Women of the Wall

Navigating Religion in Sacred Sites

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Yuval Jobani, Nahshon Perez
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     2017.
     248 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190280444.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Women of the Wall: Navigating Religion in Sacred Sites, authors Yuval Jobani and Nahshon Perez take the reader on a journey to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, where the complicated interactions of state, religion, and gender compel a meticulous telling of the story about women’s struggle to pray. As the first comprehensive academic study of the group Women of the Wall [WoW], this volume makes important contributions to several scholarly fields, in particular, to the literature on religious women’s activism and to theories of religion and state. Elaborating the longstanding and varied tensions between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the diverse membership of WoW, the authors present the case as a multifaceted examination based on guiding questions such as: How should governments manage religious plurality within their own borders? Is it permissible for a democratic government to endorse one particular denomination and if so, to what extent? How should the government respond to the requests of minorities—in this case, religious women—that conflict with the mainstream interpretation of a given tradition? (xvii).  As a “multidenominational” group representing a spectrum of Jewish practice and belief, WoW has actively campaigned for over twenty-five years for the right to pray (while wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah), at the women’s section of the Western Wall (xvi). Throughout the volume, the authors take great care to contextualize the space, its history and its passionate interlocutors as they identify the competing agendas in play at this contested location. The substantial social, legal, and religious roadblocks faced by members of WoW make their achievements all the more remarkable. In the words of Jobani and Perez, these “Jewish women brought about important, unprecedented changes in the prayer arrangements, legal reality and spatial environment of one of the most complex and controversial sacred sites in the world” (xvi). 

In the introduction, Jobani and Perez recount the historic moment in October 2014 when twelve-year-old Sasha Lutt read from a miniscule Torah as part of her bat mitzvah ceremony. Members of WoW brought the small script covertly to the Western Wall, in defiance of rabbinical authorities’ proscription on the scrolls in the women’s section. The bold action was met with both celebration and violence as a range of stakeholders simultaneously pronounced and denounced the (il)legitimacy of the event, according to their own ideological commitments. Accounts of vandalism, following a WoW bus poster campaign promoting girls’ coming of age ceremonies at the Wall, draw readers into the narrative of violence which pervade the WoW story. Throughout this entire volume, in fact, readers will encounter such “slice of life” vignettes which speak to the lived realities of those who advocate for gender equality.

In chapter 1, the Western Wall is classified as a “thick site,” in the Geertzian sense of “thick description,” as a location “loaded with different and incompatible meanings attributed to it by different agents” (1). The authors emphasize that the use of a “thick site” approach broadens the applicability of their work to other sacred sites, which they address in a comparative case study from India in the book’s appendix. Jobani and Perez use a contextual methodology to interweave particulars from the WoW case into an analysis of three theories of religion and state—privatization, even-handedness and the dominant culture view [DCV]. They then carefully consider the aptness of each theory to the study of sacred sites. As a “theory improving mechanism,” their rationale for choosing this methodological approach is made clear in explanations of the various strengths and weaknesses of each model (17).

Chapter 2 opens with an overview of the corpus of Jewish law and tradition governing prayer at the Western Wall. This background in the “Halakhic aspect of the debate” provides essential context for understanding why “WoW’s manner of prayer,” is “considered offensive and unacceptable by the mainstream patriarchal Jewish Orthodoxy” (20). Jobani and Perez offer a succinct account of WoW’s story unfolding “against the background of the general divide between secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox” (39). Nevertheless, they are careful to note that as a diverse alliance “the WoW transcend and blur the secular-religious dichotomy in Israeli society” (39). These important distinctions set the stage for a telling of WoW’s protracted legal saga and the three Israeli Supreme Court rulings (in 1994, 2000, and 2003) which served as “legal markings of the contours of legitimate religious conduct in Israel” (40). Carefully annotated footnotes in this chapter and throughout the book provide a veritable cornucopia of detail and description, adding nuance for readers who may be unfamiliar with Jewish thought and tradition.

In chapters 3 through 5, Jobani and Perez offer detailed explanations of the aforementioned models of religion and state, weaving into their analysis the chronology of legal decisions which framed and continue to shape ongoing negotiations. They elucidate their rationale for selecting these models by looking to “‘ideal types’ in the Weberian sense” of frameworks consistent with “respect for individual liberty and fundamental rights, a democratically elected government and respect for minority rights” (53). “Illiberal and undemocratic models,” according to the authors, were purposefully omitted from their analysis (53). Among the three models, they argue that context-sensitive privatization offers the most promise by circumventing contested state management of “thick sites” and disrupting the partnership of state and dominant religious groups (176). As is their convention, Jobani and Perez conclude their book with a story: A woman walking in her neighborhood wearing a tallit is heckled by an ultra-Orthodox man: “’Where do you think you are, at the Western Wall?’ If a woman is wearing a tallit, it seems that she naturally belongs, even for an ultra-Orthodox man, at the Western Wall” (182).

Women of the Wall is a rich, complex volume of import to a wide range of disciplines including gender studies, law, political science, and religious studies.  Bringing this volume into conversation with the growing body of literature on religious women’s activism, the tangible outcomes of WoW’s direct actions offer hope for other religious women pressing for change from within their own traditions. On this point the authors are clear: “WoW should be understood not only narrowly as a group interested in religious equality at the Wall, but also more broadly as a feminist organization aiming to change broader gender inegalitarianism in Israel and the Jewish religion as a whole” (47). The work is a timely contribution to scholarly discussions on contemporary feminism both inside and outside particular traditions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christine L. Cusack is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Classics and Religous Studies at the University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yuval Jobani is associate professor in the department of Hebrew Culture Studies and School of Education at Tel-Aviv University.

Nahshon Perez is assistant rrofessor in the department of political studies at Bar-Ilan University.

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