Today is Rosh Hodesh, the celebration of the new moon. As long ago as the fourth century, the rabbis declared that this is a women's holiday. From the Jewish Virtual Library:
Rosh Chodesh has long been recognized as a women's holiday. In the Talmud [tractate Megillah 22b], we read that women are exempt from work on Rosh Chodesh. Rashi, on commenting on this passage, delineates the activities from which they may refrain: spinning, weaving, and sewing, because these are the skills which women so enthusiastically contributed to the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Why do women merit a special holiday once a month? In midrash Pirke DeRabbi Eliezer, chapter 45, we are told that in the incident of the Golden Calf, the women refused to relinquish their earrings to the men who were building the calf. As a reward, God gave them an extra holy day each month, free from work. It is customary to wear new clothing on Rosh Chodesh, in celebration of the day's special character
In 1967 when the Israeli Army entered Jerusalem (no I/P political comments, please) soldiers prayed for the first time at the Kotel, the only remaining part of the Second Temple, part of the western retaining wall. The Wailing Wall is considered the holiest place in the world for Jews.
In 1988 there was a feminist conference in Jerusalem. A group of women from the conference went to pray at the Wall, and were attacked verbally and physically by ultra-Orthodox men and women. The plaza in front of the Wall is set up with a screened-off section for women, and these women prayed in the Women's section.
When I was a child, women were not allowed to be part of the Torah service, were not allowed to read from Torah or to be up on the Bimah, even in synagogues where men and women sat together. This had changed by the 1980's for Conservative Jews; perhaps somebody can give the history for Reform Judaism.
Women of the Wall continued to hold services at the Wall and continued to be assaulted verbally and physically by ultra-Orthodox men and women; I know of women who have been spat upon. Eventually the organization was formed, and holds services every Rosh Hodesh. Years of lawsuits followed. Only last April was a decision reached that women were indeed permitted to hold prayer services there and could not be held responsible for any disturbances of the peace that resulted from their peaceful prayer. In earlier suits, women singing prayers had been considered disturbing the peace.
Another issue is women wearing prayer shawls (tallit) and phylacteries (tfillin). Women are exempted from performing mitzvot constrained by time, such as daily prayers. But we are not forbidden to undertake these mitzvot, nor the wearing of tallit and tfillin, and some have done so. Many of the women of WOW wear tallit and tfillin, which is another bone of contention. Recently they have been searched as they enter the to the wall. Many men supporters who join the services have begun carrying in extra tallit or even giving theirs to women taking part.
Women of the Wall includes women from all branches of Judaism including modern Orthodoxy. After the April decision, Devorah Leff celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel. Devorah is daughter of Barry Leff, who as a rabbinical student had served at our Synagogue here in Tucson; he and his family have since moved to Israel, where he is an active member of Rabbis for Human Rights, and the women of his family are involved in WOW. He wrote an article in the Jerusalem Post about the Bat Mitzvah. It begins:
Our 12-year-old daughter Devorah celebrated her bat mitzva on Friday in front of a crowd of thousands, with police protection and global news coverage.
In the wake of last month’s ruling by Jerusalem District Judge Moshe Sobel that the Women of the Wall are allowed to pray at the women’s section of the Kotel according to their custom, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, generally considered the spiritual leader of the non-hassidic haredi world, gave his blessing to bringing busloads of haredi girls to protest this month’s Rosh Hodesh service.
As a result, instead of the usual crowd of a few hundred supporters of Women of the Wall and a dozen heckling haredi men, the Western Wall plaza was filled with thousands of haredi girls. The 500 or so supporters of Women of the Wall weren’t even able to make it into the women’s section – instead they prayed in the plaza, with a “mehitza” formed by the police.
I’m glad we had such a huge crowd. As it says in Proverbs 14:28, “In the multitude of the people is the king’s glory.” We certainly had a multitude, but it’s too bad that most of that multitude wasn’t actually there to pray, but to stop others from praying.
Shabbat Shalom, and a good Rosh Hodesh.