'Women of the Wall' movement fights Israeli gender bias
Anat Hoffman, left, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall organization, holds onto a Torah scroll as Israeli police attempt to take it from her and detain her, outside the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in 2010.
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Anat Hoffman was arrested in Israel for going to the Western Wall to do what would be regarded as a holy act in her synagogue: donning a prayer shawl and reading from the Torah.
She leads the Women of the Wall movement to allow women to lead public prayer and scripture reading at the holiest site in Judaism, where women like her are harassed and arrested for doing so in a space defined as an Orthodox synagogue. She said gender segregation is growing worse in Israel.
The area around the Wall is more segregated than it used to be, and there are efforts to make women shop at different hours than men and even walk on a different side of the sidewalk. Only recently were public buses desegregated so that women could no longer be forced to ride in the back.
She will speak at 7 p.m. today in Rodef Shalom Congregation, Shadyside, about women's rights in Israel. Her talk is co-sponsored by Rodef Shalom, the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, B'nai B'rith, Temple Sinai and the Pittsburgh chapter of J Street, with support from other groups.
"I want American Jews to feel that they have license to make their voices heard in Israel about this," said Ms. Hoffman, a former member of the Jerusalem City Council who now directs the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel.
"The fact that the keys to the holiest site for the Jewish people have been given to the smallest and most extreme faction of the Jewish world is a shame."
The question of women leading public prayer at the Wall is the most prominent issue in what she said are increasing measures by the politically powerful Haredim -- an ultrastrict faction within Orthodox Judaism -- to treat women as second-class citizens. Many of the creeping restrictions away from the Wall have no history within even the strictest Orthodox movements, and are upsetting to many of the Haredim themselves, she said.
In one case a Haredi father called her office to complain that religious authorities in his city had forced women and girls to patronize a local fair at different hours than men and boys, meaning that his family couldn't attend together.
"We are bringing [Ms. Hoffman] here because we, American Jews, care very much about the well-being of Jews around the world, including women in Israel," said Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee. "The increasing exclusion of women from the public square in Israel is alarming in itself, but it is symptomatic of a larger and deeper problem within the Jewish state, which is that the only recognized religious authority is the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate."
Israel has no equivalent of the separation of church and state. The government builds synagogues and pays thousands of municipal rabbis. In a nation where neither major party can achieve a clear majority in government, small Haredi parties swing elections in return for control of religious institutions.
Reform and Conservative rabbis don't receive state salaries, and the marriages they perform aren't recognized. Only recently, through the efforts of Ms. Hoffman's organization, have conversions to non-Orthodox Judaism been recognized for immigration and the government has built six Reform synagogues.
Yet, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, only about 8 percent of adult Israelis are Haredim, and another 12 percent identify as Orthodox. The single largest group are self-identified secular Jews, who account for 42 percent of adults.
Ms. Hoffman grew up a secular Jew in Jerusalem and found faith through the Reform movement as a student at University of California, Los Angeles. She became a champion of religious pluralism in Israel, and in 1988 a group of American women invited her to join them in an attempt to pray and read the Torah at the Wall.
The Western Wall is the only accessible remnant of the Jewish temple that the Romans destroyed in 70 A.D. Israel recognizes it as a synagogue, governed by Orthodox tradition with separate areas for men and women.
Nearly all Orthodox synagogues ban women from reading from the Torah, in part because it is considered immodest, and a source of temptation, for a woman to be on public view. While they can pray privately in the women's area, they are forbidden to read from the Torah or wear the prayer shawls worn by Orthodox men.
In 1988 "we went to the Wall, and all hell broke loose. There was a lot of violence against this group. And we decided that we would continue going to the wall after they left Israel," Ms. Hoffman said.
They go each month at the New Moon, a minor Jewish holiday honoring women. They have been called Nazis and infidels, by Haredim and "wardens" who patrol the area. Trash has been thrown at them. Ms. Hoffman was arrested in 2010 for wearing a prayer shawl, "because it is considered performing a religious act that offends the feelings of others," she said.
In 2003 the Israeli Supreme Court said women couldn't lead services at the Wall, and it ordered space given to them at a nearby archaeological site. Ms. Hoffman compares that to the Jim Crow laws.
Segregation is increasing, she said. In 2008 a men-only path was built to the Wall, with no similar one for women. In 2009 an area in the plaza that had long been open for men and women to pray together was segregated. A report from her group cites a 2009 incident in which high school girls were humiliated by wardens for singing a patriotic song of faith because, they were told, "a woman's voice is nakedness."
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Squirrel Hill, believes the Women of the Wall are wrong to break tradition, but he opposes the way they have been treated.
Stressing that he spoke only for himself, he said the Women of the Wall are violating Halacha, or Jewish law.
"Even though I completely disagree with the practice of the so-called Women of the Wall ... no woman should be arrested for a religious service or reading from the Torah or wearing tefillin at the Western Wall," he said.
"No one who claims to be religious and acting within a religious Jewish framework can justify throwing trash or other items at other Jews, male or female, who are engaged in services at the Western Wall, even if the service is improper and is out of the bounds of Halacha."
He noted that other women go to the Wall at sunrise and midnight daily to pray for the Jewish people, and that he considers them the true women of the Wall.
"The prayers at the Western Wall have been in an Orthodox framework and must remain so," he said. "Sensitivity and pluralism demand that nothing be done publicly that is offensive to a large segment of the people and to the history of the place."
Rabbi Wasserman said he didn't have enough information to speak to the Reform group's complaints of increasing segregation at the Wall and in other areas of public life in Israel.
From 1997 to 2011, the largest complaint was segregated public bus lines, in which women were forced to board and sit in the back. Last year the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that illegal. But other areas have continued to pop up in different communities, including the fair that the Haredi man complained about, segregated lines at a post office and funeral parlors that don't allow couples to stand together in mourning.
"This is increasing, and I want more partners to help us fight them," Ms. Hoffman said. Many secular Israelis don't protest because they believe that the only way to be Jewish is to be Orthodox, Ms. Hoffman said.
"I think that many American Jews feel they don't have a right to criticize or make their voices heard because they don't live here. And it serves the powers-that-be that American Jews feel that way. I worry that one day we will wake up, we won't recognize Israel and we will say, 'How did that happen?' "
Just before leaving for her American tour, she wrote to the rabbi in charge of the Wall.
"I wrote him that we wished to make use of one of the ... Torah scrolls that are here for public use. I reminded him that women were also at Sinai when the Torah was received," she said.
"I haven't heard anything back from him, and I doubt that I will."
First Published April 30, 2012 11:51 am