From Hannah to Women of the Wall (Talk 2)
A talk delivered at Congregation Ad Olam, Eugene, Oregon, September 2013
Tonight I want to you tell you the story of Hannah, the mother of the Prophet Samuel. Hannah lived in the land of Israel about 3000 years ago. Hannah was married to a man named Elkanah. Elkanah had two wives, Hannah and Peninah. Peninah had children, but Hannah had no children and she desperately wanted a child.
Every year, Hannah and her family visited the sanctuary at Shiloh in the heart of ancient Israel. One year, Hannah rose up and began praying with all her might to be able to have a child. Hannah’s lips were moving, but no one could hear her voice. In those days, the Jewish people still had priests and there were no rabbis yet. Eli was a priest in the sanctuary and when he saw Hannah moving her lips in silent prayer, he misunderstood and thought she was drunk and he asked her to leave her drinking.
Hannah stood up for herself. She explained that she was desperate to have a child and she was praying to God as hard as she could. Eli was very moved by what Hannah shared and he added his prayer to hers.
God answered Hannah’s prayer. She bore a son and named him Samuel. When Samuel was a toddler, Hannah brought him to the sanctuary at Shiloh so Samuel could receive his education from Eli the priest.
When Hannah was dropping off her son at the sanctuary, she prayed a powerful prayer of praise to God. Over the centuries, the sages elevated Hannah as an example of how we should pray. When we pray quietly, the sages tell us that we should pray so softly that people standing near us cannot hear what we are saying, but at the same time we should also keep our lips moving and articulate every word so God can hear us and so we can hear ourselves.
In this day and age, we also elevate Hannah for praising God out loud when she returned to the sanctuary with her son when he was toddler. When we celebrate life, we should sing out like Hannah and “The Mishpachas,” our wonderful Ad Olam singers, including those who are up front with us tonight and those who will be joining us tomorrow or on Yom Kippur or in the future. Maybe one of you [out there in the congregation] will be joining us!
The story and teaching about Hannah are central to Judaism. The sages included the story in the Bible and they assigned it as a reading in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and that’s why I am sharing Hannah’s story tonight.
Now I want to tell you a modern story about modern women in Jerusalem who put themselves at risk in order to earn the right to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This group is called Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall have been praying once a month at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for almost twenty-five years. Each month, Women of the Wall gather at the Western Wall to pray and celebrate Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the new Hebrew month. Women of the Wall pray quietly like Hannah and they raise their voices in joyous praise to God, also like Hannah.
Just one month ago on the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, Women of the Wall blew shofar at the Western Wall for the first time in their twenty-four year history. Men have been allowed to blow shofar at the Western Wall since 1967 when the Wall became part of Israel during the Six Day War. Women are now allowed to blow shofar at the Western Wall because of an April 2013 Jerusalem District court ruling that women may pray with prayer shawls and read from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall.
The Israeli government is adhering to the April 2013 court ruling by allowing Women of the Wall to wear prayer shawls. And the government is exceeding the court ruling by also allowing women to blow shofar, but they are not yet allowing Women of the Wall to bring a Torah scroll even though the court ruling states specifically that women may read from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall.
Since the April 2013 court ruling, the Israeli police provide Women of the Wall with an escort to and from the Western Wall, and they protect Women of the Wall from physical harm at the hands of Ultra Orthodox protesters. But for three of the past four months, Israeli police have prevented Women of the Wall from entering the women’s prayer section because of security concerns.
In July, on the first day of the Hebrew month of Av, Women of the Wall prayed in an area that was so far from the Western Wall that they could not even see the Wall. In August, on the first of the month of Elul, Women of the Wall prayed and blew shofar at the very back of the plaza where they could see the stones of the Western Wall far in the distance.
But even when Women of the Wall are praying far from the stones of the Western Wall, they are still subjected to the continuous blowing of shrill whistles, the carrying of disparaging protest signs and the screaming of obscenities by Ultra Orthodox men and women. The police allow the protesters to carry signs and scream obscenities as part of freedom of speech, and in July, Jerusalem police spokesman Shmulik Ben Rubi was quoted in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying that the blowing of whistles is not against the law and is not disturbing the peace.
How can we support the State of Israel AND the rights of women to read from a Torah scroll and be free of harassment at the Western Wall in Jerusalem? The answers are not simple, but neither has been the fight for women’s rights here in North America, nor the fight for religious freedom nor the fight for other important social justice causes.
In your green folder, there is a handout with information about religious pluralism and women’s rights at the Western Wall. It also has information about supporting legislation for immigration reform here in the United States. And about the American Jewish World Service that sends volunteers to help people all over the world. There is also information about the new marketplace for health care insurance that will open in the coming months here in the State of Oregon.
In conclusion, I want to encourage everyone to learn to pray like Hannah. When you are thanking God and when you are asking for what you need and want, articulate the words, but do it so softly that only you and God can hear. And when you are advocating for social justice for women’s rights or immigration reform or any of the important causes that you support, have courage to raise your voice and make our voice known to help make this world a better place. כֵּן יְהִי רָצוֹן So may it be.