Wailing at the Western Wall

December 30, 2012 7:25 pm 6 comments

Western Wall. Photo: Wayne McLean.

For nearly twenty-five years an organization known as Women of the Wall has struggled, in the words of its mission statement, “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”

Their challenge to guidelines set by the Ministry of Religious Authority, the government agency charged with supervision of Jewish holy sites, has periodically roiled Israeli society. A decade ago the Supreme Court upheld the right claimed by Women of the Wall to pray and read from Torah in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza.

Within a year, however, unrelenting ultra-Orthodox opposition prompted the Court to reconsider. In a 5-4 decision it upheld the government prohibition on women wearing tallitot or tefillin, or reading Torah, in the public (but gender divided) plaza adjacent to the Wall. The Court required the government to provide a suitable alternative site where such religious observance, and mixed gender prayer, would be permitted. That site, around the corner of the Western Wall, was an ancient gateway to the Temple Mount known since the mid-19th century as Robinson’s Arch.

A fragile status quo emerged. For Rosh Hodesh services at the beginning of the new month, Women of the Wall convene for public prayer in the Western Wall plaza. But for the Torah service they are required to move to Robinson’s Arch, where they can wear tallitot and tefillin and pray with men. In recent years, under the leadership of Anat Hoffman, Women of the Wall has challenged this arrangement. Members have been arrested and fined for wearing a tallit under their coat, holding a Torah, singing out loud, and “disturbing public order.”

Ms. Hoffman, raised in Israel as a self-described “totally secular Jew,” discovered Judaism as a student at UCLA where she attended the Westwood Free Minyan, known for its liberalism and feminism. She returned to Israel determined to become “a religious-pluralism activist.” After serving on the City Council of Jerusalem she focused her activism on the Orthodox monopoly on religion in the Israeli public sphere. The Western Wall, she declared, “is way too important to be left to the Israelis.” As Hoffman conceded: “This did not evolve here in Israel, this is an import from abroad.”

In October Hoffman was arrested at the Wall for audibly reciting the Shema prayer while wearing a tallit. In an interview she disclosed that police “checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. . . . They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners including a prostitute and a car thief. . . . I laid on the floor covered with my tallit.” News of her arrest and mistreatment provoked furious condemnation by Jewish liberals, especially women, who pounced on the opportunity to denounce religious Orthodoxy and gender discrimination – and castigate Israel – in one fell swoop.

Enter The New York Times, whose Jewish problem is at least as old as its Sulzberger family ownership and whose discomfort with Israel dates virtually from the birth of the Jewish state. During the last week in December the Times twice devoted its lead “International” story to women’s prayer at the Western Wall. Both articles were written by its new Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, whose identification with Women of the Wall was palpable.

She described a “tearful” Bonna Devora Haberman, an immigrant from Canada and one of the organization’s founders, who was enraged when a police officer tried to prevent her from carrying a tallit in her knapsack on her way to pray at the Wall. (A photo of her encounter by the veteran Times photographer in Israel, doubtlessly arranged in advance, accompanied the story.) A California student “wept” when asked to relinquish the tallit woven by her mother for her bat mitzvah.

In both Rudoren articles diaspora “outrage” over religious restrictions on women was linked to Israeli settlement policy (which the Times relentlessly opposes) as a primary source of increasing American Jewish disaffection with the Jewish state. But even Zionism, to say nothing of religious Orthodoxy and Jewish settlements, has long been a problem for liberal American Jews.

A century ago, upon becoming the leader of the American Zionist movement, Louis D. Brandeis (confessing “I am very ignorant of things Jewish”) insisted upon the compatibility of Zionism with American liberalism. Anything less would provoke dreaded allegations of divided loyalty. Ever since, American Jews have demanded that Zionism express American liberal values with a Hebrew accent.

Gender equality is, of course, a worthy goal. So, too, is religious freedom, which surely includes the freedom of worship even for ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. Religion and gender can be a volatile mix, not only in Judaism (as any Muslim could testify). Jewish women who encounter problems worshipping as they wish at the Western Wall might try praying in the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque. Now there would be a story worthy of exaggerated press coverage.

Irony: the Women of the Wall web page features a brief video of several women entering the nearby police station after their recent refusal to comply with the rules for prayer. They ignored the mezuzah on the doorframe. The only woman who touched it reverently was the policewoman.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author, most recently, of Against the Grain: A Historian’s Journey, published by Quid Pro Books.

6 Comments

  • moshe brodetzky

    before returning to L.A/.U.S.A. my wife& I joined a g roup led by R’Ariel= on a tour/pilgramege of the Temple Mount. We met one American woman who made Alyah 2o+ years ago from the midwest. She has been going-alone-every morning ATOP the TEMPLE MOUNT !!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Esther Sarah Evans

    b”H
    The last paragraph says it all.

  • Aharon Dovid Tuttle

    Having grown up “totally secular” in the insanely left-wing Bay Area, I’ve grown to become very disillusioned, even disgusted with this type of left-wing political activism. Aurora, I have only one word for your comments: AMEN!
    I would add only one thing. In all this discussion of rights, we’ve forgotten to ask: what does the TORAH (you know, our religious constitution) say about rights? As it turns out, NOTHING! Judaism has NOTHING to do with rights! It does have to do primarily with OBLIGATIONS, which as result, in many cases, create a type of right. I would suggest that the so-called “Women of the Wall” (not the REAL, holy women of the wall, who have been davening and saying tehillim with real yirat shamayim and tzniut for years) who have true religious (as opposed to political) inclinations focus on fulfilling the mitzvot in which they are OBLIGATED, instead of trying to make brazen and offensive political statements. Keep Judaism Jewish, not some bastard of Western values and pseudo-Torah.

  • Totally gratuitous – which is to say, unnecessarily nasty – comment about how Jewish women should try praying at Al-Aksa Mosque. Article has a nasty tone towards these women who certainly have a valid point – and a right to make that point.
    Typical of Algemeiner’s exceedingly narrow viewpoint on most things, I’m sorry to say. Pity…

  • Aurora Aronsson

    These women are just feminist political militants who could not care less about Torah-true Judaism, God and Israel.
    They are part of a MINUTE AND EXTREMIST CULT, part of the Tikkun crowd of Michael Lerner and the Americans for Peace Now of Chaim Seidler Feller, one in S.F., the other in L.A., where the “totally secular” Ms. Hoffman learnt her ways.
    BTW: since she’s totally secular, why is she bothering observant Jews IF NOT TO PROVOKE AND DISTURB THE PEACE IN ONE OF OUR HOLIEST SITES?

  • Aurora Aronsson

    Judaism IS NOT about equality at all, but about valuing the difference, about DIFFERENTIATION and at times even separation.
    We have been saying at the end of EVERY SHABBATH for thousands of years a very beautiful Berachà that is called HAVDALAH: differentiation, separation.
    We thank G-od for differences and separation.
    Levites are not equal to Cohanim.
    Cohanim are not equal to Israel.
    Levites are not equal to Israel.
    The Tribe of David is not equal to the other tribes: THEY ONLY can be kings.
    Women are NOT equal to men. EACH ONE HAS HIS/HER ROLE.
    I don’t need to do a circus act, and put tefillin or tallith, I don’t need to, ’cause I am AT A SUPERIOR LEVEL IN BINAH and DO NOT NEED TO DO THAT to perfect myself. Just like my husband doesn’t wear a sanitary napkin, a nappy, a tampon, just to feel equal.
    It is PLAIN STUPID AND in the case of the so-called Women OFF the Wall, just PROVOCATIVE.
    Those women who want to come once a month and do their circus, they were given an appropriate place to do it, NOT where THE LAW and OUR CUSTOMS do not allow it.
    The first people they do not respect are the OTHER WOMEN who are there EVERY DAY, not to demonstrate but to pray as they have done for thousands of years.
    Those unfortunate fruits of the Reform need to stop provoking: just like they would not go into the Vatican (lehavdil!) with skirts above their knee or sleeveless, and would not be allowed to, Jewish Holy places MUST be respected too.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Theater 10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    Last month, my one-man show Hoaxocaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey with the generous assistance of the Institute for Political and International Studies, Tehran ran in the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence Award. The play has now been selected to run in the Fringe Encores Series at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center, for four performances which started on Thursday, September 11. Getting the play to the stage was not easy, however. Here are [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Phenomenon: Tel Aviv-based musician and “sampler” extraordinaire, Kutiman (aka Ophir Kutiel) has hit another one out of the park with “Give It Up,” a fully-functioning song in its own right, assembled from hundreds of ameteur and instructional music videos. The Jerusalem-born musical prodigy is best know for his diverse online musical projects. In the latest video, uploaded to YouTube on Sept. 12th, Kutiel thanked most of the musicians and individuals he chose to include in the meticulously-edited clip, which opens with [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    A recently released behind-the-scenes reel of Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings shows just how far the director has gone to portray one of the Bible’s most famous narratives. In the clip, which shows scenes involving up to 4,000 extras, the visionary director discusses what drew him to the biblical tale of Moses. “The Moses story was a massive challenge, which I really love. I wanted to explore the complexity of his character and I was stunned by [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    JNS.org – Since 2006, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable and satellite TV network has hosted “The Projected Image,” a month-long showcase examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed on the big screen. At last, after previously covering African Americans, Asians, the LGBT community, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, and people with disabilities, the annual series is delving into Jewish film this month. “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” whose first segment aired Sept. 2, runs [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    The sight of young girls in pinafores and young boys wearing peyos – sidelocks – dangling over their ears is a sure sign that you have entered the enigmatic precincts of the Hasidim – the pious ones. Veteran New York Times journalist Joseph Berger’s new book, THE PIOUS ONES: The World of Hasidim and their Battles with America, takes the reader on a journey into the enclaves where various sects of Jews live a seemingly outmoded way of life in [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    JNS.org – Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle. Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics. “Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” says Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, published the year [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    JNS.org – Idan Ravin’s friends chipped in to buy him a humble but life-changing bar mitzvah gift—a basketball hoop his father attached to the roof of his garage. Little did his friends know that years later, he would be the personal trainer of National Basketball Association (NBA) stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Stephen Curry. Ravin’s new book, “The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Head of Basketball’s Best Players,” details his rise from a Jewish upbringing [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs 10 New Hollywood Movies That Aim to Show Support for Israel (SATIRE)

    10 New Hollywood Movies That Aim to Show Support for Israel (SATIRE)

    Ten major film studios are currently in production on projects that promote a decidedly pro-Israeli narrative. In famously liberal Hollywood, such a development has left mouths agape and set tongues a wagging. Since the Jewish State began defending itself from the thousands of rockets that Hamas has hurled at it – as well as ongoing terror attacks and murders, the overwhelming number of Tinseltown’s producers, directors, actors, and studio moguls have remained indifferent to the plight of millions of Israeli [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.