A Woman's Place is at Prayer — at Kotel or Upper West Side

Hostility at Western Wall Recalls Ivy League Minyan

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By Leah Bieler

Published May 28, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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When I read, I was a living, breathing example. I was representing every girl or woman who had aspirations of taking her place as a full-fledged member of the davening. When I was in United Synagogue Youth, a Conservative youth movement, I would lead an “alternative” egalitarian service, which by virtue of its name scared off all my “traditional” friends.

Somehow people had gotten it into their heads that the service I was leading — identical in every way except for the DNA of the leaders — was less serious, less real.

I prayed in places where the only way I counted to the minyan was if I had professed my commitments to daily prayer, while a man who could not read a word of Hebrew was asked no questions. In one synagogue, I was “approved” to wear a tallit only after I proved to the rabbi that my knowledge level was sufficient.

I fought in many contexts to expand the role of women in synagogue life and beyond. I was called names and laughed at, and told that I didn’t understand the halachic issues behind my choices. And now that the egalitarian question is largely a settled one in Conservative communities, I get called a new name as someone who keeps the Sabbath and holidays and fast days: Orthodox.

It is in this vein that I identify with the struggles of the Women of the Wall, the movement of women demanding the right to worship as they choose at the Western Wall. I gave up on praying at the Kotel long ago, because I felt unwelcome and even objectified by the ever widening demands for me to cover up more and more parts of my body that I had never before considered alluring.

And I was increasingly troubled by the feeling that the Kotel had become more of an idol than a prayer space, as people would fax or email notes to be stuck into the “magic stones.” But their fight is so familiar.

I recognize the smirks and jeers of the men and boys, and the struggle for the chance to do what those smirkers rarely appreciate: to pray, out loud, in full voice, with full heart — enveloped in a shawl, at once ancient and new — body and soul pointed toward Yerushalayim, tears shining on their faces but also from within.

Leah Bieler has an M.A. in Talmud and Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She teaches Talmud in Connecticut.


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