Rebels with a Cause: the Women of the Wall and a Bat Mitzvah at 61

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The author engages in Bat Mitzvah study.

I was a sixty-one-year-old Bat Mitzvah, clearly a few years beyond the prescribed age for this rite of passage. It took a rock star rabbi from a Buddhist tradition to turn me into a Bat Mitzvah candidate. I read from the Torah about Korach, the rebel who goes to hell and is later redeemed. Over the last decade, American Judaism―with the exception of the orthodox, embraced female and gay rabbis and all are welcome to chant Torah at the bimah.
Yet the U.S. of A is not Israel where the Women of the Wall battle for the right to read Torah at the women’s side of the Kotel. With the ultra-orthodox Shas party, an influential adjunct of the Netanyahu government, a law now imprisons women who dare to read or carry a Torah. Women and female children have been assaulted by the Haredim for immodest dress. On a simpler scale, I resonated with the Women of the Wall. The Jewish male-dominated tradition was represented by parents. My first political campaign confronted their existing dogma, “Girls do not need Hebrew school because they don’t have a Bar Mitzvah.” Even before Gloria Steinem, this was the wrong comment for a ten-year-old tomboy. Success was guaranteed when I refused to cooperate on any task unless… “I can go to Hebrew school.”
Once again, my battle fought and overcame the oft-dreaded patriarchy. In the daily morning prayers, orthodox Jewish men recite a blessing, shelo asani isha, which thanks God for “not making me a woman.” With this as opening material, there’s no surprise that women are regarded both as Jezebels and breeding machines by religious Jews. In Israel’s holiest site, the Western Wall, men and women are segregated according to orthodox tradition. Rebellious women are not allowed to pray wearing a tallit ― unless the wearer opts for the tallit as scarf.
I started Hebrew school in 1947 with one other girl and soon we became best friends. Together we learned to write, pray, and even speak Hebrew. In spite of our minority status, neither the teacher nor the boys discriminated against us. Of course all the boys were on the Bar Mitzvah path while we were just students. The first Bat Mitzvah in the United States occurred in 1922 when the rabbi’s daughter shocked his Left-leaning congregants by reading Torah from the bimah. Yet, another forty plus years elapsed until Conservative synagogues accepted girls as equivalent to boys. So we two were an anachronism and ahead of prime time in the Bat Mitzvah world.
Graduating from Hebrew school―I was done. Yet, Mom was struck by my smarts and joined forces with the rabbi to pressure me to attend Hebrew high school. My excuse was lack of interest but a back story loomed. The real reason: I started my Hebrew education a year behind my peers so these immature boys were boring. Bottom line ― hormones trumped Hebrew. In the next 20 years, my irregular synagogue attendance focused on major religious holidays. Happily I read the Hebrew prayer book and delighted at the B’nai Mitzvot of our son and daughter.

Rabbi Alan Lew

Fast forward to San Francisco, where a rock star rabbi entered my world. Alan Lew studied in a Buddhist monastery, but after a decade, Judaism beckoned and he became a Conservative rabbi landing at Congregation Beth Sholom. He and his best friend, Buddhist priest Norman Fischer (also a Jew) began a unique Jewish meditation group. Makor Or, linked prayer and contemplative practice. My transforming moment occurred in a deep forest near a rushing stream as the Torah passed to me. Carefully I accepted the transfer and placed the sacred scrolls against my body. The fringes from the Torah cover brushed my fingers cementing my connection to the holy scrolls. This Jewish meditation retreat occurred at Tassajara, a Buddhist monastery where I was momentarily in charge of “forbidden fruit.” Even in the synagogue of my New York youth, women never held the Torah―this was men’s work.
Between, prayer, meditation, and Torah holding at the Buddhist monastery, I re-entered my Judaism through a spiritual Buddhist pathway. I became a regular synagogue attendee, and decided to obtain my missed Bat Mitzvah. Graduation ended with a combined B’nai Mitzvot. At 61, I was the oldest member of the group. Following my rebel nature, I was delighted that our class Torah portion was Korach who leads his followers to rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach challenged authority and maintained that although Moses and Aaron were considered holy – every Jew is holy. This revolt is costly since an angry God sends Korach and thousands of his followers to hell, Sheol.

Budding trees at Tassajara. Credit: Shundo Haye.

When I was chosen to do the drash, I was honored and excited. Here was an opportunity to discuss my own insurgence and appreciation for all women who rebelled against male orthodoxy. Their chutzpah enabled me to stand at the bimah and chant from the ancient scrolls. Considering Korach’s punishment, I decided that perhaps God had overreacted. Further study revealed that God recanted since Korach and his 14,000 followers eventually rose from hell to create a number of memorable weekday psalms. So the initial sentence from God eventually contained mitigating factors. Several years have passed since my Bat Mitzvah. I still read Torah several times a year ― for me it remains mystical and transforming.
Yet, what is possible for women in San Francisco remains a myth in Jerusalem. Israel is often called a democracy but it’s actually a theocracy. The result is a coalition government in which the ultra-orthodox Shas party exhorts major religious concessions. Praying at the Kotel is controlled by Shas and dictates the barrier between the men and women’s section. I have stood and prayed here with the women. On the men’s side, there are many Haredin in black hats, long coats, side curls, and beards. The orthodox women wear clothing to cover all skin except their faces and hands. In this ultra-orthodox world, only the men read Torah. The Kotel has a loud cacophony of voices and a military presence to prevent violence.
Several years ago, I was appalled to learn about a determined group of scholarly women who spent years trying to peaceably read Torah at the women’s section of the Kotel. When the Women of the Wall (WOTW) arrived with a Torah, the ultra-orthodox women railed against their own sisters. WOTW was treated even more violently by the ultra-orthodox men who threw stones and bags of feces over the separation barrier. Watching a video of this display made me seethe with anger. This was Jewish Star Wars where the 21st century was in conflict with the Middle Ages and once again, the Patriarchs are in charge providing a concrete example of how might makes wrong. Anat Hoffman, founder of WOTW once declared, “After fourteen years on the Jerusalem City Council, I can handle any kind of verbal abuse.” After several court decisions and appeals WOTW had a brief Kotel triumph in 2002. Their joy was transitory for the Shas party was able to enact a law forbidding women to read Torah at the Kotel. Anat Hoffman defied authority and was promptly arrested. WOTW was forced to find a space away from the Wall at a site called Robinson’s Arch. Even openly carrying a Torah brings abuse and injury from ultra-religious men. In order to be secretive, a large canvas gym bag is used to carry the sacred scrolls.
The founding of Israel was dominated by a struggle for religious freedom. What great sadness that Israeli politics is dictated by ultra-conservatives and 50 percent of the population is denied the right to participate at Kotel Torah readings.
In two years my grand-daughter will be a Bat Mitzvah. For her gift she has requested a trip to Israel. We will tour many wonders of this biblical land. But I plan to take her to Robinson Arch in Jerusalem and pray with the Women of the Wall―unless of course the courts allow us to read Torah in the female section of the Kotel. Of course this requires a miracle akin to the parting of the Red Sea.
Joan Reinhardt Reiss is a writer, commentator, meditator, and grandmother aka Bubba. Samples of work are available on her website: