Seeing women wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively is no longer an unusual sight in the Jewish world outside of Israel. Even in the Orthodox world, an increasing number of “modern Orthodox” congregations are finding ways to accommodate the religious stirrings of the women in their midst. In Israel, however, the sight is rare indeed, because the religious establishment in Israel is under the control of, essentially, one approach to Jewish observance, namely, the haredi way.
That is why in 1988, a group of women came together to form Women of the Wall. Their central mission was then and remains today to achieve in Israel what is becoming more commonplace throughout the rest of the Jewish world: the right “to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” They assemble at the Wall each Rosh Chodesh to do so.
On June 4, 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court confirmed that the group had a legal right to pray at the Western Wall. The government was required to designate a special place for such prayer at Robinson’s Arch, near the southernmost point of the Wall. The group’s right however did not allow causing offence to other worshippers. This was interpreted to mean praying without wearing tfllin or a tallit, as that would surely cause offence to some of the men – and, it must also be added, to some of the women as well – ostensibly in the midst of their own prayers somewhere else at the Wall. Last week, on Rosh Chodesh, Anat Hoffman, the executive director of Women of the Wall, was arrested while leading prayer services at the wall “for disturbing public order,” i.e., for wearing a tallit and raising her voice high in prayer. Hoffman alleges that her treatment in custody included a naked strip search and being “dragged on the floor 15 metres.”
Setting aside for the moment the issue of the women’s right to collective prayer, including wearing the tallit, if Hoffman’s allegations are true, there can be no justification whatsoever for such outrageous and abusive treatment by the police.
One cannot complain of Women of the Wall that their purpose of changing the “religious” status quo at the Wall is overtly political and not really religious. For it is indeed the political system that vests such complete authority in the hands of a group that is utterly inimical to other, different ways of expressing Jewish ritual.
The penultimate paragraph of Israel’s Declaration of Independence is an “appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz Israel in the tasks of immigration and up-building.”
Having summoned the Jews of the world – presumably in all our wide diversity – to Eretz Israel, how can Israel – some 65 years later – still refuse to accommodate the legitimate, sincere, and deeply held religious diversity of the Jews to whom the country directed that appeal?
Reform Jewry’s leaders in the United States have called for an investigation into the police’s treatment of Hoffman.
We support that call.