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.

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