The recent arrest of a woman carrying a Torah at the Western Wall is testing already tense relations between the ultra-Orthodox and other Jewish groups over issues of religious pluralism in Israel. It has also prompted accusations that Israel’s national police force is attempting to reinterpret a Supreme Court ruling on women’s prayer at Judaism’s holiest site.
Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the women’s prayer group Women of the Wall, was detained July 12, as she was leading about 150 worshippers from the Western Wall plaza to Robinson’s Arch, the portion of the Wall where the group is permitted to read from the Torah.
Hoffman, executive director of the lsrael Religious Action Center, was interrogated for five hours, fined the equivalent of $1,300 and placed under a restraining order that bars her from visiting the Western Wall for 30 days. She contends that she was acting within the law, under which women are not permitted to read from the Torah or to wear a prayer shawl as an outer garment within the Kotel plaza.
“We were not reading from the Torah,” Hoffman told the Forward. “We were merely holding it on our way to Robinson’s Arch to complete the service.”
A spokesman for the Israel Police, Micky Rosenfeld, told the Forward, “Anat Hoffman was arrested by police because she violated the agreement of the high court by praying with a Sefer Torah.”
The arrest follows Hoffman’s January detention, during which she was fingerprinted and questioned about her activities at a Women of the Wall gathering the previous month. And last November, another member of the group, Nofrat Frenkel, was arrested after she wore a tallit and carried a Torah in the women’s section of the Kotel.
Since the group’s inception in 1989, Women of the Wall, which gathers monthly at the Kotel, has faced verbal and physical harassment from Haredi men and from others who do not believe that the women’s prayer services are in line with Jewish law.
Women of the Wall sued the State of Israel to gain formal legal recognition of its members’ right to pray at the Kotel. In May 2002, the court ruled in the group’s favor. But four days after the ruling, Haredi political parties proposed a bill that would have made it a criminal offense for women to pray out loud at the Kotel, punishable by up to seven years in prison. Although the bill did not pass, the court responded to the pressure and, in April 2003, reversing an earlier decision, prohibited women from reading Torah and from wearing a tallit over their clothes in the Kotel plaza, for reasons of violating the “custom of the place.”
A Georgia State University graduate and a recent immigrant to Israel, Michelle Handelman, who is a member of the group and witnessed Hoffman’s July 12 arrest, said that the gathering had been relatively calm until Hoffman took out the Torah.
At that point, Police Superintendent Raphael Malachi, joined by about a dozen other officers, began to pull the Torah out of Hoffman’s hands, in a move seen in a video aired on the Israeli news later that night. “The Torah looked like it was about to tear apart,” Handelman said. “It was shocking.”
“Anat had it worse than I did,” said Frenkel, the group member who was arrested in November. Frenkel, who is seen in the July 12 video falling down amid the scuffle, said that the police seemed more aggressive this time around than they had been with her.
The group had planned to carry the Torah in its case while walking to Robinson’s Arch, but then spontaneously decided to carry it in the open, out of respect to the Torah. It has been about six months since the group prayed with a Torah at the Kotel.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was at the prayer service. “I was about two people away from Anat as she was pulled by the police — quite forcefully, I might add,” he said. “It was just heart-wrenching to watch a Jewish woman arrested, on Rosh Hodesh [the first day of the Hebrew month], for holding a Torah in her prayer service. And it’s unfathomable that the police in the Jewish state will arrest a Jewish woman for that.”
Hoffman maintains that while reading from the Torah is banned for women at the main Kotel plaza, merely holding the Torah is not. “The police took it upon themselves to reinterpret the ruling — and that is a very dangerous development,” she said. “It’s a slippery slope. Today they say women cannot hold the Torah. Tomorrow it will be, women cannot look at the Torah. Then it will be, women cannot be at the Kotel at all. Before you know it, all of Jerusalem will be segregated. That is where we are headed.”
Hoffman said that the police tell the women to wear their tallitot either under other garments or “like scarves around our necks,” a practice apparent in the video.
“She violated the ruling by praying with a Torah,” Rosenfeld said. “Read the court protocol.” The 49-page, 2003 Supreme Court decision is vague on this point, mostly pointing toward “the custom of the place.”
The arrest had legislative ripples. At a meeting of the Knesset’s Lobby for Equality and Pluralism, held July 13, committee chairs announced a new bill that would promote pluralistic solutions to Israel’s holy places, such as dividing the Kotel plaza into three sections — two small segregated sections, for women and men, and one large mixed section. “It’s a brilliant solution,” said Einat Wilf a member of the committee. But she added that the legislation is likely to face severe opposition in the Knesset, where ultra-Orthodox parties wield significant political power.
Meanwhile Kotel rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has been leading a campaign to make the entire plaza gender segregated, said earlier this year that the women are being “provocative, trying to turn the Kotel into a place of controversy.”
According to a recent survey by Israel’s Smith Institute, 79% of Israelis are against complete segregation at the Kotel. Among those, 42% are in favor of complete gender integration of the entire plaza, while 37% are in favor of having some mixed and some segregated sections.
Meanwhile, this turn of events has infuriated many American Jews, particularly those affiliated with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. The arrest happened on the very same day that the Knesset law committee passed the “Conversion Bill,” which would give the Haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversion in Israel.
“We love Israel, and we support Israel, but we’re reaching the boiling point in terms of the way our religious expression is allowed to be discriminated against because of the will of the ultra-Orthodox,” Wernick said.
Some members of the Orthodox community have also joined the cause. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington, said that Hoffman’s arrest marked “a very sad day for the Jewish people” and that he is planning a rally in front of Israel’s American Embassy.
Hoffman is urging American and Israeli Jews to come to the Women of the Wall prayer group meeting August 11. That date marks the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, when it is customary to blow the shofar. Hoffman has done it on behalf of the group for the past 21 years.
But this year she won’t be at the service, which takes place one day before her restraining order expires. “I would like thousands of people to take my place — and especially a woman who can blow the shofar,” Hoffman said.
Contact Elana Maryles Sztokman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author and feminist researcher, educator and activist. She is currently studying to become a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and is blogging about her journey at www.jewfem.com