph is quick to point out that halakha does not provide any hard-and-fast answers to these questions: The entire question of women and minyan is not as clear as many think The late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, zl, in his capacity as chief rabbi of Israel, wrote a halakhic decision about WTGs [womens tefillah groups] in which he permitted women to recite all prayers recited in a minyan, including Barkhu, Kaddish, and Kedushah There are other Orthodox rabbis who permit ten women to constitute a minyan For now, WOW is not constituted as a minyan.86 This passage depicts the confusing nature of halakha. Josephs understanding of halakha stands in sharp contrast to the confident tone with which some other WOW statements assert the Norma Joseph, interview by author, phone, February 4, 2012. Women of the Wall, 308. 86 Women of the Wall, 283.
84 85


groups adherence to concrete halakhic guidelines. Here, just as in the cases of mechitzah and kol ishah, Joseph argues that halakha is open-ended and that WOW continues to grapple with how it wants to interpret and implement Jewish law. WOW members specifically use the open-ended nature of halakha in the context of advocating for the movements legitimacy. This form of argumentation is a kind of apologetic for WOW that is premised on the fact that halakha can neither prove nor disprove the groups legitimacy. Frances Raday discusses the significance of halakhas fluidity in her chapter entitled The Fight Against Being Silenced: Judaism is not given to a single hierarchy of authoritative interpretation. The interpretation of the sources is a matter of dialectic; theological rulings are determined by the accumulation of conflicting rabbinical writings and responses to questions from the community. Thus, because alongside the core of opposition there is Orthodox authority that supports the womens claim, it can be said that the status of this mode of prayer is not decided under Halakhah.87 Raday argues that WOWs activities are legitimate because halakha is undecided on the issues at stake. Rather than attribute authority to Orthodox corroboration of the womens claim, Raday draws attention to the uncertain nature of hakahic interpretation as a whole. This approach discredits arguments on behalf of WOWs halakhic legitimacy, but more importantly, it discredits arguments on behalf of WOWs halakhic illegitimacy. Norma Joseph takes a similar approach to the more narrow issue of reciting the Shema (a central prayer, for which opinions abound on whether or not women should recite it). Joseph points out inconsistencies in halakhic authoritative opinions over the years: According to Talmud (Berakhot 20b), women are exempt from reciting the Shema but obligated in tefillah. There are many permutations and combinations of this basic mishnaic statement in rabbinic law It is noteworthy that having begun with a seemingly clear and simple rabbinic text, later authorities had to restate the obligation to prayer and reinterpret the exemption of the Shema.88
87 88

Women of the Wall, 116. Women of the Wall, 293.


Joseph brings up inconsistencies in halakhic statements about the issue of reciting the Shema in order to show that, while some halakhic sources exempt women from reciting the Shema, others elaborate that women should definitely say the Shema.89 She is primarily interested here in the silencing of Jewish women over time, and her overarching argument is that halakhically rooted arguments that silence women are unfounded. One can find halakhic justifications for both sides of the debate, so there is no real reason to favor the silencing of women over including them in public prayer. Many WOW participants assert that WOW is legitimate because no one interpretation of halakha is more correct than any other. This assertion contrasts other arguments about WOWs halakhic legitimacy: both approaches provide an apologetic for WOWs activities, but they are in tension because of their understanding of halakha as, in the one case, concrete and reliable, and in the other, open-ended and subjective. Historical Backings for Women of the Wall The tension between WOW activists arguing, on the one hand, that WOW has concrete proof of halakhic legitimacy, but also that halakha is inherently subjective begs this important question: are there other, non-halakhic ways in which WOW members understand their Jewish legitimacy? If so, on what kinds of grounds do they base that understanding? One of the nonlegalistic forms of argumentation that comes up in WOW literature and that figured prominently in my interviews is a historical one. WOW participants make two historical points about the acceptability of the groups prayer services: first, the Kotel has not always been as exclusive towards womens prayer groups as it is now, and second, the activities that WOW engages in have precedent throughout Jewish womens history.

Women of the Wall, 293.


Many WOW activists consistently bring up the notion that the current situation at the Kotel is a kind of historical anomaly. They argue that traditionally, the Kotel was much more inclusive of womens prayer, and tensions around prayer at the Wall really only developed during the period when it was under non-Jewish rule. Raphael Rayzel told me in an interview, I have a picture of the Kotel, in around 1920, of men and women praying together. In 1967, there was not even a mechitzah.90 Vanessa Ochs also emphasizes the fact that the Wall was a gender-neutral, unsegregated space prior to 1948. She writes, Now [June of 1967 onwards], for the first time in Jewish history, it was configured like an outdoor orthodox synagogue, with chairs and prayer equipment for men who prayed in groups together on the much larger area to the left of the mechitzah.91 These women place the current situation in historical perspective in order to show that what WOW advocates is not very radical when one considers that hardly a century ago, men and women prayed shoulder-to-shoulder at the Wall. The second strand of historical legitimations of WOW has to do with Jewish womens history: many WOW members connect their struggle to the stories of Jewish women throughout history who participated actively in the Jewish community. Norma Joseph points out that in biblical times, pious women did not merely attend on the Sabbath but were regulars at least on Mondays and Thursdays.92 And in medieval Europe, some Jewish women sang in the synagogue: Some women, such as thirteenth-century Urania and Richenza, were eulogized as synagogue singers.93 These points strongly suggests that there is historical precedent, within Jewish tradition, for women to pray out loud at the Kotel. In fact, Joseph explicitly argues the connections between WOW and historical Jewish womens voices. She writes, The command to Abraham
90 91 92 93

Rayzel Raphael, interview by author, phone, February 9, 2012. Women of the Wall, 318. Women of the Wall, 291. Women of the Wall, 291.


from God that he should listen to Sarahs voice, poignantly frames this issue. I do not consider it coincidental that our experience connects with Sarahs, with her voice and laughter.94 Rather than make the kinds of halakhic arguments in favor of WOW that Rivka Haut and many others make, here Joseph focuses on historical precedent. Her argument is that regardless of what the law says, history shows that Jewish women have consistently played an important role in prayer (even in the form of song and out-loud recitation), and so WOW should be able to continue that tradition. While these historical accounts are not necessarily about women doing exactly the same practices that WOW pursues, the narratives still play a role in the way that WOW conceives of its connections to Jewish history. WOW activists articulation of their movement consists of two kinds of historical argumentation: one contextualizes the Kotels history in order to show that WOW has historical precedent in terms of prayer at the Wall, and the other contextualizes womens prayer more broadly in order to show that WOW has historical precedent in terms of Jewish womens prayer throughout time. Both of these ways of understanding WOW as a movement are much less legally-oriented than the arguments that Rivka Haut and others raised earlier about halakhic legitimacy. Unlike the halakhic arguments, here Norma Joseph, Raphael Rayzel, and others turn to history, legacy, and tradition as grounds for WOWs legitimacy. Equivalences Between Women of the Wall and other Womens Tefillah Groups In addition to arguing that WOWs activities have various forms of historical precedence, many women in the movement emphasize ways in which WOW has precedence in contemporary Jewish practice. Most commonly, women make connections between WOW and the larger network of womens tefillah groups. As I specified in Chapter 1, womens tefillah groups

Women of the Wall, 289.


(WTGs) sprung up in the 1980s around the world as women only prayer groups where Jewish women could pray aloud, read from Torah, wear tallitot, and even wear tefillot. In articulating their practices, WOW members do not just bring up their participation in outside WTGs, but they also explicitly argue that WOWs practices are legitimate because they are no different from those of all other WTGs. The majority of my nine interview participants brought up their involvement in womens tefillah groups (WTGs). Joseph told me, We had all been part of our womens prayer groups in the 1980s.95 Susan Aranoff was one of the women who was most clear about the connection between WOW and the womens tefillah movement. She said, There were these groups all over the country and around the world. The roots of WOW are the womens tefillah groups.96 WOW certainly has many roots, but WOW activists commonly locate the movements origins in the broader womens tefillah network. After all, most, if not all, WOW participants have participated in WTGs, and WOW models its beliefs and practices directly after those of WTGs. WOW activists dont just talk about their participation in outside WTGs: they make overt arguments about ways in which the womens tefillah network legitimizes WOWs practices. Susan Aranoff, for example, said that she had been a member of a WTG, and saw no difference between the way that her WTG prayed and the way that WOW prayed. She told me, We felt that if this is how we pray, then we should be able to do this when we go to Israel and Jerusalem.97 Rahel Jaskow also expressed her feeling of shock and surprise at finding out that practices that had been going on in WTGs since the early 1980s were not accepted at the Kotel. She said, There was such negativity about something that had been done in the US for so long.98 Aranoff and
95 96 97 98

Norma Joseph, interview by author, phone, February 4, 2012 Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012. Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012. Rahel Jaskow, interview by author, phone, January 31, 2012.


Jaskow may not intentionally be making an argument about WOWs legitimacy, but their remarks effectively form a kind of defense against WOWs critics. In their introductory chapter, Phyllis Chessler and Rivka Haut make this argument even more explicit by arguing, In most modern Orthodox communities throughout the world Orthodox women regularly gather in women-only groups in which they perform exactly the same activities that are currently prohibited to women in Israel at the Wall.99 In writing this passage, Chessler and Haut stress that WOW is not very radical. They stress that all around the world, women do the kinds of practices that WOW is bringing to the Kotel, and yet nowhere else but at the Kotel do the women face exclusion and retribution. Many of the WOW participants whom I interviewed and who write in Chessler and Hauts book discuss the strong links between WOW and the broader womens tefillah network. Moreover, they commonly argue that since WOWs practices are no different from those of other WTGs, they should be treated with the same level of acceptance. Just like arguments based on historical precedent, this defense of WOWs practices is based less on halakha than on the fact that in the broader Jewish world, women do the kinds of practices that WOW pursues at the Kotel.

WOW participants offer a range of arguments for why WOW is rooted in authentic, traditional Judaism. These arguments are grounded in WOWs context, especially in light of Bells understanding of ritual as contextual. For example, the last view that I presented (the argument that WOW is legitimate because it is no different from other WTGs) is, to use Bells terminology, situational. WOW participants hold this view because of the groups particular situation as one WTG among many around the world. This argument also frames WOWs practices as strategic because WOW uses WTGs halakhic legitimacy to its own advantage.

Women of the Wall, xxvii.


The two different arguments about WOWs relationship to halakha also show that WOW is grounded in context. The fact that the two arguments run counter to each other shows that WOW is fluid, capable of arguing different positions. Chapter four brings out what is perhaps the best illustration of this fluidity: the macro tension between WOW participants tendency to both defend the movements authenticity and emphasize the movements novelty.

Chapter Four: Seeing WOW as New and Innovative To only speak of the ways in which WOW activists understand the movement as authentically Jewish is to miss out on another important piece of their activist identities. Many of the women readily admit and often boast that WOWs practices are new and innovative. Importantly, this movement presents itself as one that assumes Jewish values but advocates change. They dont just normalize WOWs practices and emphasize the groups authenticity; they also bring out WOWs particularities and emphasize its novelty. WOW participants talk about the groups multi-denominationalism; the innovative dynamics of a North American-led movement operating in an Israeli context; the novel symbolism of a womens prayer group at the Wall; and the novelty of womens ritual innovation in the Jewish world. Moreover, many of them express excitement and apprehension about their engagement in WOWs practices. This chapter highlights the fact that WOW is deeply contextual. Even though WOW legitimizes itself on all sorts of legal, intellectual, and traditional grounds, many of its members still communicate the visceral newness of what they are doing. WOW participants understand their ritual innovation not only in terms of abstract theological ideas, but also in terms of their lived experiences of the movement. In this chapter, I focus on some of the main contextual factors that shape WOW participants self-understanding.


The Multi-denominational Nature of Women of the Wall In researching Women of the Wall, and especially in interviewing nine of its participants, I found that the groups multi-denominational nature is a critical component of the movement. Both a challenge and a triumph for WOW, its multi-denominationalism is one of the main reasons why its members understand the movement as unique and innovative. When the group was first forming in 1988, it came out of an already multi-denominational context. Rivka Haut says that the feminist Jewish conference in Jerusalem that many of the soonto-be WOW leaders attended included women from Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox backgrounds: It was a multi-denominational conference, so I was scrupulous about including women of all sorts of backgrounds and denominations.100 While WOW is rooted to the womens tefillah network on many levels, the movements multi-denominationalism sets it apart from other WTGs. Haut writes, Unlike most WTGs, WOW has no single rabbinic advisor. Unlike Orthodox tefillah groups, composed mostly of Orthodox women, WOW has a different agenda. It transcends any particular denomination to promote all inclusive ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel).101 This passage provides contrast to other statements from WOW participants that deliberately place WOW within the broader womens tefillah network context: here, Haut sets WOW apart because of its multi-denominational nature. WOWs central motif of multi-denominationalism presents new and unique challenges to the movement. Hauts insistence on including women from different denominational backgrounds made it difficult for the group to decide on its policies and practices: Should WOW be concerned about not offending or surprising Orthodox women, veterans of WTGs, who join WOW when visiting Israel and are startled to hear Barkhu recited?
100 101

Rivka Haut, interview by author, phone, February 15, 2012. Women of the Wall, 280.


Or, should WOW, since it is multidenominational, allow recitation of Barkhu, as there are Orthodox rabbis who permit women to recite it?102 Ultimately, as the group defined its policies, all of the participants had to make some sort of compromise for the sake of collective action. Haut told me that after much deliberation, Everyone agreed to follow the guidelines of Orthodox law. It was the lowest common denominator, and we took a lot of time to sit down with people and explain our reasoning and our goals. Everyone had to make compromises, even some orthodox women.103 One example of the kind of compromise that Haut mentions here came up around the issue of the mechitzah. Deborah Brin, who was asked to lead the groups first prayer service at the Kotel, was reluctant to do so because she did not like the physical barrier separating females and males. Chesler and Haut insisted that I lead the prayer, Brin said, and I didnt want to because I didnt want to lead prayer at a place with a mechitzah.104 Brin ended up leading the service anyway and describes it as an extraordinarily powerful religious experience. The group managed to stretch itself in new directions, making the kinds of compromises that Brin made, so that the movement could take collective action. While WOWs multi-denominationalism presents the group with unique challenges, participants also take pride in the groups diverse unity. For one, many of the women talk about the powerful bond that they have formed with their WOW sisters. Part of what makes this bond special to the women is that they formed it despite the denominational, theological, and spiritual differences among its participants. Aranoff, for example, said, The start of this group was such a strong bond that we were able to overcome our differences in the name of such an important issue.105 This bond, forged out of deep cross-denominational experiences, is one that WOW
102 103 104 105

Women of the Wall, 283. Rivka Haut, interview by author, phone, February 15, 2012. Deborah Brin, interview by author, phone, February 14, 2012. Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012.


participants only really feel in WOW. Also, WOW members see their groups diversity as an asset as they move forward and reach out to new women. Aranoff is proud to say that women of all sorts of Jewish backgrounds now attend WOWs services. She says many Masorati (conservative) women in Israel come now, for example, as well as women from Hadassah, a womens charitable group from the U.S., and WOW gets a flow of hundreds of different people coming for Bat Mitzvah and Rosh Chodesh services and they stay in touch via WOWs facebook group.106 Arguably, WOW wouldnt have this kind of wide draw if it werent for its multi-denominational roots. Lastly, WOW participants commonly celebrate their groups multi-denominationalism because it stands out as a unique symbol of progress in the Jewish world. Rivka Haut told me that the group formed at a particularly divisive time in Jewish history. Consequently, the novelty of such a multi-denominational womens movement made a powerful statement: We sent a powerful message to the Jewish world (at a time when there was lots of anger and dissent about who is a Jew, especially in Israel, where the government decides kind of what a Jew is) that women could come together despite such vast differences.107 WOWs members articulate great pride in the fact that their group is so Jewishly diverse. They argue that WOWs denominationalism adds to the bond they feel with each other, adds to movements ability to grow and draw more women, and adds to the symbolic power of the movement within the Jewish world. WOWs multi-denominationalism presents challenges to the movement, but it also enhances the movements value. The group consists of an astonishing array of Jewish backgrounds. To be sure, there are ways in which these women are very similar, but there are also

106 107

Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012. Rivka Haut, interview by author, phone, February 15, 2012.


ways (especially with regard to denominational preferences) in which they differ. This diversity is unique to WOW, and the participants frequently champion it as new and powerful. Israeli-Diasporic Relational Context A variety of contextual factors make WOW new and innovative in the eyes of its participants. One contextual factor that WOW activists talk a lot about is the unique dynamics of being North American yet participating in a movement located in Israel. All of the women I interviewed identify as some form of North American, even those who have moved to or spent significant time in Israel. Moreover, my population sample is not atypical of WOW activists: many of them, especially those who have helped found, direct, and advise the movement, are from North America. Raphael Rayzel described the make-up of the movement succinctly when she said it consists of a lot of activity from North America, while theres been a steady grounds-crew in Israel.108 Many of my interview participants emphasized the uniqueness of the Israeli political context. They stressed that participating in a womens prayer group in Israel is different from praying in the diasporic context they are used to because of the ways that politics and religion interact in Israel. In particular, Susan Aranoff and Deborah Brin discussed the fact that religion and Jewish law play a more integrated role in Israeli civic society than they do in North America. Aranoff described it as a different kind of political culture: In the U.S., our concepts of church/state separation and pluralism arent part of the mindset of Charedim in Israel. Israelis dont have the same kind of knee-jerk reaction to separation of church-state issues.109 For Deborah Brin, the Israeli context is more than just different: it is more oppressive towards Jewish women.
108 109

Rayzel Raphael, interview by author, phone, February 9, 2012. Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012.


Its different to do this kind of activism in Israel where we can highlight the ways that civil and religious law have gotten wrapped up and produce womens oppression. In my community in the U.S., there isnt the real need to push for these changes. Jewish law doesnt govern our daily life the way it does in Israel. The two spheres of ritual inequality and civic inequality are connected in Israel, but not so much in the U.S.110 For decades now, the U.S. has begun opening up opportunities for Jewish womens free religious expression. But in Israel, from Brins point of view, Jewish law (especially patriarchal interpretations of it) continues to suffocate feminist Jewish activism because of its pervasiveness in the civic sphere. Brin is pessimistic about the role of women in Jewish practice in Israel. She cites that WOW faces various political challenges, including the fact that the people in Israel who are political allies of WOWs make up a very small group (maybe five percent of the population, Brin says). Overall, Im not very optimistic about the role of women in Israel, she told me. The kinds of changes weve had in the U.S. are not foreseen in the near future in Israel. Too many political obstacles and Jewish law obstacles stand in the way.111 The political challenges that WOW faces is a fruitful research topic in itself, about which I dont have the space to properly elaborate. But in understanding the nature of WOWs Israel-diaspora relational context, it is important to recognize the concerns that WOW activists have about innovating practices within the Israeli context. Aranoff and Brin both voiced strong opinions about the unique stranglehold that Judaism (and in particular, a kind of Judaism that resists WOWs goals) has on civic society in Israel. In addition to discussing the political challenges that WOW faces in Israel, some of the women emphasized the ways in which working as a North American activist in Israel introduces confusing tensions between themselves and Israelis. WOW has the potential of coming across as a foreign import to Israel. Raphael Rayzel addressed this issue explicitly when she said, Women of
110 111

Deborah Brin, interview by author, phone, February 14, 2012. Deborah Brin, interview by author, phone, February 14, 2012.


the Wall didnt come out of an organic Israeli movement (not to say that Israelis arent involved). Is it American values getting imposed? Maybe.112 Rayzel left that last question unanswered, but the fact that she raised it and suggested maybe as her answer reveals that she is sensitive to the unique dynamics at play in WOW. The movement has decisively American roots, but it fights for change in Jerusalem, where Israelis may not be as familiar with, or ready for, WOWs values. As Deborah Brin says, there are differences between the U.S. and Israelis.113 WOW is deliberate about making the Israeli participants a focal point of the movement, especially since they are the ones who face the most frequent threats of verbal and physical violence at the Kotel. Nonetheless, the movement began with and continues to struggle with disjointedness between its Israeli members and its North American leaders. Brin told me outright, At first they [Israelis] thought we were crazy. Israelis from North America understood what we were doing, but Israelis brought up there didnt understand, were scared, or thought we were just stirring up trouble.114 The kind of cross-cultural tension that is idiomatic to WOW doesnt even arise in other womens tefillah groups, making WOW unique among its peer WTGs. WOW has its roots amongst a group of North American feminist Jewish activists who readily discuss the challenges of running this group in an Israeli context. For one, many of them discuss the fact that Israel has a more stifling political culture, saturated with religious values that work against WOWs goals. Moreover, some of the women I interviewed underscore the confusing tensions involved in working with Israeli participants, who dont necessarily come to the group sharing WOWs perspectives on politics and Jewish practice. WOW is not always seen by its participants as just another WTG that happens to be in Israel. The movement professes various connections to the broader womens tefillah network, but many WOW activists also
112 113 114

Rayzel Raphael, interview by author, phone, February 9, 2012. Deborah Brin, interview by author, phone, February 14, 2012. Deborah Brin, interview by author, phone, February 14, 2012.


emphasize the ways in which the movements Israeli-diasporic relational context makes the group unique and sets the group apart from other WTGs. The Kotel is Uniquely Symbolic The Kotel itself must figure into any analysis of the contextual factors shaping WOWs self-understanding. The physical location of WOWs activities is absolutely central to its practice. WOW participants are keenly sensitive to the Kotels symbolic power and often articulate it as one of the greatest and most unique assets of the movement. Rivka Haut offers the following formulation of WOWs relationship to its location at the Kotel: I firmly believe that when women may freely and openly pray together at the Kotel, reading from Torah scrolls, that image will have a positive effect that will ripple through the religious world, helping to raise the image of women in their own eyes as well as in the eyes of men. I hope that this will ultimately lead to a general improvement in the lives of Orthodox women, both in spiritual matters and in family dynamics.115 This level of praise for a prayer groups potential to transform Jewish womens lives all around the world can only apply to WOW because it prays at the symbolically-laden Kotel. In my interviews, many of the women discussed the importance of the Wall in WOWs practice. While women in the movement tend to emphasize ways in which WOWs practices are not unique in Jewish history, they clearly put a concomitant emphasis on the groups unique symbolic power. Miriam Benson, for example, told me that WOWs progress is evident in the fact that women have been reading from Purim scrolls at the Kotel without much problem. She said, Even though its not Torah, it still has powerful visual impact to see a woman opening a scroll at the Wall.116 As I discussed in my introduction to each of my nine interview participants, even the women who feel ambivalence towards the Kotel (or even contempt towards it because of its neglect for womens prayer) respect the unique significance that it has in the Jewish world. They recognize the Kotels
115 116

Women of the Wall, 279. Miriam Benson, interview by author, phone, January 1, 2012.


import to nearly every Jew around the world. Whether or not they feel an emotional or spiritual connection to the Wall, many WOW participants emphasize their groups physical location as what makes their group uniquely powerful. New Wave in Judaism One more contextual issue that defines WOW is its relationship to a broader feminist milieu. WOW participants describe themselves as part of a new wave in Jewish womens history that is distinct from the past. This wave includes new access to education, new forms of womens ritual, and new activation of praxis exegesis. In the span of Jewish womens history, the high level of erudition to which women have gained access (in the past half-century in particular) is new and innovative. Moreover, this new access is central to WOWs inception and continued operation. Vanessa Ochs writes: Such a plan [to hold a WTG service at the Kotel] could be envisioned only by a group of women who finally knew what to do with a Torah, beyond kissing it as it paraded by. Many, but not all, women of all the denominations had learned the laws and customs pertaining to the Torah scroll, ranging from how to acquire one, how to store it, when and how to take it out from the ark, how to place it on the lectern,.117 Ochs suggests that the movement may never have taken root if it were not for contemporary revolutions in womens education (particularly Jewish ritual education). Other interview participants also emphasized the fact that early WOW activists were highly educated. They would commonly remind me that WOWs founding leaders were quite leaned.118 Even Vanessa Ochs, who insisted that WOWs activities are not really innovation because they are carrying out Judaisms most traditional practice of praying, said that education is what makes WOW innovative. She said, Whats innovative is that women have knowledge.119 Views from
117 118 119

Women of the Wall, 320. Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012. Vanessa Ochs, interview by author, phone, February 6, 2012.


inside the movement suggest that WOW is inherently innovative in that it is rooted in Jewish womens new educational opportunities. WOW is also part of a contemporary feminist milieu that places particular emphasis on formulating new rituals for women. Sometimes assimilating womens practice to male norms, and other times inventing entirely new rituals, contemporary feminist Judaism has produced a new body of practice for women, out of which WOWs practices originate. For example, the very use of Rosh Chodesh as a kind of womens holiday and an opportunity for women-only prayer groups is a new practice. To be sure, Rosh Chodesh has always had special significance for women for a variety of reasons. One participant, for example, writes that according to rabbinic literature, it was the holiday given specifically to women as a reward for not having donated jewelry toward the building of the golden calf.120 Even though Rosh Chodesh has traditional roots, women have not traditionally celebrated it the way that they do now. Its current meaning for Jewish women participating in WTGs is more of a reinterpretation (not a continuation) of a womens holiday. Miriams Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the World by Penina V. Adelman, first published in 1986, helped spawn the 1980s formation of Rosh Chodesh womens prayer groups around the world. WOW is a response to and a product of that contemporary interpretation of Rosh Chodesh. Furthermore, some WOW participants articulate specific rituals in WOWs practice as innovative. Haviva Ner-David, for example, writes: My hope is that some day masses of women will see the beauty in these mitzvoth enough to set aside their exemption, as they have already done with other timebound mitzvot Until then, I am asking only that the small number of women who today feel this deep desire to don tefillin and wear tzitzit not be discouraged from doing so.121 Ner-David sees her decision to start donning tefillin and wearing tzitzit (the ritual fringe attached to a tallit) as a bold feminist innovation. Bonna Haberman writes that WOW has not only
120 121

Women of the Wall, 64. Women of the Wall, 68.


assimilated womens practices at the Kotel to those of men on the other side of the mechitzah, but also contributed new celebrations to the repertoire of the Kotel and to Jewish communities whose representatives have joined us and read about us.122 Haberman and others in WOW see the movements practice as one that innovates practice, giving women opportunities to engage in rituals traditionally restricted to men as well as contributing new celebrations to Judaism. WOWs innovative approach to practice is firmly grounded in WOWs context of a broader feminist milieu: womens practices of donning tefillin and wearing tzitzit, womens participation in new kinds of celebrations at the Kotel, and the very use of Rosh Chodesh as a holiday for women-only group prayer services are all part of the contemporary wave of womens Jewish ritual innovation. Finally, one more feature of the new wave of Jewish womens practice of which WOW is a part is the new activation of interpretation in what Bonna Haberman calls praxis exegesis. Haberman, a key leader in the movement, argues that WOW takes feminist Judaism to new heights by actually enacting theology in the form of practice (as opposed to the form of textual interpretation). This new form of practice is a feminist mode of textual study that generates liberationist praxis, a vector toward interacting with, criticizing, and influencing tradition responsibly and actively.123 Haberman is pointing to the notion that feminist theology ought to be carried out not only in written form, but also in enacted form (a notion that pervades contemporary Jewish feminism and is particularly characteristic of WOWa methods for activating religious change). In line with my overall thesis, Haberman articulates the ways in which this new form of praxis exegesis is both authentically Jewish and particularly new. She argues that this new movement is authentically Jewish in so far as the Talmud provides precedent for carrying out textual interpretation in the form of actual practice. At the same time, Haberman emphasizes the Bonna Devora Haberman, Women Beyond the Wall: From Text to Praxis, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1997): 29. 123 Haberman, Women Beyond the Wall, 17.


innovative nature of praxis exegesis. This interpretive practice is new in that it is grounded in peoples lived experiences: Propelled by our new paradigm, we turn and return to the world, to our families, communities, and societies. The genre of knowledge that we constitute according to this paradigm informs and activates processes of liberation. Our research draws us toward the subjects of our scholarship and engages us in relationships of shared responsibility and commitment to improve human conditions together.124 Even within the relatively new world of feminist Jewish theology, WOW strikes new chords and generates new approaches by activating praxis exegesis. As Haberman describes it, this approach is a new and innovative activation of feminist theology into practice. WOW situates itself within (and is situated by) the broader context of a new wave in Judaism. This wave includes three main features that make it distinct from the past: increased availability of education for women, new forms of womens ritual, and new activation of what Bonna Haberman calls praxis exegesis. Emotional Responses to New Practices The most striking evidence of WOWs novelty may lie not in the movements broader contextual factors (Israeli-diasporic relationships, the Kotels symbolism, and a new wave of Judaism), but in WOW participants emotions. Many of the women express feelings of discomfort, unfamiliarity, and even apprehension about participating in WOW services at the Kotel. WOW participants explicit articulations of these concerns, as well as their reflections on why they may feel the way they do, illustrates that this movement feels new and unfamiliar to its participants. In my interviews and in other contexts, WOW participants frequently express an acute emotional awareness of the novelty of WOWs practices. Rivka Haut, for example, felt positive

Ibid., 8.


excitement about WOWs novelty and expressed it as one of the reasons WOW has so much transformative power for the Jewish world. She said, We [participants in WOWs first service at the Kotel] were all aware that we were bringing women back to the temple. We were the first to give women a group prayer service at the Kotel. We were making Jewish womens history.125 Haut felt excitement upon participating in a womens prayer service at the Kotel for the first time. Rebecca Schwartz and Karen Erlichman are two examples of women who felt actually felt apprehension. Schwartz first joined WOW in March 1989 and recalls, Suddenly, I began to feel nervous. What the hell was I doing here?126 Similarly, Erlichman writes that it wasnt until actually praying with WOW at the Kotel that the novelty of it all shook her so dramatically: Intellectually, I knew that women had not previously claimed their place at the Kotel, but until that day I hadnt felt it in my kishkes (insides).127 Erlichmans reaction to praying with WOW was probably more of a mix of excitement and apprehension than a singular feeling of either one, but regardless, she clearly felt moved by the unfamiliarity of WOWs practice. The emotional reactions that Haut, Schwartz, and Erlichman had to praying with WOW suggest that they underwent a very visceral acclimation to what felt to them like a new and innovative form of practice. These examples of womens emotional responses to praying with WOW for the first time raises an important question: if WOW participants have expressed so many reasons for understanding WOW as authentically Jewish, why do they still feel nervous excitement when they actually engage in WOWs activities? In other words, why does the movement feel so new to them if they understand it as rooted in tradition? One answer to this question lies in WOWs twofold understanding of itself. On an intellectual level, WOW participants understand their
125 126 127

Rivka Haut, interview by author, phone, February 15, 2012. Women of the Wall, 109. Women of the Wall, 101.


movement as both authentic and new. It makes sense that these women would feel nervous and excited to engage in a practice that they articulate as new for so many reasons (namely, the group is multi-denominational and it operates in a particular context that WOW participants describe as new and unique). Some WOW activists reflections on the emotions involved in praying with WOW suggest another answer to the question of why WOWs practices feel so innovative to these women. Perhaps ritual innovation necessarily feels strange and new, even if it is grounded in authentic traditions. Danielle Bernstein attributes the awkward feeling of newness that she feels when engaging in WOWs practices to the very act of trying customs that are not ones own, or that one is simply not used to: True, sometimes minhagim (customs) that are not mine seem strange and awkward, but I am sure this is true for others as well, maybe even more so because the core of WOWs prayer is Orthodox, which is my minhag. I am ready to accept this strangeness, for I want what we have in common to take precedence over what divides us.128 Bernsteins reflection suggests that rituals, or customs, have a way of becoming habitual, such that any changes feel unfamiliar and strange. Vanessa Ochs also offers rich insights into the ways that ritual innovation tugs at ones sense of what feels habitual, customary, or in her words, natural: Early on, as the landscape was beginning to transform, it looked so peculiar to me. I felt as if I were at a Purim costume ball where the women, instead of dressing up as Queen Esther, had come as modern versions of Mordechai the Jew. But the eye accommodates quickly, more quickly perhaps than the rational mind. Soon, for me in that blink of an eye that took a decade a woman wearing a kipah and tallit, holding and reading the Torah, looked natural.129 Ochs argues that even before WOW began, when womens tefillah groups began practicing in the U.S., those groups innovative practices felt odd to her. Much like Bernstein, Ochs feelings
128 129

Women of the Wall, 99. Women of the Wall, 319-320.


of surprise and apprehension about these new practices quickly gave way to embracing the practices. So perhaps, as Ochs suggests, it is not actually very difficult for one to accommodate to new practices, however strange they may initially seem. Bernstein and Ochs offer insights into the nature of ritual and they both suggest that WOWs practices feel new and strange to their practitioners by virtue of the fact that rituals are habitual. Once they change, even if they change in ways that their enactors understand as rooted in tradition, they evoke feelings of unfamiliarity, excitement, and apprehension. Despite the many reasons the women have to see their movement as authentically Jewish (from halakhic, historical, and contemporary perspectives), WOWs practices still produce and reveal visceral concerns that the women themselves have about participating in practices that feel so progressive. For WOW activists, participating in their first service with WOW as well as participating in a WTGs service for the first time, as Vanessa Ochs references elicits a host of emotional responses, including excitement and apprehension. Critics Views on the Novelty of Women of the Wall There are many aspects of this movement that WOW participants understand as new and innovative. Ironically, WOWs critics emphasize the same innovative aspects in order to show that WOW is foreign, un-Jewish, and too progressive. WOW faces opposition, especially in Israel, where many Israelis want to maintain the status quo at the Kotel. Critics of WOW assert that the groups multi-denominationalism, Americanness, and praxis exegesis make it outside Jewish tradition; they assert that the symbolic weight of the Kotel makes WOW unacceptable; and they assert that practices at the Kotel are customs that cannot change. Because of WOWs multi-denominationalism and Americanness, WOW is often accused of being a group of outsiders who are not authentically Jewish. This critique is most evident in the


words critics use to insult WOW participants. Male and female critics alike call the women pigs, polluted, prostitutes, and gentiles.130 WOW participants emphasize the groups multidenominationalism, but many Israelis - who tend not to value non-Orthodox denominations and religious pluralism131 - take WOWs multi-denominational nature to mean that the group is unJewish. As Susan Sered points out, rather than embracing WOWs multi-denominational identity, Israelis continue to call the women reformim (Reform Jews), a label that connotes both foreignness and a lack of Jewish authenticity. In emphasizing that they come from all strands of Judaism, WOW participants provide Israelis evidence that WOW is American. Importantly, the critique that WOW is American accuses the group of being not only geographically foreign, but also outside of tradition. WOWs significant American demographic in itself fuels critics animosity towards the group because of the negative and goyish132 associations with American Jewish imports. As Sered writes, The American Women of the Wall elicited almost across the board hostility.133 WOWs Americanness which WOW participants emphasize in discussing the movements Israeli-diasporic relational context perpetuates its exclusion. It is not only WOWs emphasis on multi-denominationalism and Americanness that attract criticism: the groups approach to practice encourages the view that WOW is a group of outsiders. WOWs use of praxis exegesis, for example, makes the group particularly vulnerable to the argument that WOW is outside of tradition. Bonna Haberman is proud of WOWs innovative approach to theological interpretation (an approach she calls praxis exegesis), but she admits that it makes WOW particularly conspicuous. A group of committed women praying in physical Susan Sered, Women and Religious Change in Israel: Rebellion or Revolution, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring, 1997): 15. 131 In Israel religious pluralism is not seen as a cultural value. In fact, they [WOW] continue to be seen as Reform, an American invention. See Sered, 18. 132 Goyish connotes non-Jewish 133 Sered, Women and Religious Change in Israel, 15.


space is a form of commentary that cannot be overlooked or dismissed,134 she says, pointing to the fact that praxis exegesis makes WOW even more unsettling to those who want to adhere to tradition. In making its theological commentary performative and visible, WOW agitates critics and encourages the perception of the movement as outside of tradition. The Kotels symbolic weight also gives WOWs critics reason to stand firm in their opposition to WOWs practices. WOW participants champion the notion that the Kotels powerful symbolism makes WOW a new and innovative prayer group, and nowhere is this notion more evident than in mainstream opposition to the movement. Sered points out that since WOW and its detractors are fighting over practices in a symbolic location, both sides see the debate as an all-ornothing battle. Agreeing upon the uniquely high symbolic value of the Wall and this understanding led to a zero-sum game in which for there to be a winner there has to be a loser.135 WOW participants are proud because they participate in the only womens prayer group to make intentional use of the Kotels symbolic power. At the same time, WOWs opponents are uncompromising in their opposition against the group because of the Kotels symbolic power. It is precisely the novelty of bringing WTG practices to the Kotel that makes it so offensive to WOWs critics. As many interview participants informed me, authorities at the Wall argue that even though WOW may be halakhically legitimate, the Wall is too symbolically important to include the innovation of customs. WOWs critics are resolute in opposition to the movements practices because the Kotel carries symbolic weight. Lastly, the notion of custom also carries symbolic weight that adds to critics opposition to WOW. Critics of the movement frequently claim that even though WOWs practices might be halakhically approved, they are customs, and customs cant change. Professor Eliav Shuchtman, Bonna Devora Haberman, Women Beyond the Wall: From Text to Praxis, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1997): 29. 135 Sered, Women and Religious Change in Israel, 17.


an expert in Jewish law, said, Even if there are opinions in halakha that allow a woman to wear tsitsit [the ritual fringe attached to a tallit], the custom is not to let women wear tsitsit and there is no place to change this custom.136 Critics like Shuchtman repeatedly emphasize the notion of custom because custom is inherently fixed and unchangeable. As seen in the section on participants emotional responses, even WOW participants express feelings of apprehension because their practices do not feel customary. In an interview, Susan Aranoff brought attention to the tensions that arose when women first began carrying Torahs on Simchat Torah. Many people were disturbed by this, she said, and I remember that most of these detractors were women. My theory is that women were resistant, thinking is what Ive done for fifty years inadequate?137 Many of WOWs staunchest critics are women, and Aranoff suggested that the movements female critics may feel similarly to the women who opposed the notion of women carrying the Torah on Simchat Torah. Customs carry symbolic weight because changing them or innovating devalues the work that previous generations did to sustain the customs. Critics drive home the point that the current practices at the Kotel are not just practices, they are customs. WOWs critics echo many of the assertions made by WOW participants. The difference between the participants and the critics is that the participants present various aspects of WOW as new and innovative, whereas the critics present many of those same aspects as outside of tradition and offensive. Some of the main overlapping aspects that both WOW participants and critics emphasize are: WOW participants multi-denominationalism and Americanness, their use of praxis exegesis, the symbolic power of the Kotel, and the nature of custom. Analyzing the attacks leveled against WOW is important for understanding WOW participants overall understanding of their movement. WOW participants actually understand the movement in many
136 137

Ibid., 13. Susan Aranoff, interview by author, phone, February 8, 2012.


of the same ways that WOWs critics understand it. This commonality brings into high relief the fact that WOW participants do not only articulate ways in which the movement rests comfortably within authentic, traditional Judaism, but also convey an understanding that the movement really does push at the boundaries of what defines Judaism.

WOW participants articulate the movement as a movement about change. Haberman exemplifies this innovative spirit best when she writes, Our passionate caring about the world arouses our longing to improve it through research, interpretation, teaching, and activism: Freedom must be actualized in history by oppressed peoples who accept the intellectual challenge to analyze the world for the purpose of changing it.138 WOWs spirit of novelty and innovation provides a marked contrast to the arguments defending WOW as a movement rooted in Jewish tradition. The duality that I have constructed (between the women seeing WOW as authentically Jewish on the one hand, and new and innovative on the other) seems contradictory. It seems like WOW participants should all either see the movement as authentically Jewish or all see it as new and innovative. However, in some respects, this dichotomy makes sense. Vanessa Ochs book Inventing Jewish Ritual suggests that the balancing act between tradition and innovation is and always has been at the heart of Judaism: The expansive mode of Jewish ritual innovation has embraced Jews of all definitions, all denominations, and all levels of affiliation and identification.139 Ochs echoes the ideas of feminist Jewish theologian Judith Plaskow in suggesting that innovation is traditional. For WOW participants who see Judaism this way, tradition and innovation can go together. However, many of the participants emotional reactions Haberman, Women Beyond the Wall, 8. Vanessa L. Ochs, Inventing Jewish Ritual (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2007), 17.
138 139


to engaging in WOWs practices highlight the limitations of Ochs and Plaskows framework. Many of the women felt uncomfortable and apprehensive about participating in innovative practices, even if they understood their ritual innovation as being rooted in tradition.

Conclusion When I first set out to conduct my interviews, I compiled a list of questions that I wanted to ask the interview participants. One of these questions was: In what ways do you conceive of your activism in Women of the Wall as being in line with your Judaism or Jewishness? I also had written down to ask them the same question about their feminism, instead of their Judaism, but I did not even get to that second part of the question before coming across a major stumbling block. This question probed the relationship between Jewishness (as one sort of category) and Women of the Wall (as another category), and it simply did not work well as a question. When I asked it in my first few interviews, the women hesitated and asked me to clarify what I meant. After a few tries, it became clear that this question did not get the participants to open up, so I abandoned it in favor of other more inviting questions. So why didnt this question work? Looking back, this question failed both because it was too easy and because it was too hard. It was too easy in that participants in Women of the Wall see WOW and Judaism as necessarily compatible and overlapping: one and the same. My question presupposes a separation between Judaism and WOW that makes the topic much more complicated than the women themselves make it. Furthermore, my question failed for another important reason: it was too overwhelming. The women view WOW as authentically Jewish on so many different levels that they almost didnt know how to begin expressing their ideas. Many of them also have a sense that


WOW is new and innovative, in addition to be so wedded to Judaism. I was asking too big a question, for which the women had too many different kinds of answers to even articulate in a single response. As I discovered, WOW participants understand the movement in numerous, contextual ways. WOW is not just a movement about legality, removed from peoples lived experiences. To be sure, WOW participants frequently defend WOWs practices by saying that it is permissible according to Jewish law. But the halakhic argument is just one strand of a rich fabric of ideas. Importantly, the strands of this rich fabric predominantly run in two different directions: participants defend WOW by arguing that it is authentically Jewish, but they also present the movement as somehow new and innovative. This overall tension in itself demonstrates that WOW is deeply contextual. The womens participation in WOW is an integral part of their lives, so they understand WOW through their lived experiences of it. Even with a multi-faceted rationale for viewing WOWs practices as traditional and authentic, WOW participants still have visceral, emotional reactions to the novelty of these practices. WOW both illuminates and is illuminated by Catherine Bells main theory on ritual. The first feature of ritual that Bell identifies is that ritual is situational. Nearly every view and argument coming from within WOW that I have identified understands the movement as situational. Some of the womens views situate WOW in time (arguments about the historical precedent for WOWs practice, for example), while others situate it in space (arguments about WOW being new and innovative because it straddles its Israeli-diasporic situation, for example). Arguments about WOWs halakhic legitimacy may be an exception, in that those arguments do not necessarily situate WOWs practice. However, WOW participants make it clear that halakhic legitimacy is just one basis for understanding the movement as authentically Jewish.


Many of the views and arguments coming from WOW participants also understand the movements practices as strategic. Bell writes that practices do not have to be intentionally aimed at certain tactics for them to be considered strategic. Rather, ritual is strategic by virtue of the fact that human practice is inherently strategic, manipulative, and expedient.140 One example is WOW participants argument that WOWs practices are no different from the halakhically accepted practices of all other WTGs. WOWs practices make strategic use of the fact that other WTGs all around the world are considered halakhically acceptable. Bells third feature of practice does not really apply to WOW. WOW is too intentional about its practices to be embedded in a misrecognition of what it is in fact doing.141 Bonna Habermans articulation of praxis exegesis, for example, is an extraordinarily self-aware analysis what WOW does. Finally, Bells fourth feature of practice works in some ways and not in others in the case of WOW. On the one hand, WOW participants view the movement as one that really does reconfigure a vision of the order of the world.142 So many of the women whom I interviewed and read from understand WOW as a new and innovative Jewish movement. Rivka Haut really believes that WOWs unique and innovative location at the Kotel gives it the power to raise the image of women in their own eyes as well as in the eyes of men.143 However, many WOW participants also view their movement as doing something much more modest that reconfiguring a vision of the order of the world. They downplay the radicalness of their practices, saying that they are just praying, in the same manner as Jews all over the world have already been praying for generations. In emphasizing the ways in which WOW is authentically Jewish, WOW

Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 82. 141 Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 81. 142 Ibid., 81. 143 Women of the Wall, 289.


participants simultaneously downplay the movements ability to reconfigure a vision of the order of the world. My findings about WOW and the ways WOWs participants conceive of the movement are significant for the field of religious studies for three main reasons. First, this thesis demonstrates that WOWs practices are deeply embedded in their context. WOW fits Catherine Bells argument that When abstracted from its immediate context, an activity is not quite the same activity.144 WOW participants dont just see WOW as a traditional Jewish ritual movement they are also conscious of the particularities of their group, its context, and the innovative aspects of their work. Second, this thesis can be seen as a kind of case study for Bells theories on ritual. Bells four features of practice do not all apply to WOW, but the ones that do apply illuminate the fact that WOWs practices are contextual. Third, and perhaps most importantly, this thesis demonstrates the value of using an ethnographic approach to this kind of movement. Rather than assess the validity of participants views, a successful ethnography of WOW steps into the participants shoes, absorbs their perspectives, and then describes their views. For this thesis, the only way for me to gain an understanding of WOW was to put the women themselves at the heart of my research and listen to their views before doing anything else. When I first compiled a list of questions that I wanted to ask of the nine interview participants, I was essentially taking a shot in the dark. I hardly knew anything about the womens lives, views, and experiences with WOW, so I formulated questions that I thought would yield productive religious studies results. I asked the first few interviewees, In what ways do you conceive of your activism in Women of the Wall as being in line with your Judaism or Jewishness?, but the question drew a blank. Realizing that of one of my central questions had failed was a major turning point in my research and in my Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 81.


understanding of this thesis as a whole. This questions failure told me that I had to focus more on the women themselves; their lives and their experiences. Once I began to approach my research with an open mind, ready to run with the ideas that the women communicated, I gained real insights into the WOW movement. In the process of doing interview-based research, I made important discoveries that helped both my research and the broader relationship between WOW and the field of religious studies. However, the work of this thesis is hardly complete. For one, I could go back to the women I interviewed to ask them more questions. I would want to ask them if they see any of the contradictions or tensions that I saw in WOW participants understandings of the movement. Perhaps they would object to my characterization that some of the various arguments from within WOWs ranks are in tension with each other. I would also want to ask them about some important issues that this paper has not even really touched on With regard to denominational affiliations, why do the women identify the ways they do? How do the women conceive of Shechinah (divine presence of God, often associated with feminine spirituality) and spirituality as a whole? I feel much more prepared now, after talking with the women once, to ask questions that engage them fully. Moreover, I see three other important directions in which future research on WOW could go. One useful project would be an ethnographic project that examines WOWs critics (especially ultra-Orthodox Israeli critics) more closely, bringing out their perspectives on the movement. Another future direction for research could be an ethnographic project aimed at bringing out the views of specifically Israeli WOW participants. This project could also ask itself about its relationship to my thesis. Do Israeli WOW participants see the movement in similar or different ways to the North American womens views? Finally, a particularly interesting direction for future


research would be an examination of some of the terminology involved in talking about WOW. Is the word feminist appropriate to describe the movement? What about terms like practice, ritual, and custom? I could have spent more time looking inwards at my thesis and deconstructing the use of these terms. Does the word Judaism even work (especially with regard to such a multi-denominational movement)? Women of the Wall can and should be used as a lens with which the field of religious studies examines Judaism, feminism, and practice.


Works Cited

Interview with Susan Aranoff, February 8, 2012. Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaisms Holy Site. Edited by Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003. Interview with Miriam Benson, January 18, 2012. Interview with Deborah Brin, February 14, 2012. Haberman, Bonna Devora. Women Beyond the Wall: From Text to Praxis. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1997): 5-34. Interview with Rivka Haut, February 15, 2012. Interview with Rahel Jaskow, January 31, 2012. Interview with Norma Joseph, February 4, 2012. Interview with Shulamit Magnus, January 18, 2012. Interview with Vanssa Ochs, February 6, 2012. Interview with Rayzel Raphael, February 9, 2012. Sarna, Jonathan. American Judaism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004. Sered, Susan. Women and Religious Change in Israel: Rebellion or Revolution. Sociology of Religion, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring, 1997): 1-24.