A well-known and well-respected member of the Reform Jewish commmunity comes to your Orthodox synagogue in Toronto. From the women’s side of the mechitzah, she says the Shema out loud. She is promptly and publicly arrested by police officers paid by the Canadian government. She’s thrown in a Toronto jail, strip-searched and placed in a cell with prostitutes and thieves.
The Toronto Jewish community and the Canadian government claim she “asked for it” and deserved to be arrested and punished. Pray out loud? Clearly a provocation. Your rabbi publishes an article saying she only did it for the publicity.
Is this scenario possible? It happened at the Kotel when Anat Hoffman, executive director of Israel Religious Action Centre and respected member of the Reform community in Jerusalem, was arrested for saying the Shema out loud at the monthly Rosh Chodesh service of Women of the Wall, a group of Orthodox, Reform and Conservative women who gather each month to do something any other Jew might do – pray at the Wall. But they infuriate people because some wear tallitot, although they’re “hidden” so as not to arouse the authorities, and they pray as a group. Called every despicable name – Amalek, Nazis, whores – by men on the other side, sometimes ducking chairs being thrown over the holy Wall at them, they continue to sing Hallel.
Israel’s response? A group of Reform rabbis from across Canada met with a highly placed Israeli official in Ottawa earlier this month, and when we asked for an investigation of the incident, the official explained condescendingly that Hoffman was “disrespectful” and “a provocateur,” and the incident is minor and unimportant. The official is a secular Jew and suggested that we need to “understand” that “Israel is an Orthodox country.” I always thought Israel was a Jewish country.
As letters to the editor in this newspaper pointed out, the story of her arrest appeared in the back of the paper the same week the front-page story carried blessings from the rabbi of the Kotel, saying, “Every Jewish child should have his bar mitzvah at the Kotel.” Every Jewish child? Including your daughter? Or does the word Jew not include women? Decrying the “incident” in an article last week –not Hofffman’s arrest, mind you, but her praying out loud – he repeated the tired canard that women who pray this way at the Kotel are doing it only for show, as a political demonstration.
Does he look into the heart and motivation of every tourist, Jewish and non-Jewish, who disgorges from their bus for an instant to “pray” at the Wall? Does he ask each secular Israeli bar mitzvah kid marched down to the Kotel with trumpets and drums whether it’s a show? Or only those Jewish women who awake at 6 a.m. each and every month to pray at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh?
The Kotel is officially an Orthodox synagogue, the only ancient site in Israel to be declared as such – a response to Women of the Wall’s request to pray with tallitot there. But even if we accept that, I have donned my tallit at many Orthodox synagogues in the Diaspora, and never once have I been afraid of being arrested. I might be politely asked to remove it, or stared at, or even given dirty looks, though mostly I have encountered only polite inquiries. I don’t expect to be thrown in jail.
The alternatives? 1. Remove the Kotel’s “religious” designation, release it from the hold of the rabbinate (and the state-funded rabbi of the Wall) and declare it a public site under the Ministry of Antiquities, like any other ancient site in Israel, be it Masada, Tzippori, Beit Shean, etc. Once it’s a non-religious site, disallow any minyan of any denomination to pray there. 2. Declare it a religious site for all Jews, not an Orthodox synagogue, and allow non-Orthodox Jews to have their minyanim there as they wish. That’s called democracy. 3. Declare it a trans-denominational synagogue and share the space daily: Sunday for Orthodox prayers, Monday Conservative, Tuesday Reform, and so on. Kind of like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which houses many Christian denominations, all of which schedule their particular sect’s services at different times. You don’t like one way of davening? Don’t come on that day.
Or, keep on arresting Jews who go there to pray with sincerity, but happen to be women.