Closing in on Women at the Wall

The arrest of a leading Reform rabbi last week raised a tempest among American Jews, and regulations at the Kotel plaza reached a nadir: banning women from wearing a tallit.

After a period of calm, the past six months have witnessed a genuine escalation in tensions between women who come to pray at the Western Wall and the Wall’s chief rabbi and police. Last Friday, members of the group Women of the Wall were arrested in the third such incident in three months. Among those arrested was Rabbi Elyse Frishman, a well-known American Reform Jewish leader and the editor of the Reform Movement’s prayer book. That raised a tempest among American Jews.  
For the past few months at Rosh Hodesh, the start of every Hebrew month, women worshipers have been forcibly removed from the square and taken for questioning, and sometimes even arrested. Their crime: use of a tallit, prayer shawl, or a siddur, prayer book, or singing aloud in the Western Wall plaza. The arrests point to a significant tightening of the limitations placed upon women’s prayer at the Wall.  

Over the years, the Women of the Wall worked out various arrangements that enabled them to conduct their services; for instance, for a long time they were allowed to wear tallitot so long as they did not look like the traditional black-and-white prayer shawl. This led to the development of a colorful women’s tallit that became a symbol of the Women of the Wall.

Later, the police stiffened the rules and ordered the women to wear the tallit as a scarf around their necks and not to drape it across their shoulders in the traditional fashion.

Last week, a new order stipulated that women cannot enter the Western Wall plaza holding either a tallit or a siddur. For the women, this restriction was too much; some refused to relinquish their tallitot or remove them from their shoulders. Little by little, these orders seem to have metaphorically cut away at the women’s tallit, with the intention of making it disappear.

Every Rosh Hodesh

For 24 years, members of the women’s group have regularly arrived at the wall on Rosh Hodesh to conduct morning shaharit prayers and to read from the Torah. Anat Hoffman, the organization’s chairwoman, has participated in these events from their inception. “Back then, there was a group that came from abroad for a conference on empowering women in Judaism, and I had no intention of going to the Western Wall with what appeared to be delusional American women. But they didn’t have a folding stand upon which to put a Torah, and I had such a stand, so I went [with them]. That day I saw them take blows. The ultra-Orthodox understood what this was about from the start. Since then, we decided to go every month.”

Women of the Wall is composed of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox women. Hoffman estimates that half of the women are Orthodox. After years of discussion, the women managed to craft together a siddur acceptable to all streams. Several dozen women arrive at the square each Rosh Hodesh, where the ceremony is divided into two parts. Group members say the shaharit prayers in the women’s area, and then they walk to the southern part of the Western Wall, under Robinson’s Arch in the Davidson archaeological park, in order to perform the second part – Torah reading. The route is dictated by the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has ruled that Torah scrolls from outside cannot be brought into the plaza. It goes without saying that the women’s request to read from one of the many scrolls stored in the plaza is flatly rejected. In recent months, group members have forgone Torah reading; instead, they have demonstrated in front of the area’s Kishle police station, to show solidarity with the women who are detained inside.

The subject of freedom of worship for women at the Western Wall has engaged dozens of lawyers and judges, and filled thousands of pages of legal texts. An analysis of the state’s responses to court petitions indicates that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the state body responsible for affairs at the Western Wall plaza, is troubled by three things: the wearing of tallitot, the use of Torah scrolls and women singing. The foundation’s representatives and state officials have claimed over the years that women’s worship can harm the sensitivities of male worshipers at the Western Wall and is even liable to cause violent eruptions.

Last week’s tussle with the police culminated in the arrest of four women, including two 18-year-olds and Rabbi Frishman.

‘Less than human’

“I’m not a person with a big ego, I’m successful in my work, I’m healthy and stable, but this encounter with being arrested caused me to experience a feeling that I’m nothing, that I’m less than human, that I have no identity and am a criminal,” Rabbi Frishman said of her arrest last Friday.

Frishman managed to enter the plaza with a tallit but when she came closer to the Wall, a policeman approached her and asked her to remove the prayer shawl. “I said that I don’t understand, that I’m not violating any law, neither an Israeli nor a Jewish one,” she recalled. She was detained for three hours at the police station; in the end, she was asked to sign a document pledging to stay away from the Western Wall for 15 days, but she refused this request. She was released with a warning stating that should she be detained at the Western Wall again, she will be fined NIS 3,000.

Two months ago, the police and the Women of the Wall reached a nadir in their acrimonious relations when Hoffman was arrested one evening at a joint event held by her group and the Hadassah women’s organization at the Western Wall. She spent a night in detention, which included painful handcuffing, a strip search and a night without a bed in a prison cell.

Hoffman submitted a complaint to the police department for the investigation of police officers, but the department decided not to launch an investigation of the officers involved in the incident.

Jerusalem police explain that they are upholding High Court rulings on the issue. However, an analysis of a High Court of Justice ruling issued by nine justices, led by Chief Justice Aharon Barak in 2003, does not clarify the legal morass. The majority decision refers to a ruling written by Justice Mishael Cheshin, stating: “I’ve considered this matter, I’ve turned it over again and again, and in the end I reached this conclusion: the right of women at the Western Wall is what allows them to worship at the Western Wall in the manner of their choice...but the right of the women petitioners to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall, like any legal right, is not absolute.”

On this basis, the justices decided that the state should set up a prayer area for the women at the Davidson archaeological park, close to Robinson’s Arch. “If this area is not established within 12 months, the government is obligated to make suitable arrangements and conditions so that women at the Western Wall can realize their right to worship as they see fit.”

Women of the Wall members claim that the Robinson’s Arch area was not organized properly and the space does not facilitate dignified worship; thus, they have the right to continue to conduct their worship at the Western Wall plaza.

For the sake of provocation

“They don’t come to worship, they come to demonstrate,” Rabbi Rabinowitz  of the Western Wall adamantly declared. “Every month they come and stir up a new provocation, so as to attract the media. They tried to bring in Torah scrolls, they deliberately sing loudly, and they do these things to create a fuss.

“What I decided is to remove this struggle from the Western Wall, because it makes Israel and the Western Wall look awful. We told them that the Western Wall is not the place to express political opinions,” said Rabinowitz, who bears the brunt of the women’s group wrath.  

Defending himself, Rabinowitz claimed that he “lives between two sorts of extremism, that of the extremist Haredim and the fanaticism of the Women of the Wall.”  He said he tries to navigate between these extremes to enable orderly activities to take place at the Western Wall plaza.

“The Western Wall operates in a way that allows everyone to be together with one another, and so no extremist group can do whatever it wants. I also fail to understand the merit of prayer that hurts others. Whoever believes in prayer does not act that way,” he added.

Hoffman anticipated exactly what Rabinowitz would say when asked about the right of women to conduct their worship. “He will tell you the parable about the Passover seder – a father who has 10 children conducts a seder, and every son wants to bring to the table customs from his house and those observed by his wife. That is impossible, so the seder has to be conducted according to the tradition of the father of the house.”  

Indeed, Rabbi Rabinowitz fulfilled Hoffman’s prediction, saying “the situation is similar to a father who has 10 children and wants to bring them together at his house; it’s impossible to follow each child’s request, so in order to live together it is necessary to uphold the father’s tradition.”

“Answer him this way,” Hoffman urged. “Tell him this: first of all, he’s not my father, and that any father who doesn’t allow his sons to bring in their own customs is to be pitied. And secondly, it’s good that a seder have some diversity, that next to the chopped liver there’s some Moroccan food to eat.”

Emil Salman