This Hannukah, fighting for freedom at the Western Wall
When women are detained by police for wearing prayer shawls at the Jewish holy site, it is time for us to step up the fight for religious pluralism.
Hannukah is a time when we commemorate the Maccabees, who fought for religious freedom. This morning, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I felt like a Maccabee. At 7 A.M. I stood with 50 men and 88 women, who came together to pray at the Western Wall. The event was organized by the Women of the Wall, a group that fights for religious equality for all Jews in Israel. We numbered 138 people, including Israelis, tourists and a group of 18-year-old Jews from Netzer, the Reform Movement’s international youth group.
We began to move through security. All of us wore our prayer shawls and carried our prayer books. There were rumors: No women permitted to bring prayer books or prayer shawls today! Contrary to rumor, prayer books were permitted – but for the first time, no prayer shawls. A decree had been issued – illegally, randomly – that women could not have prayer shawls today. Security began to confiscate them. Some men walked in with prayer shawls. Most women had theirs removed.
There is no law in Judaism against a woman wearing a prayer shawl. If anything, the law from Torah (Numbers 15:38) is: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations…”
We gathered quietly at the rear of the Western Wall to pray. One woman came over to me and asked quietly, “May I stand with you and pray? I wanted to wear my prayer shawl, but I’m afraid.”
Two police officers walked over. One said in Hebrew, “You are not allowed to wear the prayer shawl.” Pretending, I said politely in English, “Excuse me, I do not understand.” (I did this because I am not Israeli, and wanted to be clear throughout that I am a Jew. The Western Wall is the universal site of prayer for all Jews. I wanted the police to realize that all of us are Jews; all of us in that holy site are equally religious before God in our prayers).
A police officer who spoke English said, “You are not allowed to wear this.” “Why?” I asked. “It’s against the law,” She said “It is not against the law,” I replied. You cannot wear it. You’ll have to come with me.” I moved with her. “I don’t understand,” I said. “What am I doing wrong?” “You might disturb the public peace,” she said.
“I don’t understand. Am I not part of the public?”
The police officer did not respond. I realized three other women were being taken, too. They brought us inside the police station. We sat quietly, until one by one, we were brought in “for investigation.” I understood from the Women of the Wall’s attorney that I was to sign nothing and agree to nothing. The “interrogator” asked if I knew why I was there. I said, “No.” She said, “You are not being arrested; you are being detained. You have broken a law; do you know that?” I asked, “What law have I broken? Wearing a prayer shawl is not against the law, Jewish or Israeli.” She told me that if I did not sign, I could be arrested. I knew this was not true, so I signed nothing.
The officer continued. “Do you wear a prayer shawl at the Kotel?” “Yes, when I pray here.” “Do you wear a prayer shawl only at the Kotel?” she asked. “No, I wear a prayer shawl whenever I pray,” I responded. Over and over she asked me this, and I repeated, “I wear a prayer shawl whenever I pray.”
She told me I was not allowed to come to the Western Wall for 15 days. I knew this was also against the law since I had done nothing wrong. She warned me that if I came to the Western Wall and was recognized, I could be arrested and fined 700 dollars. I said nothing. And with nothing to charge me with, she said, “You are free to go.”
I walked out of the police station, and was immediately embraced by about 20 members of Women of the Wall. And so, it seems, this was an important morning. A Maccabee morning. But the fight doesn’t end today. We must all make it a priority to fight for religious pluralism in Israel, not just at the Western Wall, but everywhere.
Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the senior rabbi of the 165-year-old Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, NJ, the oldest synagogue in New Jersey. Ordained in 1981, she is the editor of the Reform Movement’s prayerbook, Mishkan Tefila, used in over 700 North American congregations.