By Josie Glausiusz
Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on February 11, 2013, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a picture of the now-Pope Emeritus placing a note in a slot between the stones of the Western Wall.1 When I looked at the image it occurred to me that a Catholic Pope not renowned for his love of the Jews could pray in his priestly garb at the Western Wall, but a Jewish woman could then be arrested at the same site for wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl.
I posted that comment with a picture of the Pope at the Wall on Facebook, and shortly afterwards I received a response: “A gentile who cares let him go in pajamas but a Jew distorting our religion should get lost.”
I am a Jewish woman who wears a tallit, and I don’t believe for a minute that I am distorting our religion. Rather, I am simply performing a non-obligatory time-bound positive commandment that the twelfth century Rambam permitted for women. In his Laws of Tzitzit (Chapter 3), Rambam wrote that “Despite their exemption, women may choose to wear tzitzit [….] and likewise [all] other positive commandments from which women are exempt, if they want to fulfill them . . . we do not prevent them.”2
For this fulfillment of a mitzvah, I braved a crowd of thousands of whistling, jeering Haredi men and schoolgirls on Friday, May 10 to join the Women of the Wall, Nashot HaKotel, at their service for Rosh Chodesh Sivan at the Western Wall. As I walked past the throngs of schoolgirls—ordered there by Haredi Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman3 to prevent the women’s now-legal public fulfillment of the mitzvot of tallit and tefillin4—it occurred to me that I could easily have been one of those schoolgirls. In my youth I attended an Orthodox girls’ high school in London, and it certainly would not have occurred to me then that I would one day don a tallit. Yet after squeezing through the crowd of Haredi women—including one woman who was screeching “Nevelot! Nevelot!” (literally: carcasses)—I pulled my tallit from my backpack, joyfully wrapped it around me, and sang “Kol heNeshama te’hallelya (Let all that breathes praise God),” with the Women of the Wall.
Why do I wear a tallit? Perhaps because I feel protected beneath its folds, as my father once sheltered me as a child by enfolding me in his own tallit during Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, in synagogue on festivals. I bought my own purple-hued tallit in Jerusalem in September 2009 after undergoing multiple rounds of failed fertility treatments. At the time, I wasn’t sure why I wanted a tallit, especially since I had learned as a child that women do not wear “beged ish,” (the clothes of a man). Yet it just felt right to me when I wore my tallit to synagogue for the first time--on Yom Kippur, where I chanted Isaiah’s words from the Haftarah: “Share your bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, clothe him.” A year-and-a-half later, I wrapped my daughter in the same tallit during her naming ceremony at Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York City, just minutes after her twin brother’s brit milah. In later months I wore the tallit to leyn (chant) Torah at the Partnership Minyan of Darkhei Noam, and often after the Torah reading I would nurse one or the other of my babies beneath the shield of my tallit.
As the Midrash tells us, "Rabbi Hezekiah taught: When the children of Israel are wrapped in their prayer-shawls, let them not think that they are clothed in [ordinary] blue. Rather let the children of Israel look upon the prayer shawls as though the glory of the [divine] Presence were covering them.5” When I wrap myself in my tallit, I feel as though I am dwelling within the Shechinah, the divine presence. Perhaps that is why, when I sang with the Women of the Wall in my tallit, I could no longer hear the jeering of the crowd. The taunts and cackles and the heckling faded into silence.
As I left the Kotel with the Women of the Wall after the Rosh Chodesh service, I looked at the policemen and policewomen clasping arms to hold back the Haredi schoolgirls and wondered what these girls were thinking, as they stared at us in stupefaction or fascination or snapped our photographs. What did they see when they watched and heard women singing, out loud, “God is my strength and song; God has become my salvation?” What did they think when they saw the women celebrating a Bat Mitzvah, raising a tallit over the young girl’s head, while others screamed abuse? Maybe some of them thought, “Nevelot.” Or maybe one, maybe two, maybe three among the thousands thought, “Here is a group of proud Jewish women singing God’s praises together. Maybe I too will join them one day.”
5. The Book of Legends (Sefer Ha’Aggadah) Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky.