The group Women of the Wall have been called whores, lesbians, goyim, and much worse. Chairs have been thrown at them as they chant the morning prayers together. Soiled diapers are hurled over the mechitza in a strange display of contempt and disgust. One can only wonder to oneself, “Do the fervently Orthodox bring the soiled diapers with them on the bus to the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh? Or, are the dirtied diapers manufactured on the spot?”
The Surreal Treatment of the Women of the Wall in Israel: Where is the Outrage?
Moses L. Pava • Special to FailedMessiah.Com
It is surreal, even Kafkaesque. A group of mainly Orthodox women have been gathering together at the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest site, every month for the past twenty-two years. The sole purpose of these regular gatherings is to pray together as a community, to read from the Torah, and to sing praises to God. The group is known officially as the Women of the Wall.
These kinds of prayer groups, while controversial among the right wing of Orthodoxy, have become relatively commonplace in Modern Orthodox circles. In fact, in my own hometown of Springfield, MA, best known as the birthplace of basketball and almost never mentioned for its avant-garde and cutting-edge behavior, a women’s prayer group is scheduled for this coming Shabbat, at our own Modern Orthodox synagogue.
But religious women prayer groups that are ho-hum and business as usual in Orthodox circles in Springfield, MA provoke intense, visceral, and primitive reactions among the fervently religious in Jerusalem. Over the years, the Women of the Wall have been called whores, lesbians, goyim, and much worse (all available, by the way, for your perusal at Youtube.com). Chairs have been thrown at them as they chant the morning prayers together. Soiled diapers are hurled over the mechitza in a strange display of contempt and disgust. One can only wonder to oneself, “Do the fervently Orthodox bring the soiled diapers with them on the bus to the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh? Or, are the dirtied diapers manufactured on the spot?”
But, we haven’t gotten to the weird part of this story yet. Twice in the last year, leaders of Women of the Wall have been arrested by Jerusalem Police. While the details of these arrests are somewhat murky, it appears that the crime these women have been charged with is the dual offense of carrying a Torah at the Kotel and wearing a Tallit.
To the best of my knowledge, as of this writing, the Israeli government is still deliberating on whether or not to pursue police recommended charges against Anat Hoffman, Chairwoman of the Woman of the Wall, that carry a three-year sentence. Talk about blaming the victim! From an ethical point of view, this is nothing short of outrageous.
In response to this kind of systematic police harassment, more than 400 rabbis from around the world have signed a “Statement of Support of Women of the Wall.” According to a Jerusalem Post report, “The letter, co-authored by 28 rabbis, has also been signed by close to 500 other individuals and organizations from various Jewish denominations across the world. It was also sent to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.”
The letter, easily accessible online, asks the Police for protection as the women pray at the Kotel each Rosh Hodesh. “We call upon the government of Israel and its police forces and military to immediately institute and enforce a zero tolerance policy against attacking women in any way whatsoever…” In addition, it asks the government of Israel and its leaders to “find appropriate and safe venues at the Kotel for Jews who are not comfortable with women leading worship or holding the Torah, or reading from it to enjoy their practice of Judaism unhindered and physically separated from other designated portions of the Kotel where women are allowed to lead worship, wear, a tallit, wear tefillin, hold the Torah and read from the Torah.”
These requests are both understated and common-sense. First, protect female worshippers from harassment and physical harm – period. No ifs, ands, or buts. Second, allow everyone to pray in accordance to their custom and their understanding of Jewish law.
To the extent that Israel’s claim to the Temple Mount area is a legitimate one, as I believe wholeheartedly that it is, Israel must find a way to promote religious toleration and diversity -- not as a matter of political expediency, but as a matter of political and religious principle . In a Jewish democracy, at an absolute minimum, there must exist a degree of religious freedom broad enough to encompass the right of halachically-sanctioned women’s prayer groups to gather together monthly at the Kotel.
For those who otherwise might support the Women of the Wall to abandon them now on the grounds that some of its members and leaders are not Orthodox is a grave error in judgment. Groups like the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, better known as JOFA, should send an unambiguous and public signal of strong support to its Israeli sisters.( My repeated attempts to contact JOFA for this piece have gone unanswered.) Modern Orthodox Rabbis, who have taken courageous steps in recent months in supporting increased toleration for homosexuals in the Orthodox community, must step up to the plate again and voice their affirmative halakhic opinions on women’s prayer groups.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, an Orthodox Rabbi who serves as spiritual leader of Ohev Shalom – The National Synagogue in Washington DC, told the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren that “If a Jew had been arrested for wearing a prayer shawl in any other country…there would be outrage…” I ask, where is the outrage, especially among the Modern Orthodox feminist leaders and Rabbinate?
On Hanukah, each year, we recall the martyrdom of Hannah and her seven sons who died in order to exercise their religious beliefs and principles. Tonight, as we light the seventh candle, memorializing the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago, let us take a brief moment to bracket our joy and to contemplate the unbearable irony of re-gained Jewish sovereignty of Jerusalem and the arrest of Jewish women by Jewish policemen for holding a Torah there.
Moses Pava is the Alvin Einbender Professor of Business Ethics at Yeshiva University.