Women of the Western Wall and How Religion Hurts the Religious

The Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall, is the only remaining part of the Second Temple, center of much of Jewish life in antiquity, built in 516 BCE and destroyed by the Romans in 73 CE. Located in Jerusalem, it is a spot of great meaning and importance to Jews around the world. Unfortunately, the wall and the plaza around it don’t belong to all Israelis or all Jews in Israel. It is controlled by a group of ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who, in accordance with Jewish law, mandate a separate section for men and women (guess which one is bigger?) and also restrict what women seeking to approach the wall are allowed to wear. Part of their rules are for modesty concerns; women must be covering their knees and elbows. But the religious restrictions don’t stop there. Women who wish to approach the wall wearing prayer shawls or carrying Torahs to read from are stopped from doing so. As the law states, “No religious ceremony shall be in held in the women’s section of the Western Wall.”

(via Wikimedia Commons)

A group called Women of the Wall has bravely been fighting against this law for the right to practice their Judaism at the wall as they wish for over two decades.

Recently, a court ruled in their favor, saying that women may wear prayer shawls and read from a Torah in the women’s section. On Friday, it was as if an occult hand had taken hold of a few of the normally peaceful members of the Haredi community, causing them to try to physically stop the Women of the Wall from exercising their newly-minted legal right to pray as they wished. When that didn’t work, they threw water bottles at the women and their supporters and seem to have spit on some young girls. Thankfully, several of the Haredi men have been arrested and are now in custody.

This disgusting behavior comes as no surprise to any reader of this site. Every religion has extremists that treat others terribly, and certain groups of ultra-Orthodox Israelis are known in particular for spitting on women. But the specific phenomenon I feel this illustrates is one I think atheists should take very seriously: the primary victims of the harms of religious groups are the members of those religious groups. The girls in Bnai Brak weren’t atheists being persecuted by religious extremists; they were a different group of ultra-Orthodox Jews living in the same city. The majority of victims of Islamic theocracy in the Middle East are the Muslims living in those countries, wishing they didn’t live under control of the vicious Taliban or the dictatorial Ayatollah. Most of the harm of anti-gay or slut-shaming Christianity is inflicted on the Christians in the churches that preach such messages, who have to listen to how sinful and terrible they are from their pastors, preachers and parents. And in this case, the harm of the vicious Haredim who chose to illegally stop women from exercising their religious rights fell on women who wanted to practice their Judaism, who wanted to be proudly Jewish and religious, who wanted to wear traditional prayer garb, and who wanted to pray and read from their holy book.

(via the New York Times)

It is blatantly and transparently true that secularists, atheists and nonbelievers suffer from the harms of religion. One must only look at the Bangladeshi atheists being harassed for their nonbelief to see that. But as atheists who criticize religion, I think it is one of our moral duties to direct a great deal of our empathy to the everyday religious people who are frightened, shamed, and threatened by their religious leaders, their religious compatriots, and others who use the beliefs they hold dear to harm them.

Good on the Women of the Wall, and I hope very much for their continued victories against the Israeli Religious Right.

About chanam

Chana is a fourth year mathematics major at the University of Chicago. She is a vegetarian Jewish atheist feminist, and is thus usually angry about something or other. She also blogs at www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com

  • Erp

    One minor correction. Solomon’s temple or the first temple was destroyed in 587BCE. The second temple was built around 516BCE and rebuilt in the late 1st century BCE by Herod the Great and destroyed in 70CE. The Western Wall is part of Herod’s rebuilding.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I agree that we have a moral duty to speak up for the rights of those being oppressed, especially those whose culture/religion/etc. limits them from speaking up for themselves.

    By seeing/hearing us speak against their oppressors we can model for them that it is possible to break the taboo against openly sharing such ideas.

  • Atheist for Human Rights

    Problem for Israel is by 2050 the Haredim will make up a third of the Israeli Jewish population, now it’s 9%.

    This will only make Israel more theocratic and oppressive to the Palestinians whom are currently being ethnically cleansed from the West Bank.

  • Wild Rumpus

    Interesting trivia: Sarah Silverman’s sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman is very involved with this protest.


  • gdallas

    I was there a couple of months ago, and was blown away by watching a Barmitzvah (assuming.. I’m not jewish so I’m really not sure) on the men’s side where they were sitting at tables, etc. and all the women visitors were on the other side of the dividing line standing up on tiptoe to peek over the wall and holding the little girls above their heads so they could see. That’s just plain crazy….

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    Chana, you seem like a good writer and feminist as i like to think of myself as (UC MDiv 99 boo ya!) but this has to be said. there comes a point when a believer has to ask herself, “why?” why am i subscribing to this “philosophy?” that teaches i am of less value? that teaches that i must obey, consent and otherwise follow the instruction of someone with a different set of genitals, just because? if you’re at UC, you can skip across the quads and go into the OI library, where i used to spend a lot of time. you’ll find there all sorts of texts and books and scrolls which claim that if you don’t offer a dead animal to (Inanna/Astarte/Marduk), you’ll be punished forever. it’s the same deal with a bunch of stones from a building set up long ago. myself, i’d be worshipping at the White Temple (in Iraq) if i wanted to fetishize an ancient building.

  • allein

    Why exactly are women not supposed to pray in the women’s section of the wall?

  • jenbo

    I was just about to say that – Herod’s rebuilding occurred sometime between 7BCE to 19CE based on which scholar is answering. Nothing of Solomon’s Temple remains.

  • Bdole

    ““No religious ceremony shall be in held in the women’s section of the Western Wall.””
    So, they don’t want women to be religious? What kind of crazy religion is this?

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    They’re supposed to pray … silently. The ultra-Orthodox think women aren’t allowed to handle the Torah or read from it (they might *gasp* be having a period!), they aren’t supposed to wear prayer shawls (that’s men’s clothing), and they aren’t supposed to sing/chant the prayers because that’s immodest.

    Yeah, it’s all more bullshit. You are asking the wrong question, though, because the women are supposed to pray.

  • allein

    Ah, OK, thanks…I knew it had to do with some sexist BS, just didn’t know specifically what.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Oh they want the women to be religious, all right. They rely on religion to teach the women to be submissive. They just don’t want them to take any of the ceremonial performance stuff away from the men. That and they should keep their unclean selves away from the Holy Paraphernalia, the priests and the men. Somewhat in that order.

  • cipher

    On Friday, it was as if an occult hand had taken hold of a few of the normally peaceful members of the Haredi community

    They aren’t normally so peaceful, either. They have a history of throwing rocks at passersby who aren’t dressed “modestly” enough, and burning garbage cans and dirty diapers at cars driving too closely to their neighborhoods on Shabbat.

    Also, it wasn’t just water bottles; apparently they threw chairs, trash and coffee at them as well, and stoned their bus as they were leaving. They’re operating at the developmental level of children, and they have a tendency to act out when they don’t get their way.

    Many Orthodox of various stripes are in denial and are already attempting to rewrite history: it was only a few extremists, there were 15,000 people in attendance and only three arrests (probably because the police were underrepresented; they’ve displayed a reluctance in the past to help the women), they only splashed a little water on them, and what did they expect anyway when their only purpose is to provoke, etc.

    There’s a new sheriff in town where the Israeli government’s attitude toward Haredim is concerned. They’re now going to be drafted for the first time, new Finance Minister Lapid is cutting the amount of funding that goes to their religious schools (and the cuts will be even deeper if they refuse to teach secular subjects), segregation on public buses (already declared illegal) will no longer be tolerated. The secular public has been putting up with this crap increasingly for decades, and they’ve had enough, plus the Haredim are, collectively, a tremendous drain on the Israeli economy. Israeli economists are predicting bankruptcy for the country within a generation if they don’t get them off the social service rolls. A lot of this would have been dealt with long before now, but the various Israeli governments have needed them for coalitions, and the current PM, Netanyahu, has been catering to them for years. Hopefully, it will now stop.

    In any case, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis are reacting badly to their money and power being taken away, and are working up their followers into these frenzies.

  • Agrajag

    Religious nonsense hurts the believers themselves most, especially in secular societies. The more secular, the less negative impact religion is allowed to have on non-believers. As such, living here in very secular Norway, the negative impact of religion on me personally is very very modest.

    The main reason I still care, is that the same cannot be said in regions where religion have more influence. In Norway, if you announce you’re an atheist, people will say: “Good for you. Could you pass the salt?”, in USA – depending on where in USA and in which social circles, you could risk losing friendships, perhaps even family. Elected officials might call you a “evil little thing” in public. In Iran, you’d risk imprisonment or death.

  • Paul_Robertson

    If these women had ever watched “The Life of Brian”, they’d know that there’s an easier solution…


  • Octoberfurst

    Very true! I have been reading about the Haredim. I was appalled to learn that they get paid by the government to study the Torah. That’s all they do! They don’t have jobs. Jeez! And as you pointed out they were not subject to the draft. Plus they usually have very large families and are religious fanatics. It’s like Israel has created its own Frankenstein monster. Israel needs to stop catering to these nuts or else its going to turn into a bankrupt right-wing theocracy very soon.

  • allein

    “burning garbage cans and dirty diapers at cars driving too closely to their neighborhoods on Shabbat.”
    I guess throwing things at people doesn’t count as working on the Sabbath…

  • cipher

    Actually, I think I misspoke. As I recall, it’s just rocks on Shabbat. The garbage cans and dirty diapers are for more important issues, such as the construction of a parking lot near one of their neighborhoods that will be open on Shabbat – or any other time they don’t get their way and feel the need to riot.

  • cipher

    That is the fear among the general populace.

    They tend to avail themselves heavily of social services here, as well. In the US, a lot of them work, but not all, and even when do, when you have ten, twelve kids and the parents are barely educated… .

    However, you won’t hear a politician complaining about them in the way they complain about other groups. Haredim are brought up from birth to be nearly incapable of independent thought. They do pretty much whatever their rabbis and communal leaders tell them to do, including voting in blocs – so the pols are all scared to death of them. In places where they congregate in large numbers, such as Brooklyn and certain suburbs and rural areas outside of NYC, they routinely flout the law. For example, New York authorities know they aren’t teaching even the required minimum of secular subjects in their schools; they’ve been looking the other way for decades.

    I have more respect for the Amish; they’re regressive, but they at least try to live their principles. They take as little from the wider culture as they can. Haredim enjoy their cars, cell phones and computers, while they teach their kids to look down on those who make them (and everyone outside of their xenophobic subculture, including Modern Orthodox and liberal Jews). Also, the Amish give their kids a choice about whether or not to remain in their world. Haredim try to remove all access to information so the kids won’t have any choice.

  • allein

    Oh, well, that’s ok then…

  • Anna

    It is controlled by a group of ultra-Orthodox Israelis

    Why do they get to control it? You’d think it would be controlled or patrolled by the government.

  • Chana Messinger

    True! My bad, corrected.

  • Chana Messinger

    Yes! In fact, it was she who reported her daughters being spat upon.

  • Chana Messinger

    Haha, yeah, it sounds weird. But they’re not referring to prayer. They’re referring to the prayer shawls, the laying of phylacteries, the reading from the Torah and other ceremonies which are reserved for men.

  • Chana Messinger

    Sorry, I’m confused. I’m not a believer. I’m an atheist. I also happen to be Jewish. Does that clarify?

  • Chana Messinger

    Yeah, I tried to look that up and didn’t find a lot of information. Israel has a very different church-state relationship than the United States does, and this kind of thing is part of that.

  • Chana Messinger

    Yeah, Feminerd is right. Prayer is fine, but there are specific religious ceremonies which are reserved for men.

  • Chana Messinger

    You’re right about everything, except the reason for the Torah prohibition, I believe, has much more to do with reading from it (which violates something called kavod hatzibur, honor of the congregation, as well as some weird rules about those who aren’t commanded to do something occasionally being prohbited from it) rather than menstruation, since menstruating women can kiss a torah, and torahs can never be made impure or unholy. Of course, menstruation does play a huge role in all kinds of other sexist prohibitions and distinctions.

  • Chana Messinger

    Also, even if I were one of these women of the wall, they explicitly *don’t* subscribe to the philosophy that they are inferior to men.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    Huh, ok. That’s what I’ve been told, but it was only one of a few reasons, and I didn’t remember the other ones. Thanks for the correction.

  • http://www.myfathershouse.squarespace.com/ A Christian

    ” the primary victims of the harms of religious groups are the members of those religious groups.” Very interesting. I’ve never thought of it this way before. The harm that can come from Christian groups isn’t “just” shaming…maybe I’ll write a blog post about this too from a different perspective and expand on it. Hmm…