God's Army

Talking to Women of the Wall's Ultra-Orthodox Teenage Protesters

At Women of the Wall's 25th anniversary prayer service in Jerusalem, Elisheva Goldberg had a strange conversation with the 18-year-old girls who had come to protest.

Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

Monday was Women of the Wall's 25th anniversary. The sight was astounding: reportedly some 700 women came to show their support and pray at the Kotel, Jerusalem's Western Wall. The massive turnout was the result of a huge organizing effort. Many women flew in to be a part of the "International Mission to Support Pluralism in Israel," a long weekend that included seminars, meetings with Knesset members, and a gala.The prayer service on Monday was their main event.

Towards the back of the wall's plaza, the group was surrounded by some 50 police officers in formation, presumably to prevent skirmishes with the other hundreds of ultra-Orthodox women and girls who came to protest. It was loud—you could tell there were cantors in the WoW crowd; some even had earpieces to centralize the group's singing, piercingly feminine against the single, microphoned male voice coming from the other side of the gender partition. Yet what was striking was not what came out of these dedicated women's mouths, but what came out of the mouths of the 18-year-old ultra-Orthodox girls I spoke to. One refrain was repeated: "They desecrate, we sanctify." Talking to these girls, I couldn't help but think that the Kotel would look and sound very different were this not the only place ultra-Orthodox teenagers interacted with a Judaism not their own.

I arrived at the Kotel a quarter of an hour late, and when I finally got inside the arm-linked formation (the police had thought I was ultra-Orthodox and gave me a hard time), I found myself next to three praying 18-year-olds. Not wanting to presume, I asked them if they were with the Women of the Wall. I hit a nerve. No, they said, they were there to protest. When I asked why, one of them answered me with the logic of a Biblical literalist: "How would Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses our sage] pray?" she asked. "Like that," she said, pointing to one of the women wearing a prayer shawl, "or like us?"

We talked a while. They told me they were part of "God's army" and that they took orders only from their Rabbi. He was God's "general." They told me how the Kotel was where they came to talk to their "Father"—and that these women's voices clamped the direct line this wall offered them. They talked about how women aren't "fit" to learn Torah [i.e. Talmud], or meant to put on male prayer garments like the ones WoW participants wore. When I mentioned that I'd done some Talmud study and that Rashi [a great 11th century Jewish sage] had daughters who put on phylacteries, they brushed aside my arguments. They pointed to the Women of the Wall and asked me whether I thought they were daughters of great sages, or whether they studied Torah as these girls' fathers do—from 8AM to 11PM. Whether these women could presume to know the Torah and God's will so well as to fly in the face of tradition and defy what their Rabbis and fathers said was Truth. Some of what they said sounded like a rhetorical, if earnest, parroting of notions they'd heard from teachers. But the anger in their voices was sincere. Perhaps, under different circumstances, with other kinds of modern Jewish women, their anger might start to abate. Perhaps it wouldn't. Rosh Chodesh morning at the Kotel, it's hard to tell. Mostly because it's hard to listen.

On my way out, a girl in tears called me over. She had seen me talking to her friend and wanted to know if I wanted their Rabbi's number. I told her no, thank you, and asked if she was OK. She looked at me in shock. Of course she was alright, she said. She was happy—ecstatic, even—that her parents had returned to religion. Her father had been Reform, she said, and if he hadn't become religious, she might be over there—with them. I didn't say anything, I just patted her on the shoulder and walked out.

The next day I called up one of the girls, let's call her Neshama, to ask her one last question: Why had she come to the Kotel on Monday? How had she heard that this was happening? Had her school or youth movement suggested she come? No, she said, she had come to pray at the Kotel of her own volition, no one put her up to it. There had been a call, she told me, on the street where she lives in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Romema. A loudspeaker (I presume on a car) had passed by, announcing a communal prayer and quoting one of the Biblical verses bemoaning the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem from the Book of Lamentations: "For the mountain of Zion, which is desolate, the foxes walk upon it." She answered the call and came. After all, "they desecrate, we sanctify." But I wonder—I just wonder—if the encounter she had yesterday and will likely have again with Jews of different stripes didn't have to be so fraught. If it didn't make everyone there deaf to each other.