Women Of The Wall, Sarah Silverman-Style

Sigal Samuel on why Women of the Wall should embrace critics' accusation that their monthly prayer sessions at Judaism's holiest site aim to provoke.

When Sarah Silverman’s sister and teenaged niece were arrested by Jerusalem police for praying with Women of the Wall on Monday, the American comedian gleefully tweeted: “SO proud of my amazing sister & niece for their ballsout civil disobedience. Ur the tits!”

Meanwhile, her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman, was busy telling the Israeli press that Women of the Wall’s activities—singing and reading aloud from the Torah while wearing traditionally male prayer shawls—were not a provocation. It’s an assertion the women’s group has made countless times over the years, in response to critics who claim that the monthly prayer sessions aim to provoke and that, at a site as holy as the Western Wall, such behavior is inappropriate.

But instead of denying the claim that the group’s activities constitute a provocation, members should be embracing it. Fact is, choosing to pray with this group means choosing to challenge a High Court ruling that restricts how women are allowed to pray in the Western Wall plaza. That is an act of civil disobedience, and civil disobedience is by nature provocative. And that’s a good thing, because this kind of provocation is exactly what the situation warrants. Why is Sarah Silverman the only one who seems to get that?

As someone who participated in Women of the Wall as a teenager, I know that this group didn’t come together hoping to kick up a fuss. They never wanted to provoke, disobey, or be activists of any sort. All they wanted was to pray in peace at one of Judaism’s holiest sites. And when all you wanted in the first place is to talk to God, it’s annoying to have people project political motives onto you, sullying your purest intentions. It’s understandable, then, that these women would resist the charge of willful provocation.

But when Israel granted the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Western Wall Heritage Foundation exclusive control over the plaza, it made the women’s prayers into de facto provocations and them into de facto provocateurs. So that now, if they want to break the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold over Israel’s institutions, creating space for religious pluralism, they should accept their status as accidental activists, embrace the narrative of civil disobedience, and stop viewing “provocation” as a dirty word.

Provocation works. We know it works, because, as a result of the mounting controversy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tasked Natan Sharansky with formulating a new proposal for the management of the plaza. And because this week’s Women of the Wall gathering was the largest one yet, drawing hundreds of participants and even a few star supporters, like the former IDF paratroopers who first captured the Wall in 1967. And because the cause has garnered unprecedented media attention in the past few months, enjoying exhaustive coverage in major U.S. publications, including multiple articles in the New York Times. It's these things—star support, press coverage—that have pushed and will keep pushing Women of the Wall's cause higher up on the government's agenda, and the group can pursue these things more freely and forcefully if they drop the "we're not here to provoke" mantra.

It’s time for Women of the Wall and their supporters to take the sting out of the “provocation” charge by wearing it like a badge of honor, just as generations of successful feminists did before us when they performed acts of civil disobedience to achieve their aims. I’m sure that people like Alice Paul, who fought for women’s right to vote, and Margaret Sanger, who fought for women’s reproductive rights, also had the word “provocation” hurled at them once or twice over the course of their lifetimes. Their critics were right—these women were guilty of willful provocation—and I hope we will be, too.