The Western Wall : Sacred and Political – by Ayala Emmett

The Western Wall : Sacred and Political
Ayala Emmett

On January 30, a brutally freezing weather, Anat Hoffman spoke to a packed sanctuary at Temple B’rith Kodesh and thanked the audience for coming out on a cold evening. She made jokes about the weather, but Rochester people are hardy folks who are used to weather jokes and laughed when Anat asked how they could actually live in subzero temperatures.

To most of her audience Anat Hoffman was a well-known Israeli leader, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and one of the founders and leaders of Women of the Wall, also known as women of the Kotel. The Kotel, an outer wall of the Second Temple, has been sacred space for Jews for centuries and under Israel’s state authority since 1967. Anat Hoffman has been engaged in a long struggle to give women their right to pray, using their prayer shawls and reading from the Torah Scholl on Rosh Hodesh, the new month at the Western Wall.

It would be easy to assume that in the struggle for women’s ritual equality, which began in 1988, Hoffman would see the ultra-Orthodox, Haredi community as the opponent, since its members have repeatedly used physical and verbal violence against Women of the Wall. If that were the case, the Kotel debate could be read as an intra-religious struggle between Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

In her talk in Rochester, Hoffman framed the struggle for women’s ritual equality at the Western Wall from her position as a citizen of the state of Israel, and the struggle as a state matter, since it is the state that has primary authority of the Kotel, a civic power that it transferred to a religious authority. The state owns and supports all Western Wall activities; it appointed the Kotel’s chief rabbi, giving him complete authority on ALL decisions and financially supporting him and The Western Wall Foundation, of which the rabbi is the chair; the state uses its resources to cover all the expenses of maintaining the Western Wall and ensuring its security.

Hoffman and the Women of the Wall challenge the state for giving full authority to the Kotel’s rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who represents a Haredi view of the non-egalitarian roles of women in rituals; but, from Hoffman’s perspective, the issue is not the rabbi’s exclusionary views as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, but his power as the sole government decider, to deny ritual rights to the women at the Kotel. Hoffman states that like all streams of contemporary Judaism, ultra-Orthodox Jews have a right to their view, but in the case of Rabbi Rabinowitz, her objection is not to his religious views on the custom of the separation of women in accordance with Orthodox minhag that emerged after 1967, but to his role as the representative of the state, which gives him the power to deny ritual equality to Women of the Wall.

For those unfamiliar with Women of the Wall, it could be easy to conjure up a monolithic stereotype of non-orthodox, Conservative and Reform women; the group, however, displays Jewish pluralism in its contemporary worldwide complexity. The Women of the Wall who claim ritual equality, wearing a tallit and reading from Torah at the Kotel defy conventional boundaries between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities and expose the consequences of the overlapping of state power and religious rabbinic authority.

Anat Hoffman’s framing the struggle in civic terms draws on the group’s historic position. In their book, subtitled “Claiming Sacred Ground At Judaism’s Holy Site” the Kotel women say, “We, THE WOMEN OF THE WALL, are engaged in a lawsuit against the State of Israel and the Ministry of Religion and in a grassroots struggle on behalf of Jewish women’s religious rights…We do not want our readers to think that we are anti-Israel or anti-religious Judaism. On the contrary. Most of us are quite religious. We are also feminists who are committed to tolerance, modernity, and democracy. We are also Zionists who dearly love the State of Israel. We want Israel to fulfill its potential as a haven for the Jews of the world, so that all, including Jewish women, may find in Israel a true spiritual home, a holy place where all who wish may approach God and pray in peace” [Women of the Wall2003:xiii].

Women of the Wall make it clear that their struggle, for women’s ritual participation is not a religious halakhic dispute, but a civic claim, “These activities are all prohibited to women by Israeli law but not- and this is critically important-by Halakhah. Although women are not obligated to perform such religious acts, under many Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law they are also not prohibited from doing so. In fact in most modern Orthodox communities throughout the world (e.g. the United States, Israel, England, Canada Australia, and Sweden,) Orthodox women regularly gather in women-only groups in which they perform exactly the same activities that are currently prohibited to women in Israel at the Wall. [Chesler and Haut, 2003:xxvii]

Over the years Women of Wall displayed different aspects of contemporary Jewish pluralism, of shifting boundaries between religious and secular Israelis who do not see themselves as devout Jews and unlike non-Orthodox American Jews, don’t attend synagogues. Many secular Israeli Jewish feminists have in the past refused to support the Kotel women, viewing women’s religious affiliation and gender equality as an oxymoron, since religion is seen by some as inherently oppressive to women.

Yet, relations between secular and devout Jews are dynamic and changing and on March 2013, three secular women, Members of Knesset, Stav Shaffir (Labor), Michal Rozin (Meretz) and Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) joined the women’s Rosh Hodesh (new month) minyan.
“I usually do not wear a tallit, but it is my honor and duty to stand here and protect the rights of all Jews from around the world to pray as they desire and believe,” Shaffir said later in the morning. “For over 24 years, the Women of the Wall pray every Rosh Hodesh at the Western Wall. For years they have been harassed and arrested because they choose to pray as women there. This morning, after a week of threats in the Orthodox media, I joined them. At first the police tried to block our entrance claiming we would disturb the peace. But there is nothing that one hundred women armed with tallitot cannot accomplish.” [Times of Israel]

Similarly, Orthodox feminists who in the past refrained from supporting the Kotel women have crossed the divide. Rachel Keren, an Orthodox feminist recognizes that for a long time Orthodox feminists saw Women of the Wall as a concern of Conservative and Reform Jews; but that has changed. Keren states that there are no obvious prohibition on women’s ritual participation and adds, “as a matter of principle, nobody has the right to judge anyone else about how they conduct themselves before God.” [Haaretz]

The Rochester audience that came to hear Anat Hoffman on January 30 clearly admired her; people cheered and gave her a standing ovation. Hoffman asked the audience to act, to get in touch with Israeli politicians saying that her fight for equality was also a Jewish American fight for religious equality in Israel. She invited the audience to ask questions, yet people did not ask how they could be involved. Since her visit, I talked to people who heard her talk and some agreed that while they admired her, and supported her efforts they were not sure that would get actively involved. They phrased their reluctance as, “I support the Women of the Wall. But I don’t live there, and I don’t feel that I have a right to act.”

However, Temple Brith Kodesh made a public statement of support for the Women of the Wall on their web site. The web explicitly addresses both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz as the state’s Kotel authority. They appeal to Israeli leaders on the ground of contemporary pluralism in Judaism, “We ask you to open your eyes and see what is ordinary every place else in the world: women embracing Torah, reading from the Torah, rejoicing with the Torah and learning from the Torah. We ask that you see and be blind no more to the injustice of religious oppression” [Temple B’rith Kodesh].

How do we understand both a reluctance on the part of supporters of Hoffman to be active, and a congregation’s public appeal to the state leadership, which included Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and the speaker of the Knesset?

Citizenship, the ground for Anat Hoffman and the Women of Wall case for equality at the Kotel, is a civic struggle with the state. The conundrum for devout Jewish Americans is how to move between support for religious pluralism and a reluctance to come out against the state of Israel excluding women at the Kotel. Citizenship (American) and religious pluralism as Jewish Americans are accustomed to practice that includes women’s ritual equality has not be easily negotiated. This reluctance has seen a change in recent years with many public prayers, and public letters to Israel’s prime minister and other state leaders including Justice Minister Livni.

The public support for Women of the Wall is shaped in religious terms, by rabbis, congregants, and in public prayers. The following two examples illuminate the religious shaping of the support for women’s ritual equality. Rabbi Jason Miller has taken the Women of the Wall struggle out of the called, “women’s business,” to see it for it is, a Jewish concern. “Empathy is never easy. As a man, I confess that I have struggled to be empathetic to the cause of the Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel).”

The change happened when Rabbi Miller witnessed the arrest of two of his female colleagues at the Kotel, “I turned around and saw two of my friends and fellow rabbis were being escorted away from the Kotel Plaza by a police officer. Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Rabbi Debra Cantor called me over as they were walking behind a female police officer. They told me that she had taken their passports and was going to detain them at the police station. Robyn asked if I would stay with them for as long as I could because they didn’t know what was going to happen. Immediately, I began to feel concern for them. The officer wasn’t saying anything and wouldn’t explain where they were going. I was still wearing my tallit and tefillin and feeling guilty that my colleagues were getting in trouble for something that I take for granted.”[Huffington Post]

In May 2013 there was a public prayer service in New York City led by women rabbis in solidarity with Israel’s Women of the Wall, “The same group of women held a Conservative service last month, while the one this morning was led by reform rabbis. The next service will be in the Orthodox tradition. [Cantor] Postman explained that this pluralistic model of support for the Women of the Wall in Israel is meant to show that tolerance and pluralism is possible.” [Tablet Magazine]

The construction of support for Women of the Wall is shaped by a devout contemporary world Judaism that respects women’s equality in ritual at what supporters and Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz regard as a sacred place. These public supporters are appealing to Israel’s political leaders for inclusive pluralist Judaism.