Judaism Unbound Episode 129: Women of the Wall - Lesley Sachs, Susan Silverman


Dan and Lex are joined by Lesley Sachs, executive director of Women of the Wall, [1]and by rabbi and author Susan Silverman, a member of Women of the Wall's Board of Directors and an activist on behalf of African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel. In their conversation, they discuss the efforts of Women of the Wall to fight for women's rights to pray as they wish at the Western Wall, explore questions related to religious pluralism in Israel, and consider how a Jewish state ought to deal with non-Jewish asylum seekers. They also consider the roles that American Jews might or might not take on in dealing with these issues and the nature of the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

 Image Credit: The Post and Courier

Image Credit: The Post and Courier

(0:01 - 15:02): To begin the episode, Lesley Sachs looks back at the modern history of the Western Wall as it relates to Jewish prayer at the site. [2] She also reflects on the thirty-year history of Women of the Wall, discussing why it emerged, what its goals are, and how it does its work. Susan Silverman connects discrimination against women at the Western Wall to broader issues of sexism in Israeli civil law. [3] She also argues that elements of ultra-Orthodoxy are both anti-Jewish and anti-democratic, especially as they relate to definitional questions of "Who is a Jew?" 

 Image Credit: RabbiSusanSilverman.com

Image Credit: RabbiSusanSilverman.com

(15:03 - 28:54): Silverman calls for an end to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate ("The Rabbanut," in Hebrew) and its immense power (clarifying that this is her personal belief, not necessarily that of Women of the Wall). Sachs looks back on her recent experiences on American college campuses and considers the growing number of young Jews for whom Israel is not high on their priority list as activists. Sachs and Silverman engage with critiques of Women of the Wall and argue that issues of religious pluralism within Israel should not be pitted against work related to the issue of Palestinian rights. Silverman then explores the issue of African asylum seekers and calls on the Israeli government to radically shift its orientation towards those who arrive from abroad -- often from situations where they have faced dire oppression and poverty, analogous to what Jews have suffered throughout history. [4]

(28:55 - 41:41): The ongoing question of why it is important for American Jews to care about Israel arises. Silverman calls for progressives to become active in Israeli politics, precisely to change the government in ways that will make it more closely mirror their values. Sachs calls for a spirit of optimism, arguing that a wide variety of progressive changes, once considered inconceivable, have become reality over the years. [5] To close the episode, Sachs envisions a relationship between Israel and American Jews that is built on love and mutual respect.

[1] Learn more about Women of the Wall by visiting WomenOfTheWall.org.il. For bios of both Sachs and Silverman, click here. Purchase her most recent book, Casting Lots, or her earlier work, Jewish Family & Life, by clicking here.

[2] For a timeline featuring key events in Women of the Wall's history, click here. For a response from Sachs, shortly after the Israeli government reneged on its deal with Women of the Wall, click here.

 Image Credit: Times of Israel

Image Credit: Times of Israel

[3] See this 2015 article in The Nation for more on how Israeli civil law treats men and women differently.

[4] Read more from Silverman regarding African asylum seekers in a piece she wrote for the New York Times, entitled "How Did Israel Become a Place of No Refuge?"

[5] Sachs highlights a woman named Tsvia Walden, and her reading of the Mourner's Kaddish (with some liturgical alterations) at the funeral of her father, Shimon Peres. Learn more about that story through this 2016 article in Haaretz.

[6] Click the video below for an interview of Susan Silverman by her sister, comedian Sarah Silverman.