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December 30, 2012 7:25 pm

Wailing at the Western Wall

avatar by Jerold Auerbach

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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.

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