The ‘Crime’ of Praying with a Tallit, and a Plea for Tolerance

First Person

By Nofrat Frenkel

Published November 24, 2009, issue of December 04, 2009.
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Every morning, since I was 15, I have worn a tallit for prayer in my home. During my army service, I was forced to swallow many negative comments by other soldiers who prayed in the army synagogues, some of which did not even have a women’s gallery, because female soldiers never set foot in them. After leaving the army, I began to visit the Kotel every Rosh Hodesh. The atmosphere at the Kotel, the feeling that all those women praying around me were also turning to God and pouring out their hearts to Him, inspires me with the joy of Jewish fraternity. Here is one place in which, shoulder to shoulder, all the hearts are calling to God.

Offensive? Nofrat Frenkel was arrested at the Western Wall.
COURTESY OF WOMEN OF THE WALL
Offensive? Nofrat Frenkel was arrested at the Western Wall.

Prayer at the Kotel is so different from private prayer at home, or from communal prayer at the synagogue. It is a mixed creation: I am in a communal place, with many worshippers, but not even one voice can be heard. Just soft murmurings, choked crying, mute requests.

“God stands in the congregation of God” (Psalms 82) but it appears that God is not alone in this holy place. There is also hatred and contempt, arrogance and argument. At least that is what I experienced when I prayed in the women’s section wearing my tallit.

The response of the “righteous women of the Kotel” to my donning a tallit never delayed in coming: every Rosh Hodesh I could expect a different type of “blessing.” Curses in Hebrew and Yiddish, venomous treatment toward me and my tallit, and speculation regarding my gender and religion: “A man in the women’s section!” “He’s not even Jewish!” “Perhaps she’s dressed up for Purim?”

I tried not to hear. I tried to concentrate on my prayers and to pray to God “who blesses His people Israel with love” that He should bless His people with the love of man for His fellow man. How can I pray for the building of the Temple when the people are not ready for it? When someone performing a biblical mitzvah is derided and ridiculed?

One Rosh Hodesh, when I had finished my prayers and was making my way out from the prayer area, I suddenly saw a group of tallit-wearing women standing and praying

together. It was my first meeting with the Women of the Wall — Conservative, Reform and Orthodox women who have been meeting to pray together every Rosh Hodesh over the past 21 years. Some wear a tallit, tefillin or a yarmulke, some do not: each according to her religious outlook. I immediately felt that my place was with them.

Illegal Prayer: Nofrat Frenkel (right), the author, reading from the Torah.
COURTESY OF WOMEN OF THE WALL
Illegal Prayer: Nofrat Frenkel (right), the author, reading from the Torah.

Each month we suffered verbal violence. The police looked on with amusement. The high court had decided some years ago that prevention of violence is justifiable grounds for the police acting to avoid an “offense to public sensitivity.”

We were forbidden to continue praying with ritual objects, forbidden to read from the Torah in the women’s section. We were allocated another space, away from the main Kotel plaza, a place for second-class citizens, in which we could pray without, God forbid, forcing the offended public to be exposed to the brutal sight of women performing the mitzvahs of tzitzit and reading the Torah.

The morning of Rosh Hodesh Kislev, November 18, was a cold Jerusalem morning. We stood, 42 Women of the Wall, and prayed in the women’s section. Our tallitot were hidden under our coats; the sefer Torah was in its regular bag. There was no booing, no pushing, no shouting.

We were surprised that our service passed off without any disturbance, and we thought that, perhaps, they had already become accustomed to our presence and that we could even read from the Torah, opposite the stones of the Kotel. Then, just moments after we had removed the sefer Torah from its bag, two men entered the women’s section and began abusing us.

All we wanted was to conclude our prayers in peace, so we decided to forgo the Torah reading there and go, as on every other Rosh Hodesh, to read the Torah at the alternative site. As we were exiting with me carrying the Torah, a policeman met us and began forcefully pushing me toward the nearby police station. Our pleas and explanations that we were on our way to the alternative site were of no use. I was transferred for questioning to the station at David’s Citadel. All I had on me was my tallit, my siddur and a sefer Torah.

In my interrogation, I was asked why I was praying with a tallit when I knew that this was against the Law of the Holy Places. I am an Israel Defense Forces officer, a law-abiding citizen, a volunteer for the Civil Guard — I have never incurred even a parking fine — and the idea of having broken the law was most trying. Nevertheless, I cannot allow my basic right to freedom of religious worship to be trampled because of a court ruling given years ago.

It is most doubtful that this ruling would be accepted today. In the wake of the Conservative and Reform movements, during the past 10 years, people in the Orthodox world have come to understand that the woman’s place is no longer restricted to the kitchen. Feminist Orthodox women are demanding to take an active part in Jewish life. Egalitarian Orthodox synagogues, in which women don tallitot and lead services, are popping up like mushrooms after rain. The “public sensitivity” has changed.

The Kotel belongs to all the people of Israel. The Kotel is not a Haredi synagogue, and the Women of the Wall will not allow it to become such.

I was banned from visiting the Kotel for two weeks, and a criminal file has been opened against me. I hope that the file will be closed, especially so that my medical studies will not be jeopardized. Perhaps, with God’s help, this regretful event will awaken wide public objection, enough for the high court to re-evaluate its decision and annul it.

Jerusalem is the city of holiness and justice for all humankind. From Zion, the voice calling for equality should be heard, for boundless love, for better understanding between people. Jerusalem has already been destroyed, due to unfounded hatred. Let us hope it will not happen again.

Nofrat Frenkel is a fifth-year medical student in Israel and an active member of the Masorti kehilla in Kfar Saba. This was translated from the Hebrew.


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