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Shrieking at the Kotel

I found myself at the Kotel, or Western Wall, yesterday. Even though I live within walking distance of this profoundly moving site, the holiest in all Judaism, I don’t actually go very often. But a Bar Mitzvah invitation from American friends saw us get up early and walk through the Old City.

Women Praying at the Kotel

We took a shortcut through the Arab souk, deserted and a bit eerie so early in the morning. I was glad when we reached the turnoff to the security area leading to the Kotel. To my surprise, extra guards were stationed before the metal detector area. They insisted I open my coat, which I did willingly, imagining they were checking for a suicide belt. Hey, you never know. Only later did I realize that was not what they were worried about. No, the extra guards were not searching for detonators or wires. They were looking for a prayer shawl, or G-d forbid, a Torah scroll. Because it was Rosh Chodesh, the holiday of the new month, the day that Women of the Wall have made it their custom to pray together at the Kotel, such items have become contraband.

The first indication that something was awry was the noise. A ghastly high-pitched shrieking of whistles that made you feel as if your head was going to explode. Only when I parted from my husband and made my way to the women’s section did I encounter the reason for the noise. Five or six women in various outfits denoting religious devotion, were blowing whistles in the most vicious way I have ever heard. It was a rape whistle. A fire whistle. And it created a disturbance which I found unbearable.

I approached them. Politely. At first.

Why, I asked, are you disturbing the prayers at this holy place? No one can think or pray with this kind of noise.

The youngest among this bunch deigned to look at me, tossing her head towards a group of about fifty women who were standing together and praying quietly. “We are making war against them!” She spoke with a conspiratorial pride and glee. “If we don’t stop them, then the men will come and take over the women’s section!”

That sounded perfectly ridiculous.

What you are doing, I told her, not so politely, is a terrible sin for which you are going to have to ask forgiveness on Yom Kippur! It’s causeless hatred. These women are doing nothing more than praying. And for this, you are disturbing everyone here making it impossible for anyone to pray.

Her smile faded, her ballooning self-righteousness pricked. But not so the other women, who shrieked on. I approached the loudest one, trying to talk to her, until finally I lost my temper and grabbed the whistle out of her mouth. I was immediately accosted by a male guard, who suddenly appeared out of nowhere, tut-tutting me for my behavior. “No, no,” he said, shaking his head like a playground supervisor during recess. “Let’s not get physical.”

Why don’t you make them stop? I retorted. He shrugged, indicating that was not his problem. Only I was his problem. By this time, the Women of the Wall – whose potential prayer shawl-wearing was apparently endangering the entire religious establishment of Israel to the extent that there were now specially trained goon squads on alert all over the place – had folded their prayer shawls and were getting ready to leave. Before going, they sang Hatikva. I joined them, moved.

Strangling in the Name of G-d
Strangling in the Name of G-d (click to see the video)

“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” I told the shriekers as we disbanded. Finally, they put away their whistles. Later, I would see on the evening news how one of them actually tried putting her arm around someone’s throat! I was filled with anger and disgust.

I joined the Bar Mitzvah party. And as I sat there reciting Hallel, the special prayer of praise for G-d, someone came barreling across the packed area, stepping on my toes and almost knocking me over in her rush to reach a prime spot in front of the Wall itself.

I looked up, astonished. From the top of her head to the tip of her toes, her ample body was encased in the most flesh-concealing of outfits. Not a hair showed. Not hint of flesh. A real saint, I thought, with contempt.

Whether it was my “ouch” or the sensation under her feet of someone else’s bones, she finally acknowledged me in the following way: “Tell me you forgive me,” she ordered.

What could I do? I was after all, at the Kotel. So I nodded. But that wasn’t good enough.

“Say it out loud,” she demanded.

“I forgive you,” I told her grudgingly. “Just don’t do it again.”

Just then, to my surprise, I saw that one of the women standing near her up close to the Wall was my elderly neighbor.

I was surprised. In the almost decade I’d known her, I’d never seen any outward display of religious observance. She usually wore slacks, and even at the Wall, her hair was uncovered. She didn’t use the Sabbath elevator, and I’d never seen her go to synagogue on any occasion.

She hugged me and I hugged her back.

“I love being here,” she said, answering my unspoken question. “It fills my soul with such joy.”

Her words had a profound effect on me. Suddenly, I forgot about the shriekers and my injured toes. I felt a sudden peacefulness descend on me as I looked up at the old stones. The sunlight was strong and warm. The Bar Mitzvah boy chanted his Torah portion with confidence in his childish voice while his mother and grandmother leaned over the mechitzah, kvelling.

And for a moment, I felt God’s presence descend over us. It was all-encompassing and full of compassion. I felt His forgiveness of the shriekers misplaced piety and the barreling, inconsiderate rush of the toe-crusher in her eagerness to touch the holy stones. I too could be forgiven for my hostility, for grabbing a whistle out of a stranger’s mouth and for judging my neighbor’s closeness to God by the most superficial standards.

I was sorry and ashamed that we could not all give our Father as much pleasure as the little brown sparrows and swooping doves settling gently side by side, perhaps the only creatures in this holy place who knew how to behave.

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59 comments on “Shrieking at the Kotel”

  1. Susan Marx

    If she didn’t believe in pluralism she would not have posted about the shrieking at the Woman of the Wall to begin with. Of course Naomi Ragen believes in pluralism.

  2. Susan Marx

    I am sorry that you think it is wrong for a Conservative Jew to accept an answer from the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. You listen to the teshuvot of your Orthodox Rabbis and I am allowed to listen to the teshuvot of my rabbis. I don’t tel you what you are permitted or not permitted to do and you have no right to stop us from doing what our rabbis permit us to do. It’s called pluralism. We all accept one a other with our different minhagim. Hag Hanukkah Sameach.

  3. Susan Marx

    Nothing makes wearing a tallit an intrinsically a men only mitzvah.

  4. Susan Marx

    All Jusaism is based on Rabbinic interpretation. Orthodoxy interpret Torah law also. That is why it is called Rabbinic Judaism.

  5. laser

    Susan Marx wrote: “Women absolutely DO pray at the Kotel everyday and they pray elsewhere.”
    No doubt. But those women who pray daily at the Kotel are the ones who are disgusted by the antics of the “Women of the Wall.”

    Ms Marx continues, “Prayer is not only for men. For women in Israel and for women all over the would.”
    Right, but with serious differences between the requirements for men and women to pray.

    I will not be so bold as to ask you if you pray daily with tallis and tefillin now that you no longer live in Israel.

    BTW, I reject the nonsensical comments (not by Ms Marx) that assume I know nothing because I am not as smart as HQBH.

      • laser

        Yes, as I have stated above. I wrote ” Right, but with serious differences between the requirements for men and women to pray. ”
        If you have evidence that their obligations are identical, please provide that.

        • Susan Marx

          You are probably ultra orthodox while I am conservative. Conservative Jewish women can choose to be equally obligated

          • laser

            The assumption here in his forum is that all matters are discussed from the standpoint of Jewish Law. And any statements we have made thus far relate to what one may or may not do under Jewish Law (in Hebrew, halakha).
            But just out of curiosity and with no practical application, can you show me where the Conservative authorities state that a woman can choose what elements of Jewish law obligate her and which do not? Please provide a reference.
            And to answer your other question, my statments have been made based on pure halakha, not anything that applies only to the “Ultra-Orthodox or the Modern Orthodox.

          • Susan Marx

            They follow the Torah but not the Oral Law. Ours is a Rabbinic Judaism so in that regard the answer is no

          • Susan Marx

            one more PS. A Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother. Pluralism. We are all Jews

    • Susan Marx

      A woman can choose to be equally obligated. She can choose to be equally obligated and pray

      • laser

        That is incorrect, I am sorry to note. A woman may choose to adopt a practice (one that is not forbidden to her), but there is NO OBLIGATION. Thus, women have chosen to hear shofar, although they are not obligated to do so. Rav Ovadiah Yosef held that a woman who has adopted such a practice is absolutely forbidden to recite a blessing over it. There is a principle that the reward for someone who does something that he or she is commanded to do, is greater than the reward for someone who does the same thing even though he or she is not so commanded.
        And as I have stated several times (but you have ignored), although both men and women are obligated to pray, the prayer obligations for women are not the same as for men.

  6. Charles Areson

    Sad that at this one most holy site, that should be the center of love, compassion, understanding, reconciliation and shalom should become a center of hatred, anger, bittterness against some who do not seem to “perform” correctly. By whatsoever attitude you judge you will be judged.

  7. laser

    SusanMarx wrote, “Women absolutely DO pray at the Kotel everyday and they pray elsewhere.”
    Of course they do. But not the “Women of the Wall.” They pray once a month, and their objective is provocation.
    Ms Marx continues, ” Women and men are equally obligated (unless they are unable to for time restraints of raising a child). Women’s obligation for praying is not the same as men’s and is much more limited. And it certainly does not inlcude wearing tallis and tefillin.
    Ms. Marx adds, “If Rashi permitted his daughters to wear a tallit, that’s good enough for me.” There are several answers.
    1. Rashi’s daughters were certainly on a much higher spiritual level than the women we are speaking about. Not everyone regardless of his or her qalifictions, is entitled to perform the same things.
    2. The story is that they wore tefillin, not a tallis.
    3. That story is a sweet legend with no basis in fact.

  8. Susan Marx

    Yes. When I am surrounded by my tallit I am closer to Hashem and feel like I am in intimate conversations with Him. How wonderful that women can finally do this too. That this wonderful experience is no longer for men only. Women can be obligated is they choose to be.

    • laser

      Davka with your tallit? Refer to the story about Rav Soloveichik about the young lady who asked him about putting on tefillin.

      • Susan Marx

        Read Maggie Anton’s Rashi’s Daughters, “Rachel”. If Rashi permitted his daughters to wear a tallit, that’s good enough for me. By the way, it’s a very good book. You get an idea what life was like in Rashi’s day and what it was like being a vintner

  9. Charles Areson

    Do you pray because you are commanded to do so or because your heart calls you to intimacy with HaShem? I somehow think there is a difference.

  10. laser

    While there is a disagreement between the Rambam and the Ramban, the overwhelming number of posqim hold that prayer is a Torah command. And as such, the halakha prescribes the manner of prayer, while the so-called Women of the Wall hold prayers as a provocation rather than as a Torah commandment.
    Thus, the prayers by these women in contradiction to Jewish Law have little if any sanctity.

  11. laser

    What I sense here is the great disdain for Torah Judaism (Orthodoxy) by women who pray once a month to draw attention. And they do this by attacking the Jews who pray at the Kotel every day of the year, and not just one day a month. One could also ask whether their husbands also pray every day or not quite.

    • Naomi Ragen

      I actually took an entire year’s course about prayer at Matan, and what you are saying has no merit at all halachically, morally, or humanely.
      Every person’s prayer has value. The exact prescription of what is a prayer, how to prayer, is all something that was made up along the way to keep people from assimilating and forgetting the Torah. Our basis for what is a prayer, what the Rabbis of the Talmud based their own ideas on comes from Chana, who no body told how to pray or what to pray, and the Eli let her have it because he thought she was drunk.
      So much for the Rabbis.
      Sometimes a little common sense and compassion has to penetrate that Rabbinically ordained fog in the heads of the devout. How disgusting to say their prayers have no value!
      Naomi Ragen

      • laser

        “I actually took an entire year’s course about prayer at Matan, and what you are saying has no merit at all halachically, morally, or humanely.”

        If that’s what you learned at Matan, you ought to ask for a refund on your tuition.
        Until then, perhaps you should learn the difference between sincere prayer and provocation.

        • Naomi Ragen

          And you should look in the mirror at an arrogant know it all who isn’t kind, isn’t compassionate, is judgemental and supercilious. You should look at the face of the ugly religious Jew, the reason people leave religion.

          • laser

            I understand. Is that the reason you left religion?
            Or shall I understand your reference to looking in the mirror as a description of what you saw in that mirror? Funny thing about mirrors: what I see when I look is not necessarily what you see when you look.
            Lucky that our prophets were not judgemental, isn’t it?

          • Naomi Ragen

            I’m not the one who left religion. It’s people like you who have hijacked our Torah with your ugly actions in the name of Hashem.

          • laser

            Naomi Ragen addresses to me, “It’s people like you who have hijacked our Torah with your ugly actions in the name of Hashem.”
            Ms. Ragen, you presume things about me that are baseless and insulting. And nonsensical. To the best of my recollection, we have never met. I reject your characterization and observe that it is you who wish to “hijack the Torah” for impure goals and are totally off-putting in doing so.

        • Abdullah Yusuf

          This is the standard reply of the “religious” haredi whenever he is caught doing something he shouldn’t be doing: “I was provoked!” “It’s not my fault!” “Satan made me do it!”
          Since when is it a mitzvah to choke somebody who is in the middle of tfilla?

          • laser

            I fear you miss the point. These women do not pray daily at the Kotel or anywhere else. Their once-a-month prayer is meant only as a provocation. They wish to revolt against the organized Jewish religion. This is a fact. Nor do their husbands pray daily at the Kotel. They know that the Supreme Court in its present makeup often acts against the organized Jewish religion in Israel, so that these women are continuing to provoke until the court finds in their favor. Then you just watch how often they might pray!
            رغم بك العربية إسم مستعار، وأنت لا عربيا ولا مسلم، وإنما دجال.

          • Charles Areson

            It is interesting that some “super religiois” people just know who prays, where, how often and for what purposes. Such insight and knowledge is virtually divine!!!

          • Susan Marx

            Women absolutely DO pray at the Kotel everyday and they pray elsewhere. Women and men are equally obligated (unless they are unable to for time restraints of raising a child). I have lived in Israel and can vouch for this. Prayer is not only for men. For women in Israel and for women all over the would.

      • Susan Marx

        I tried to post a photo of myself wearing my Women of the Wall tallit at the Kotel on eHarmony (a matchmaking website) and they rejected the photo because it showed “illegal activity”. Really now, how silly.

  12. Charles Areson

    Please, where is the compassion, tears and intercession for those who have that type of emotional or mental problems. Do people care or do they just say “go to hell!” May of the Palestinian youth and others have experienced nothing but lies since infancy. Why not pray that HaShem will open their understanding and transform their hearts? Or do you believe He is incapable of doing so? If you do not care about others why should He care about you? Each of us is either part of the problem or part of the solution!

    • Abdullah Yusuf

      Where is the compassion for those trampled on by crazed fanatics on their way to holiness?

      • Charles Areson

        If my understanding is correct, if one is truly striving to live in submission and obedience there will be love and compassion for all, and it will be demonstrated to those who allow it. Nobody, on a sincere path to true holy living, will truly be “crazed fanatics” or trample on others who disagree with them. Could write a thesis on this, but this is neither the time nor place, but truth us truth nonetheless.

      • laser

        Good point, Mr. Yusuf. The hundreds of Jews murdered in the name of the merciful prophet who taught his followers to kill Jews, as their key to entering Paradise. Where indeed is the compassion for these Jews, who were murdered only because they were Jewish?

  13. Chanah

    Yes, Naomi, you certainly speak for me. I can see myself in your shoes throughout the experiences you describe. There is so much truth to the cliché that adjures us not to judge a book by its cover. I too know women who say they aren’t religious, or who wear pants, but whose spirit is evidently strong for G-d. One of them is one of the kindest women in the neighborhood. Yet there are the ones who are very religious and never miss a prayer service, 3 times daily, but who can be very unsympathetic and unkind to their neighbors. Anyone can put on a head covering and wear a long skirt, but it says absolutely nothing about the condition of their heart.

  14. Jon Stevens Alon

    In my opinion the parasite beneath contemp ultra-Orthodox are Israel’s worst enemies second only to the Palestinians. Fact that they are allowed to get away with their outrageous behavior, not serving in the military, living off the secular tax paying citizens of Israel is incomprehensible. As many of these racist useless PIGS are from Brooklyn, they should all be deported.

    • Susan Marx

      As long as the Orthodox parties are part of the coalition that forms the government it will never happen 🙁

  15. Naomi Romm

    How can we expect anyone to respect us if we cannot respect ourselves. I am angered and also ashamed by how judgmental even religious Jews are to each other. Excellent post Naomi. When will we ever learn?

  16. Charles Areson

    How close is the mindless hatred of those with whistles to the mindless and thoughtless followers of Hitler that rounded up their neighbors to eliminate the “problem” in their neighborhoods. I weep that the love of HaShem is so often perverted…

  17. Iris Schachter

    Last year while I was in Israel, it was Rosh Chodesh and I wanted to pray with the women of the wall. I went there early in the morning and it was very nice. After a few minutes of davening, a woman with a whistle came between me and the woman next to me. She blew her whistle and walked away. I said, How rude.” A few minutes later she came again and the woman on the other side of me tried to take the whistle. The woman with the whistle punched the other woman in the chest. We asked her if she was ok and continued davening. We were davening quietly. On the men’s side they were singing loudly to drown us out. It was a spiritual time despite the rudeness of these women who are so intolerant.

  18. Susan Marx

    Thank you for writing about this issue, Naomi. I prayed with Women of the Wall on a Rosh Hodesh last November and some ultra Orthodox women also blew those horrid whistles. Why can’t we live and let live. I don’t tell them how to pray; they should not tell me how to pray.

  19. David Talbot

    Ramón de Campoamor y Campoosorio (1817-1901) wrote: “En este mundo traidor, nada es verdad ni mentira, todo es según el color del cristal con que se mira”. Loosely translated as :”In this traitorous world, nothing is true or false, everything is according to the color of the glass through which it is viewed”.

  20. Rachelle Berger

    I heard a beautiful thought from a very learned and wise Rabbi, he said he hated the term “to be mekarev” ״מקרב״ because when trying to bring Jews closer to HaShem, we often judge them by what we think they should be doing, but in their own way, they may be much closer than we realize ❤️️ We really mustn’t judge.

  21. Rabbi Fleshing

    “There are two things that I have always observed to be in singular accord: supercelestial thoughts and subterranean behavior” – Montaigne.

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