President Obama is now set to visit Israel in March. I’m sure he has a busy itinerary filled with many important meetings with many important people. Yet, in my dreams, I like to imagine that he would have an opportunity to sit down with a particularly important person: Anat Hoffman, of the Israel Religious Action Center, and chairwoman of Women of the Wall.
Each Rosh Chodesh (New Month), for 24 years, women have gone to the Western Wall to celebrate with prayer, song, and Torah reading. Unfortunately, current laws at the Wall prohibit women from singing out loud (due to a law called “Kol Isha,” which finds a woman’s singing voice to be too distracting and sexually enticing to men who are obligated to pray). In 2003, the Israeli Supreme Court held up a government ban on women wearing tallitot or tefillin, or reading a Torah scroll at the Western Wall. They are also not allowed to wear Tallitot (prayer shawls), as some traditional thinkers believe that a Tallit is classified as men’s garb, and thus inappropriate to be worn by women. These actions, commonplace for so many liberal Jews in America, are thus considered criminal in Israel. For too many times over the past months, women were arrested on each Rosh Chodesh for “disturbing public order.”
In some ways, these arrests have become sadly routine. Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, of Queens, was arrested at the most recent Rosh Chodesh gathering, and she wrote in a recent article: “After some time, the officers brought us tea and we began to chit chat with them. I asked one of them if he liked to babysit women who don’t actually commit crimes, and he responded that he did it every month. The sense that I got was that these officers go through this processing routine every month, and they too think it is ridiculous. But, they have a job to do.”
In October, Hoffman experienced her worst arrest, which she describes in a recent article in Haaretz: “The night I spent in jail was truly awful, and I won’t hide the fact that I came out of there scarred. Mostly because I had the feeling that the person who arrested me [on October 17, 2012] really enjoyed it. I could feel that. I was bound and given a body search. The worst thing was that when I was naked in front of the policewoman, she puts on a latex glove. Now, I saw “Midnight Express” [movie set in a Turkish prison]. You know what? Forget “Midnight Express.” Every woman knows that when she is naked and someone in the room puts on a latex glove, she knows what is about to happen.”
Last month, in response to growing pressure from liberal and progressive Jews around the world, Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed Natan Sharansky the task of evaluating the situation at the Western Wall. This hinted that change may indeed be on the horizon.
Just a few days ago, we entered the Hebrew month of Adar, which is a time of happiness as we approach the festival of Purim. And, at first, those of us who support the goings-on of the Women of the Wall thought that we would have much to truly feel happy about. For much of the event, there were no arrests. Rabbi Bodzin shared, “At 7 am, I joined hundreds of women as we opened our prayerbooks and began with the opening blessings. Behind us and beside us, on the other side of the mechitza, were a combination of male supporters and photographers.” It was the largest gathering ever in support of these men and women who enjoy praying together at the Wall in celebration of the new month. The police stood nearby, but no one approached the praying group. Most notably, among the men who were there in support of the women was a group of national heroes, the six paratroopers who liberated the Western Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. As Haaretz noted, “These Israeli heroes overwhelmingly agree that they must stand with Women of the Wall, as we continue to liberate the Kotel,” Women of the Wall announced on its Facebook page.”
After the short event concluded, and the paratroopers left, and the crowd dispersed, the police then began to detain those who remained. Rabbi Bodzin described what happened next: “Throughout the morning, we were taken into the interrogation room one at a time. While I was asked numerous questions, I also requested that the lovely Druze police officer answer some of my questions as well. It was important to me to know why I was there. He responded to me that my two crimes were that I violated the regulations of holy places and that I behaved in a way that may violate public safety. It might not have been the right thing to do, but I laughed when he said that. How was it that only ten out of hundreds of women were violating public safety? What was going to happen? We were not picketing or demonstrating; we were praying to God. It still makes no sense to me.”
In my core, I believe there is still more needed in order for the Kotel to fully be “liberated.” Men and women must be able to pray equally. Women must be allowed to sing out their joy at arriving at such a holy, special site in the collective Jewish experience. As a Slate article shared, “There are men here who have come to believe that this isn’t just a women’s issue, and Israelis who no longer believe this is just a diaspora issue. There are religious Jews here who are no longer persuaded that this is about liberal Judaism, and secular Jews who don’t see this as solely about religious freedom. This is about religious authority in Israel, and how it’s expressed. This is how change begins.”
I must have hope that change will indeed come. That my experience as a Reform Jewish woman, and as a woman rabbi, and as a human being, is valued and valid. In the inspiring words of Cantor Shiya Ribowsky from Israel Center for Conservative Judaism,I believe a nation that demands a daughter don an army uniform but arrests her for wearing a tallit has more soul searching to do.
I believe millions of decent fair minded Jews the world over, stand with you and stand against a self righteous pretend Judaism that would see you arrested for practicing your religion.
I believe Jews who measure their level of religious observance by oppressing others have missed the point.
I believe the Masorti Movement’s role in Judaism is to make this point.
I believe Israel needs to worry when Russia exhibits a greater level of religious tolerance.
I believe a Jewish nation that consumes more bacon than lox and arrests women for praying has some soul searching to do.
I believe Rashi’s daughter wore a tallit when she put on teffilin!
I believe Rebbeinu Tam would have ruled that a woman arrested for wearing a tallit is obligated to make a Shechayanu.
I believe resistance to the egalitarian practice of Judaism is founded not in religious doctrine but rather in Sinat Chinum.
I believe that Moshiach does not tarry because a woman wears a tallit but will tarry because of Sinat Chinum.