I wrote this response paper to theologian Mary Daly’s book Beyond God the Father using the famed Women of the Wall as an example of a revolution of sisterhood…thought I’d share.
The Sisterhood of the Wall
“In our social advocacy work, we aim to change the status-quo that is currently preventing women from being able to pray freely at the Western Wall. lt has great ramifications for women’s rights in Judaism and in Israel” (mission statement of Women of the Wall womenofthewall.il ). Women of the Wall consistently attempts to eradicate the traditional structures of their religion by praying without patriarchal restraint. This “sisterhood of revolution” exemplifies what Mary Daly encourages in: Beyond God the Father.
Women in the Jewish faith have been historically celebrated for their participation in thwarting the biblical “bad guys,” having a keen intuition and saving the Jewish race. However, traditionally they have been absent as writers,Talmudic commentators, Rabbis (“liberal” sects of Judaism have in recent history started to ordain women as Rabbis) and have a different set of obligations concerning the when, where and how’s of prayer. They have been as Daly points out conditioned to believe that there is no inequality. Rather men and women just simply have different roles. “The images and values of a given society have been projected into the realm of dogmas […] and these in turn justify the social structures which have given rise to them and which sustain their plausibility” (Daly, 13). Orthodox Jewish men have set up a religious and legal structure that dictate the do’s and don’ts for Jews across the spectrum especially within the confines of holy sites in Israel. Many women want to connect in a more meaningful way to who Daly calls “The Verb” (or in traditional terms: “God”) but are unable to join their Jewish brethren in Torah based rituals due to their sex.
Women of the Wall live on what Daly calls the “boundary” of patriarchal institutions (in their case: Orthodox Judaism). Through challenging the fundamentals of Jewish tradition and law this sisterhood has claimed their space. They have been a controversial presence at the Western Wall since the late 1980s. The Western Wall (aka the “Kotel”) is the remaining wall of the second temple destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and one of the holiest sites of the Jewish faith. The rules governing the area are dictated by government appointed Ultra Orthodox men who’s religious dogma restricts women from reading directly from the Torah and wearing religious garb traditionally worn by men. Women who come to the Kotel to pray wearing traditionally male religious garments (such as prayer shawls or a kippah) are met with physical and verbal assaults not to mention facing constant legal ramifications (such as arrest) when attempting to read from a Torah scroll. This sisterhood of “radical” Jewish women continues to grow in size (including with the support from non-Orthodox Jewish men) and have made incremental strides towards freedom to pray at the Kotel.
Daly may have some issues with their methodology as their aim to pray freely is not “castrating” the entire system. “The tyranny of methodolatry hinders new discoveries. It prevents us from raising questions never asked before and from being illumined by ideas that do fit into pre-established boxes” (Daly 11). I argue that by essentially bull dozing the legal and communal restrictions that hinder these women’s most fundamental right—to communicate freely with “The Verb” incites a catalyst of change within the entire patriarchal structure.
Recently, while in Jerusalem I remarked to my Orthodox friend how I admired this group. Her response surprised me. She argued with great conviction that what these women were doing was not only negating Jewish tradition but were “annoying” and their purpose was frivolous. Perhaps this friend suffers from “false humility” a term coined by Daly illustrating the bi-product associated with original sin. Whatever may be the case she is not alone in her opinion and this fracture of sisterhood delays the patriarchal system overhaul.
“Despite the vicious circle however change can occur in society and ideologies can die though they die hard.” (Daly, 13) Daly called for a revolution and the Women of the Wall are doing just that. Their presence at the wall has helped countless women fulfill their religious obligations with “The Verb.” From lighting menorahs to smuggling in Torah scrolls this radical group is are transcending one of the world’s oldest religions.