Are the Women of the Wall confusing protest and worship?

On Dec. 14, several members of the Women of the Wall group were arrested in Jerusalem. Their crime? They were trying to pray at Jerusalem's Western Wall, dressed in the traditional shawls and scripture boxes worn by Jews during prayer.

Historically, all Jews were commanded to pray every day, but only men had to gather together and pray at certain times of the day. Women were excused mainly because tasks like watching children and preparing meals could not be set aside at a certain time in the same way men could structure their workday. Women still prayed, but they did it on their own whenever their schedule allowed. Men, on the other hand, gathered for prayer several times a day. They developed a more ritualistic prayer, complete with certain garments like the prayer shawls, or tallits, that the Israeli women got in trouble for wearing.

That's the real sticking point here. For centuries, men have prayed a certain way, making a certain ritual space in which to do it. Until fairly recently it was very much a no-girls-allowed domain, but recently women have wanted to join in those same rituals. I'm not Jewish, but I can certainly understand why rituals are so important. Praying on my own is nice, but getting dressed in my Sunday best and going to a special building so I can pray with my fellow Christians is something else entirely. It helps me connect to a tradition beyond myself, which in turn helps draw me to God. If you told me this communal prayer was only for the guys, I'd be put off in a big way.

There's another side, though. I don't doubt that many women who tried to pray at the Western Wall wearing a tallit sincerely wanted to pray the way Jews have always prayed, but many others undoubtedly were more concerned with the right to pray. As Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz said of the Women of the Wall, "They don't come here to pray, they want to protest."

When we focus on our rights, on what we are allowed to do, it becomes harder to focus on God. Sometimes protest is a good thing, but if that's what the Women of the Wall are trying to do, their "prayer" is more focused on themselves than on God.

Jews hardly have the market cornered on this problem. Consider a question we Christians still struggle over: whether women should be preachers. Both Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches restrict the priesthood to men and Southern Baptists stopped ordaining women in 2000. My own denomination, the Methodists, has a long history of ordaining women, but even so women pastors face resistance in some areas of the country. Their parishioners expect their pastor to be a man, and so women drawn to full-time ministry often find themselves in a position quite like the women wishing to pray at the Western Wall.

We need to approach such issues with the humility the Christian faith requires. We should make room for women both at the Western Wall and the Lord's Table, but we must also keep our focus on the One we are gathered to worship.

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A question that came to mind after I first read this: Can protest ever be a form of worship? Might it be in these instances?

It’s a good question, Josh. I think with the way people of my generation do protest, it’s very hard to imagine that being a form of worship. It’s simply so focused on what we deserve as a right, and how wrong it is that we don’t have it. Rights matter of course, but that way of thinking seems thoroughly focused on us. That seems at odds with worshipping God to me. Maybe some people can pull off worship from that mind-frame, but I’ve never been able to.

On the other hand, I think if you frame protest a different way it can be quite conducive to worship, maybe even becoming a part of worship. I’m thinking of the civil rights movement here and in particular Dr. King’s discussion of natural vs. unnatural laws in “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” That protest is inspired by the way segregation violates human dignity, but it’s as much about breaking something God created as harming a person. He was essentially protesting against a sin, and so worship and protest went hand in hand. I don’t think it’s an accident the civil rights movement was often anchored in the churches, and the protesters often sang spirituals as they marched.

So yes, protest and worship can go hand in hand. I think we have to approach it from a radically different way than I’ve seen it approached in my lifetime, but it’s definitely possible.

I strongly disagree with you on this, Marta. When Isaiah says that true fasting is loosing the chains of injustice, protest fits in pretty well. It seems like the distinction between “rights” and “civil rights” you make here is pretty thin. Why is excluding women from worship not sin?
Maybe you’re working from a different frame of reference about protest in your lifetime, because I can think of a lot of examples that are about protecting rights and justice for others as well as for the rights of the protestors.

I wasn’t trying to say we shouldn’t care about injustice, and I’m deeply sorry if that’s the impression I gave. I agree with you that it’s sinful to keep people from worshiping God or becoming closer to Him, for whatever reason - race, gender, sexuality, etc. What I was trying to explore here is, does the way we address that inequality sometimes interfere with our worshipping God in that moment?

If it does, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m reminded of Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5 where he said going to make a sacrifice but something isn’t right between you and your brother, fix that something that’s wrong and then make your sacrifice. So if we need to take a moment and fix something so we can properly worship God, that may be the way to go. Just because it’s something other than worship, that doesn’t make it wrong.

Still, I have to admit: thinking about those women at the wall gave me pause. I don’t know about their motives, but if they were praying as a way to open up the space for other women, it seems their focus was on that rather than on offering a genuine prayer. It’s a tricky situation because I absolutely support the women’s right to pray; I’m just not sure how to get there without focusing on us humans rather than on God.

That’s part of what I was trying to get people to think about with this post: how do we balance the need to get more equality in the church (and yes, this is a definite need!) against the need for worship and prayer to not be about those offering the prayer?

Btw, Bethany: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate you thinking about what I had to say.

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