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Sarah Silverman’s Better Half

The comedian’s sister’s protest of gender inequality at the Western Wall makes a case for holiness, not against

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Israeli police arrest American Rabbi Susan Silverman (L), sister of comedian Sarah Silverman, and her teenage daughter Hallel Abramowitz (C), at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, on Feb. 11, 2013. (Janos Chiala/AFP/Getty Images)

After more than a decade of rape jokes, dick jokes, and sly inversion of all forms of racism, we’re all pretty used to Sarah Silverman and her comedy, which in this era of Girls, “hipster racism,” and hundreds of YouTube videos of the aspiring stars of tomorrow strumming folksy songs about their various bodily functions can seem both oddly prescient and oddly quaint in its resolve to shock.

So, it’s only fitting that another Silverman has emerged on the scene, intent on breaking down a set of very different boundaries: Susan, the comedian’s rabbi sister, who along with her teenage daughter Hallel Abramowitz was among the latest group of women to be detained by Israeli authorities to appease the unbending ire of a bunch of absurdly powerful men dressed as John Galliano. Their transgressions, committed as part of the social action group Women of the Wall, seem to be the usual ones of wearing tallit, reading Torah, and other acts of “gender-bending” that the ultra-Orthodox seem to think will turn the entire Temple Mount into something resembling an extra-fierce episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race (we should be so lucky). The comedian herself was quick to Tweet her support: “So proud of my amazing sister @rabbisusan & niece @purplelettuce95 for their ballsout civil disobedience. Ur the tits! #womenofthewall.”

A man donning a prayer shawl is a sacrament, commanded by God; a woman doing the same thing is an abomination.

While Silverman’s tone may belie the sacredness of its subject, it’s interesting to note the parallels between her mission and her sister’s. As I and others have written before, when Sarah was starting out, most of her critics seemed to be focused less on what she was saying than that a woman was saying it; that she had jettisoned the traditional—and acceptable—“comedienne” script of making jokes about her frustration with men and presumed sexual undesirability that forced her to become funny in the first place and was going places that were darker, dirtier, more taboo. Similarly, the only thing remotely controversial about Rabbi Silverman’s actions is that she is performing them while female. To her opponents, a man donning a prayer shawl is a sacrament, commanded by God; a woman doing the same thing is an abomination.

And yet to me, the biggest violation of the civil rights of the women of the wall (be they capitalized, hash-tagged, or otherwise) isn’t that an allegedly secular agency is doing the bidding of a religious one by policing—sometimes violently—events on the women’s side of the Wall. It’s that there’s a designated “women’s side” at all.

I remember the first time I saw the Western Wall in person. I was 8 years old, a star student at my Jewish Day School, and although I didn’t know it at the time, would never have such an unclouded view of Israel, Judaism, or spirituality again. The Wall had been built up as the crowning glory in a trip that was meant to be full of wonders, the most profound thing I would experience on what was meant to be a trip that would cement my Jewish identity for a lifetime.

Instead, it was the beginning of a long process of disillusionment with the idea of religious ritual itself. Any sense I had of being bathed in God’s holy glow evaporated when I saw the forlorn little corner to which my mother, sister, and I were relegated. The vast expanse of the Wall, the one in all the photographs, was off-limits to me, no matter how well I behaved or how respectfully quiet I was. I felt rejected, unwelcome, unequal, and that everyone who went on and on about the sacredness of the place was to put it bluntly, totally full of crap. Whatever I had was the opposite of Jerusalem syndrome, and it never went away.

It’s not that I don’t get the concept of a mechitza, or partition. I’m not a big fan, but I’m not a big fan of synagogue in general, and if I happen to be in one where that’s part of the deal, I’m happy to be respectful of the needs and values of a tradition that isn’t quite my own, just as I would be if I was in a church or a mosque. But the Wall is different, because there’s only one of it. If it really is the holiest spot in the world for Jews, than it should belong equally to all of us—from mini-skirted, bacon-eating, not-so-Zionist women like me to the frummiest rebbe who ever threw a rock at them. And if Israel, as it purports to be, is truly the Jewish homeland, than it should be the duty of its civil courts to uphold that equality for all Jews, regardless of denomination of gender. The Wall belongs equally to all of us, and we should all be equal in its presence, no matter what the undemocratically elected rabbis say. It might sound crazy, but this is Israel, a place that isn’t exactly known for its lack of audacity (not to mention sanity). If you will it, it is no dream. The tits are nothing to fear.

***

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Donald Silverman says:

Thanks for a great article. Daddy Silverman

    Hey DS. Your Israeli daughter is as stupid as your American daughter (thank G-d- not as vulgar). There are always plenty of laws around that deal with religious practices in the public arena. THis is but one example. WoW lost some and won some in their litigious history and it was they- not the Religous Authorites- who were violating very specific agreements.

      Joel Braunold says:

      you literally have no class – its their father! you are a disgrace to everything that derech eretz kadma le’Torah means – go learn how to be a mensch

      Spoken like an Islamist. Move back to Egypt, Morsy needs all the help he can get right now.

hashimoto says:

After reading bullshit pieces like this…..being Jewish is leaving a bad taste in my mouth…
Liberalism is going to destroy Judaism

anything for attention, she is a silly woman who should know what the halacha is, esp that she is a rabbi’s sister, wow i hope g-d is forgiving her for her stupidity.

oaklandj says:

Thank you, Rachel. If the frummy self-appointed guardians of the Wall were to read your article, they would realize the civil disobedience of the likes of Susan Silverman and Anat Hoffman are making Judaism more accessible to more Jews. Maybe that doesn’t matter to them (the non-Chabad ones maybe).

marjorie says:

“a bunch of absurdly powerful men dressed at John Galliano” — great line. i have more of a fondness for jewish ritual than you do, rachel (i feel that just as catholic women work to reclaim their religion from the narrow-minded vision of the pope, we jews can make our own practice and spirituality work for us in a feminist and big-tent way) but i love this piece. and i love fierce Daddy Silverman reading all his kids’ press.

I’m glad we don’t all have to aspire to your religious morality, Ms. Shukert. I am grateful for the entire Silverman family and not into classifications, like you.

    Lee Kaplan says:

    Nobody has pointed out that the Israeli authorities gave over the Temple Mount to the Muslim Wakf that has Jews arrested for even moving their lips for fear they might be praying. Jerusalem cops enforce this insanity. This agnostic Jew of Khan descent on both sides of his family sees nothing wrong with the Frum restrictions at the larger part of the Wall. The Orthodox preserve for us the essence of Judaism and Talmud. I’m not talking about the clowns in the Neturei Karta or some Satmars, whores is religious garb, but the Arch allows others to pray there and I saw Jewish women, some even American praying at the Wall last time I visited. Your article doesn’t clarify the feminists in Israel, mostly lesbians, who run around supporting Hamas and thinking they are innovators by enabling Jew-killers. The article isn’t clear on where Sarah SIlverman’s sister sits in this melange of Israeli lunatics. Is she really lacking of speaking to God, or is she just engaging in “civil disobedience”

genelevit says:

Reform “Judaism” is not a Judaism. If for nothing else then for just one reason only: because it doesn’t treat homosexual relations as a sin.

The practices at the Wall today follow traditions that reach back to the King Solomon and Temple. In the Temple itself there were separate areas for men and women. Liberal Jews are attempting to use this sacred monument to impose their changes in Jewish practice and belief.

There are has been a compromise they refuse to accept. An area of the Wall has been set aside for non traditional prayer. At Robinson’s Arch liberal Jews can pray as they want when the want. Its the same Wall, if prayer is what they are seeking what is the issue. Clearly this has nothing do with using the sacred space of the Wall. Its about a much broader agenda, forcing millions of Jews worldwide to validate the unilateral changes in tradition that Reform and Conservative have instituted. Its not about freedom . Accept my changes or else i will create a public spectacle every month, draw in the media.

For these liberal movements suffering from serious attrition, a lack of momentum in the US and marginal success in the Israeli its been a great cause to rally around. But at the heart of the issue is something very strange, The orthodox have accepted the compromise, they have not organized protests at Robinson’s Arch, However the liberals have refused, its a case of need of validation. “my brand of Judaism should good at the central plaza of the Wall”

    Laila Rasheed says:

    ANOTHER “GREAT” JEW

    1 Kings 11:1-13

    Solomon’s Wives

    11 King Solomon, however, loved many foreign womenbesides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites,Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. 2 They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. 3 He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. 4 As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods,and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. 5 He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.

    7 On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. 8 He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods.

    9 The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. 10 Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord’s command. 11 So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.12 Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son. 13 Yet I will not tear the whole kingdom from him, but will give him one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.”

    Notachancebuddy says:

    The world changes, matures. As more people realize that the lack of bearded old man dictating bizarre rules (that benefit mostly males–funny, that) is a good thing, we’re going to have less and less conflict based on the idea of who has the righter invisible friend. If you believe that less conflict, violence, and inequality are good things, then great! Otherwise keep justifying superstition “because it’s always been that way”.

    You know this is really about larger issues. It’s not about which Judaism is “right” or not. I find Women of the Wall to really be protesting for recognition. I can understand the viewpoint that if the wall were open to all, that would then alienate the Orthodox from praying, and that too would be wrong. Really what this is about is getting rid of the mentality “My way of practicing Judaism is the best/only way, and all the rest of you are less than me.” That’s the real issue, especially concerning American Jewry and how things are done in Israel. It’s that whole idea of only Orthodox Judaism is the “real” Judaism. It’s 2013 folks! Judaism has never been monolithic, the same across all regions and throughou time. It’s always changing. Reform and Conservative/Masorti Judaism are simply part of that process, of the change in history, of Jews seeking ways to keep the traditions and practices meaningful for them. If Israel truly respected all Jews and how they wish to practice, I doubt this would be an issue. As long as the authorities are demeaning of other ways to practice Judaism, there will be conflict. Israel is supposed to be the home of all Jews, and should be a comfortable place for all Jews. Being derided by the Orthodox and/or Haredi only divides us. Not everyone wants to be Orthodox, not everyone will be. We don’t have to agree on all things, but we shouldn’t be dismissive of each other either. I’m not Orthodox. I have no desire to be. But I would want to live alongside my Orthodox brothers and sisters in peace, and trying to understand each other and recognize our ways of practicing and what is spiritually fulfilling to all of us. It’s the denigration, the hateful speech, and object throwing that keeps us apart. I mean seriously, there aren’t enough Jews in the world for us to stay so divided and be so disrespectul to each other. So what if I see Torah different than you? I still have Torah, I still go to synagogue, I still value everything Judaism gives us, just in a different way. Different does not equal bad. That’s something we all need to learn.

Jerry Waxman says:

Rachel Shukert is out of her league on this. There is no relationship to civil disobedience here. Women of any faith are not being persecuted in Israel. They are not prevented from praying at the wall. Some were arrested for wearing men’s garments at the wall. Religious men, women, and children who care about the sanctity of the place as well as the sanctity of Torah and Jewish law do not got to Susan Silverman’s house and tell her how to conduct her life at home. If she wants to wear tallit at home, it is her business. But the Wall is not her home. It is a refuge for all Jews, including the millions who really have been persecuted in the past. I believe a priority should be given to those Jews who actually care about the wall and what it means, and actually try to live by the laws as they have been passed down from Moses. Susan Silverman’s actions were not civil disobedience. They were cowardly, not courageous. She only intended to offend the religious community, because the “ultra-orthodox” are an easy target. And Rachel Shukert is a journalist worthy of a junior-high publication.

Laila Rasheed says:

Let’s get it straight from the start: God & Jews don’t go together!

For going on a few thousand years the Good Lord has systematically allowed Jews to have the sh-t kicked out of them & then the Good Lord added insult to injury, when He revealed that He had given the Arabs the oil.

The Silvermans are a great example of Jews- SCUM.

There is NOTHING of holiness & purity in these two women.

Sarah Silverman shows ALL the signs of a sexually abuse person.

“she is a silly woman who should know what the halacha is” Halacha does not prevent a woman from wearing a tallit. Although it used to be uncommon for women to wear a tallit hundreds of years ago, it wasn’t unheard of. The rabbis ruled a woman may wear one but she does not say the blessing over it.
Also, there is evidence that in ancient synagogues men and women sat together.
The claim that these women are trying to do something that has never been done in Judaism before is false.

PhillipNagle says:

The Israeli government has turned over control of most holy sites (Jewish and gentile) to religious organizations. The Kotel is under the control of the Israeli rabbinic authorities who have made many compromises to non orthodox Jews. When these radical feminists go out of their way to incite trouble at the Kotel, they are quite properly arrested (as would radical feminists who made trouble at a mosque or church).. I have no sympathy for them.

herbcaen says:

Perhaps the Silverman sisters will proposition the rabbi of the Western Wall just like Sarah did to Sheldon Adelson

What needs to be understood, and I don’t recall seeing many people mentioning when discussing this, is that no matter what someone is going to be limited in their ability to pray at the Kotel.

As it stands now, the Kotel acts as an Orthodox shul. That means just like all
others there are certain rules in place to follow in accordance with halacha, including
things like having a mechitzah, dress code etc. This is obviously going to
limit the ability of some (but not all) who are not Orthodox to pray at the
Kotel, no different than in any other Orthodox shul. This isn’t really fair,
and was the reason why the Robinson’s Arch area was made available to those
wanting to pray at the Kotel in a non-Orthodox fashion.

If they change things, and open up the whole Kotel area to all forms of prayer,
then you also have an unfair situation in that now the Orthodox can’t pray
there as pluralistic and egalitarian prayer are not permitted by halacha, so
now the Orthodox would be forced to have to pray in a separate area as they
need it, which is no more fiar than the current situation.

Personably, and I full admit to having my own biases here as an Orthodox Jew, I
think that the fact that the Orthodox are a larger group in terms of number and
need (a fact I sometimes feel not recognized by many in the US where the proportions
are much different), the current situation is the lesser of two evils.

    Could you imagine a place where there are three sections: one all-men, one all-women, one mixed? And where the mechitzot are movable, to accomodate shifting group sizes at different times? And that’s just one possibility. I think we’re all caught in either/or, and not looking carefully enough at broader ways to solve this.

      What you are describing is pretty close to the current situation, with the Robinson’s Arch area being the designated mixed section. I personally do think that it is the closest thing to a reasonable solution based on the realities of who makes the most use of the Kotel and designating the limited space accordingly.

    Let the orthodox go to Robinson’s Arch.

Habbgun says:

Is there anything dumber than a writer of pop culture writing about religious matters? A few snarky comments is what pop culture writing is about but it is mostly snark because pop culture doesn’t matter much. Sure you can say such and such is so five minutes ago but usually such and such has gone on to bigger and better things in life and the writer is stuck in time still trying to find popularity and relevance by grabbing onto or judging others.

The same is true here. The writer finds something important in the sad little protest itself and demands something truly momentous (turning the world upside down just so a few women won’t be bored) but doesn’t really have anything to say on this or any other religion. Tradition is practiced in all walks of life including secular ones. Life is that way. Go to a business networking meeting in flip flops, a torn t-shirt and jeans in holes and you won’t make the same impression as the guy in the suit.

Pop culture doesn’t broaden anybody. Its fun stuff that we take more seriously when we are younger. I’m sure Rachel Shukert is the most fun, fantastic, awesomeness on the planet but only when she isn’t sayings things that are so twenty-two minutes ago. After all she only missed the bra burnings by a couple of decades……duh!

The Catholic hierarchy protect child molesters, persecute religious women, and expect to be supported financially by the community. The Jewish Frumsters, on the other hand — oh wait!

Silverman is certainly free to start her own religion. I suggest Mecca as a good starting point to spread her word. She could make up her own rules and codes of conduct if, of course, she’s able to keep her head

Thank you, Rachel, for a thoughtful discussion. I could not agree more! Being born to a Jewish mother is, in the traditional view, what makes one a Jew. So, it follows that a woman’s Jewish heritage is valued. It makes no sense, then, to deny access to the wall to ALL Jews. Even those of us who weren’t circumcised have the right to pray to our G-D. Thank you, Rabbi Silverman, and Anat Hoffman, and Women of the Wall, for fighting for access for all of us.

For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.
-Isaiah 56:7

Last time I checked, women are people

It never fails to amaze me that people like Rachel Shukert, who don’t give a shit about Israel and/or Judaism are bothered by what goes on in Israel. Something that will never impact on her life.

Why go to the wall? You need the guts to protect your infant sons. Say NO to Legalizing Girl/Boy Circumcision. Say NO to 17 Year-Old Vagina/Penis Carrying 70 Year-Old Clitoris/Glans.

Do you really think invisible sky creatures care who practices superstition at a wall?

arktikwolf says:

It would behoove the author to learn the definition of “better half.”
It refers (with good humor) to one’s spouse.
That said: More power to the Silverman sisters. Respect.

Oh dear, I think you missed the point! The Orthodox men HAVE to pray at certain times of the day, women are not bound by these rules, why? Because mens egos are bigger than womens! Women are more connected to G-d spiritually, they don’t need to squash their egos – Moses gave The Torah to the women first – women are not stopped from doing anything in Judaism but they are not REQUIRED to as they are more corrected in the eyes of G-d. Just think of the wall as a place for the men to really try their best to reach G-d not using their egotistical part of their soul – women don’t need a wall! You are forgetting your own precious connection to G-d that men cannot do… Give birth to a human… The sexes are different for a reason… WE ARE DIFFERENT! Don’t see it as something you can’t do – If on the other hand you just wanted to pull a stunt to further a comedy career then you’ve slung your connectedness to G-d straight down the toilet. Use your brain – look at what Judaism really is… Read between the lines…

the issue is not whether or not a woman should be allowed to pray at the wall. The issue is: why would the rabbis declare a bunch of rocks shaped into a wall by an Idumedian murderer “the holiest site in Judaism” ?

Sarah Silver man and her sister are just playing into the rabbi’s game. By insisting on their “right” to pray at the wall they are endorsing rabbinical ignorance. The next thing they will be doing is saying: “Judaism passes thru the mother based upon what is written in the Torah” which is simply another lie spread by these phony religious scholars..

    Let me help you out here. Those rocks constitute the remaining physical presence of a temple compound which was once the ritual center of Jewish life. In another sense, you are correct; the holiest site for Judaism is located above the Western Wall, i.e., the Temple Mount. However, just as the Israeli police will not allow women to wear talitot by the Western Wall in order to avoid problems with the Ultra-Orthodox, they do not permit any Jew – man, woman, Orthodox, Reform, whatever – to pray on the Temple Mount in order to avoid problems with the Arabs.
    As for “rabbinical ignorance” – just who is supposed to decide what is Judaism’s holiest site? People who don’t care about Judaism, perhaps?

disqus_Pb5yBxXpB8 says:

While I share the irreligiosity of the author, I am of mixed feelings regarding her perceptions of religious gender “prejudice”. Is it prejudice if a practice reflects a reality which is identifiable & whose observance is germane to that reality? I think not. Men & women are different. And their mutual, visible presence during periods of intense prayer really IS a distraction, particularly to men, whom everyone agrees are superficial, testosterone-driven creatures who have great trouble focusing on spiritual issues when so easily distracted by the mere presence of pheremone-wafting creatures of great reproductive interest. I also agree that this is grotesquely unfair. So the conclusion is not as the author would have us believe. The conclusion is really that life is often unfair, that people are nuts, and that the Silvermans, pere & filles, are better at grabbing attention than at harmonizing with society. While I personally resent the gender separation demanded by numerous religious societies (not just ultra-orthodox Jews), those gender-related distinctions do in fact represent a historic reality which we haven’t yet modified humans sufficiently to overcome. Of course, if you could just get everyone to agree that there is no G-d, then there’d be no pressure to observe Halakha – or the code of any other religion which is discriminatory – and the problem would be resolved with even greater simplicity than calling in the mishtara. So what we need is better genetic engineering of humans, and less call for political action.

I’m not a big fan of Sarah Silverman, so maybe someone else can help me out with this. Has she ever before demonstrated concern for any particularly Jewish issue? (As far as I know, so far the only thing that has seemed to really concern her was getting Barack Obama elected; I would be very pleased to discover that she has spoken up about the Iranian nuclear threat, attempts to ban circumcision, the New Antisemitism, etc.) The author of the article does a disservice to the religious authenticity of the Women of the Kotel. She seems to be saying, “Someone like me who doesn’t really give a damn shouldn’t have to put up with the demands of people who have merely devoted their lives to the Jewish religion.” Perhaps this struggle is best left to people who have racked up a bit more relevant moral capital.

The haredi are on their way out. After this election their days are numbered as a political force. The new government will start cutting the billions they scrounge of everybody with a job, and this BS at The Wall will also be curtailed. Before you know they will be the ones getting dragged from the Kotel. Muppets, the lot of them.
And bless these women, somebody give them a f’ing medal.

We all have sinners and saints in our families :)

Donald Silverman says:

If god can plutz she is plutzing over all the simes you are making about a bunch of bricks and mortar. It’s only a wall. Who cares what happens there. Wear a tallis don’t wear a tallis. God told me she doesn’t give a shit. She further said women who think they shouldn’t wear a tallis and pray to me shouldn’t and those women who want to, should. Get it.

    Your daughter wants Jews of all stripes to be respectful of her beliefs. Yet you crap on the beliefs of other Jews. For someone who professes to believe in tolerance, you sure are horribly intolerant.

Traditional Judaism believes women were created spiritually superior to men, and these deluded women want to downgrade them to being ‘equal’ to men ,,, OY!

But this too will pass, as have all kinds of ‘reform’ movements in our history; the Sadducees, Bethusians, Essenes, all little blips, long forgotten.

I agree with Daddy Silverman! Lose the mechitzah, the attitude and the silly bias against women. WIthout them you would not be here.

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Sarah Silverman’s Better Half

The comedian’s sister’s protest of gender inequality at the Western Wall makes a case for holiness, not against

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