Saturday January 16th, 2010 1 Shevat 5770
Rabbi Stephen Wise
Many of you probably heard the recent news out of Jerusalem, that a woman was arrested by Jerusalem police at the Western Wall, the Kotel, one of our most sacred sites in all of Israel. What was her crime? Publicly wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl traditionally worn by men.
Nofrat Frankel, the woman arrested, was participating in the Rosh Chodesh (first of the month) prayer service organized by the Women of the Wall.
Since 1988, this group has convened monthly on the women’s side of the Kotel to read from a Torah scroll, pray, and sing out loud.
Traditional Judaism does not accept these practices, and as Dr. Phyllis Chesler, one of the group’s founders writes, “Women have always prayed at the Kotel, often silently, and alone. What made this service radically different, certainly transcendent, was that we not only prayed aloud but we also chanted from the Torah.”
Ironically, the one place in the world where women cannot pray with tallit without fear of abuse – its not Iran or China…it is the Kotel. In the past they have had chairs thrown at them, verbal assaults, even human feces.
Women at the wall are not a political group aimed to upset people. Rather the opposite is true. The group gathered the first time in 1988 following a women’s conference in Jerusalem. Facing the beginning of the first Intifada, a small group of women walked together to the wall and began to pray together, and hope for peace. An Orthodox man, watching the women pray, grabbed a can of tear gas from a police officer and threw it at them. Out of that experience, women who came monthly to pray began calling themselves, the women of the wall. The Kotel is the most significant place to pray to God, for centuries. For generations people have come to the wall to put their prayers in the stones. Commemorative events are held there, Israel army paratroopers are sworn in there, Tisha B’av memorials, Yom Hazikaron, all are held at this sacred site. Shouldn’t every Jew have a chance to pray there, and feel the power of history and God at that spot?
Yet there is a law in Israel, which says that at the women’s side of the wall, no ceremony shall be held, including reading from the Torah scroll, blowing the shofar, wearing tallit or t’filin. Violators shall be imprisoned for 7 YEARS. 7 Years for wearing a tallit. In Israel. It’s almost hard to believe.
What the women of the wall want, is equal civil rights at the wall. Nofrat Frenkel was recently interviewed and talked about how she wore tallit since she was 15 to pray at home. She said, “After leaving the army, I began to visit the Kotel every Rosh Hodesh. The atmosphere at the Kotel, the feeling that all those women praying around me were also turning to God and pouring out their hearts to Him, inspires me with the joy of Jewish fraternity. Here is one place in which, shoulder to shoulder, all the hearts are calling to God. Prayer at the Kotel is so different from private prayer at home, or from communal prayer at the synagogue. It is a mixed creation: I am in a communal place, with many worshippers, but not even one voice can be heard. Just soft murmurings, choked crying, mute requests.”
The sad part is that every month, the response of men and women at the Kotel was never a serene blessing, rather curses flew in Hebrew and Yiddish, venomous treatment toward her and her tallit, and speculation regarding her gender and religion: “A man in the women’s section!” “He’s not even Jewish!” “Perhaps she’s dressed up for Purim?”
How can we pray for the building of the Temple when the people are not ready for it? When someone performing a biblical mitzvah is derided and ridiculed? The issue, of course, has two sides. The Supreme Court, in trying to find a balance between the religious sensibilities of everyone at the wall, tried to find some middle ground. The Kotel is the western wall, but the wall keeps going. After Israel captured the Kotel Plaza in 1967, they immediately began excavating further down the wall. It extended out double the length of the existing wall area, and then they hit the corner. They excavated the southern wall and discovered the steps that the ancient Israelites would ascend to worship god in Temple times. The court’s compromise to its credit, was to permit public prayer of mixed sexes or women alone, complete with Torah reading, at either the excavated western wall area beyond the original plaza as well as the southern steps. Non-orthodox gatherings especially bar and bat mitzvah, take place at one of these locations, which indeed are still as holy and as beautiful. In fact it’s sometimes even more pleasant without the crowds and the potential for insults and abuse. It was a compromise, and usually that means each group has to give up something, and that was what happened.
Yet there is something profoundly sad about being pushed out of the Kotel plaza.
To be allocated a spot away from the main Kotel plaza, a place for second-class citizens, reminds me of a ghetto. There we egalitarian Jews can pray without, God forbid, forcing the offended public to be exposed to the brutal sight of women performing the mitzvahs of tzitzit and reading the Torah.
On the particular morning in question, Rosh Hodesh Kislev, November 18 2009, was a cold Jerusalem morning. They stood, 42 Women of the Wall, and prayed in the women’s section, in the Kotel plaza. Tallitot were hidden under coats; the Sefer Torah in its regular bag. There was no booing, no pushing, and no shouting. The service passed off without any disturbance, perhaps, people had already become accustomed to the women’s presence and perhaps the time had come to read from the Torah, opposite the stones of the Kotel. But, just moments after the Sefer Torah came out from its bag; two men entered the women’s section and began the abuse. The women quickly decided to forgo the Torah reading there and go, as on every other Rosh Hodesh, to read the Torah at the alternative site. As they were exiting, carrying the Torah, a policeman met the group and forced Norah, who was carrying the scroll, toward the nearby police station. The pleas and explanations that they were on their way to the alternative site were of no use.
Norah was transferred for questioning to the station at David’s Citadel, wearing her tallit, siddur and a Sefer Torah in her hands, a modern day Deborah the prophet. In her interrogation, she was asked why she was praying with a tallit when she knew that this was against the Law of the Holy Places (1967).
She replied simply, “I am an Israel Defence Forces officer, a law-abiding citizen, a volunteer for the Civil Guard — I have never incurred even a parking fine — and the idea of having broken the law was most trying. Nevertheless, I cannot allow my basic right to freedom of religious worship to be trampled because of a court ruling given years ago”.
Would this law be accepted today? Have we come to a point where we might have the audacity to proclaim that the Kotel belongs to all the people of Israel, men and women? The Kotel is not a Haredi synagogue, and the Women of the Wall and the reform movement in Israel, will not allow it to become such.
It seemed the issue had died down but just two weeks ago, Anat Hoffman, founder of Women of the Wall and director of the Israel Religious Action Center, said that police interrogated her for more than an hour on January 5 about her activities during Women of the Wall’s last monthly service in December. Hoffman said she did nothing differently that day than she had for the 21 years of her group’s existence. There is a sense among the women in the organization that the Israeli authorities are stepping up their surveillance and intimidation of activities that challenge the ultra-Orthodox control of the holy site.
“It’s a sad moment,” said Hoffman. She has gone to the police station in Jerusalem many times to lodge complaints against people who she says have attacked and occasionally physically hurt members of her group; none of those people have ever been arrested, she said. But this is the first time that she has been subject to interrogation herself. A skilful advocate, she said that the questioning did not bother her, but the fingerprinting did. “There is something very violating about it,” she said. In interviews she holds up the finger, still covered in black ink, her scarlet letter.
These outrages cannot be ignored by Jews in Israel and around the world and especially here in North America. It must be viewed for it is: another chapter in the ongoing struggle to determine whether Judaism’s most sacred site will belong only to a distinct, intolerant minority or whether it can truly welcome all the Jewish people.
There’s a legitimate question as to how far we can and should go in challenging the Israeli government on internal matters of defence or national security, but this is different. The Kotel is not just another shul to be avoided for the more hospitable one around the corner. It is the iconic national, spiritual, religious heartbeat of the Jewish people, the destination of our prayers, and the symbol of our survival. It cannot become the sole province of the ultra-Orthodox. In the last couple of years, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which answers directly to the prime minister’s office, has reduced the area allowed for female worshippers, by raising the height of the mechitza and moving it farther south.
The awe-inspiring, radiant entrance to the Wall has been turned into the foyer of a Haredi synagogue.
Meanwhile the southern steps space is overwhelmed by demand, in 2009, there were more than 450 services held there. Those services are supposed to end by 10:30 every weekday morning; if they run into over-time, as they often do because of overcrowding, the participants must pay 30 shekels a person just to occupy the space. Does anyone else pay at the Kotel?
We who care about maintaining an egalitarian, pluralistic presence in Jerusalem must do something. We must stand behind and with the brave consistency of the Women of the Wall, who have congregated at the Kotel every month for more than two decades, despite assaults from Haredim and, increasingly, from the government of Israel. We must petition our consul general and ambassador to demand action and petitions are online through ARZA Canada. Write letters call your friends or family in Israel; write a letter to the editor of the CJN or Israeli press. Let your thoughts be knows. Amir Gissin, our Israeli Consul General was here Wednesday. He knew this was an important issue because I had sent him multiple letters about it and he said it caused a stir in the Consulate.
Jerusalem is the city of holiness and justice for all humankind. From Zion, the voice calling for equality should be heard, for boundless love, for better understanding between people. Jerusalem was destroyed in Temple ties, due to unfounded hatred. Let us hope it will not happen again.