Praying in Israel

On our site, we have a whole slew of articles and blog posts looking at the complications that arise in Israel between democracy (society for all, equality, etc.) and the rabbinate (enforcing an Orthodox view of who is a Jew and how). On the one hand, Israel is a democracy. As a democratic state, women are equal to men. But as a state that also upholds Jewish law (via the rabbinate) and is lacking a constitution, religious and secular laws frequently butt heads.

We often look at the limitations imposed on intermarriage, difficulties in having conversions to Judaism recognized, and the whole “who is a Jew” debate in Israel. But today, we’re looking at gender equality. One of the issues I keep an eye on is that of women’s participation in Jewish practice. In Israel, this isn’t a simple issue. In Jerusalem, the Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall, aka Kotel), is a popular spot for folks to pray – both locals and tourists. For the last 45 years, the wall has been supervised by a rabbi, under the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. (There’s also a special police force, led by a “Chief of Police of the Kotel.”) Since 1997, that job has been filled by an Orthodox rabbi who “has maintained rigid gender separations”. While he seems ok with women quietly praying, he takes offense, and tries to prevent, women who pray full Torah services.

  • – Permissible: quietly whispering prayers to yourself, using a prayer book.

  • – Not permissible: singing prayers, wearing a tallis (prayer shawl), reading from the Torah. (Remember: prayer services on Monday and Thursday mornings, on Shabbat (Saturday) morning and afternoon, and on certain holidays include a reading from the Torah.)

  • Quick history lesson:
    in December 1988 during the first International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem. A group of approximately one hundred attendees went to pray in the women’s section of the Wall, and were verbally and physically assaulted by ultra-Orthodox men and women there. After the conference was over, a group of Jerusalem women continued to pray at the Kotel frequently, suffering continual abuse; they eventually formed the Women of the Wall. After one incident, WOW filed a petition to the Israeli government; the government did not agree to the group’s proposal, and included as response a list of halachic opinions that ban women from praying in groups, touching a Torah scroll, and wearing religious garments. Most Jews, even many Orthodox Jews, do not agree with these opinions; supporters of the WOW note that, according to Jewish law, a Torah scroll can never become ritually impure, even if a woman touches it.

    This group, Women Of the Wall (WOW for short), continues to pray there each Rosh Chodesh (the marking of the new month according to the Hebrew calendar). And most months they’re harrassed.

    At the heart of this group’s struggles is that conflict of state versus Orthodox rule. Here’s the short version: Women challenged the prejudice against them, on both halakhic (Jewish law) and legal (secular) grounds. The Supreme Court agreed, allowed women to fully pray, read from the Torah, and wear prayer shawls. Hareidi politicians (the most conservative branches of Orthodoxy) freaked out, countered with extreme overzealous measures (7 years in jail for praying?!). The Supreme Court backed down, days later, to appease the Hareidim, and agreed that the women couldn’t pray, read Torah, or wear tallises.

    That was almost 10 years ago. But WOW continue to pray at the Kotel, on the women’s side, each month for Rosh Chodesh. They then leave the Kotel and walk over to Robinson’s Arch to finish services, including the Torah reading.

    Last month, I blogged about the ongoing ordeals for Jewschool:

    By now I’m sure many of you have heard about today’s monthly Women of the Wall gathering. The short version is that the police, allegedly present to protect the women from those who do not believe they have a right to daven at the Kotel, approached many of the women, said they weren’t permitted to wear talleisim, and took the names and id of three women who’ll be “further investigated.”

    Last month, I was honored to have Deb, who prays with WOW each month (and who does a fantastic job designing our beautiful booklets), chat with me about the harassment she’s faced there. She feels she’s singled out because she wears a more traditional tallis (for the police and Orthodox, they read that as “a tallis for a man”) while other women wear more colorful or stylish tallises (read: “men wouldn’t wear them, so they’re not really tallises”). Today’s Jerusalem Post] article about the arrest goes into this distinction a little.

    Why’s this relevant to InterfaithFamily.com’s readers? Because these issues aren’t isolated. A country that claims to be for all Jews, but doesn’t treat women equally, doesn’t recognize the children of intermarried couples or conversions done in other countries, is not living up to its ideal. As Deb said,

    the group is “called ‘women’ but it’s actually creating a space for all who want to daven [pray] there, who have the right to access this public, Jewish space.”

    So, noting that Rosh Chodesh was yesterday and today, I was dismayed to open Facebook this morning to see Deb was arrested. I asked what happened. Like last month, she was told she had to change the way she wore her tallis, and she did. As the group was leaving the Kotel for Robinson’s Arch, she readjusted her tallis. And that was enough. They roughly arrested her and pulled her into the station. She’s since been released, but with conditions. (While in the police station, WOW sang protest songs – Deb could hear “We Shall Overcome” – and held their Torah service outside the station instead of at Robinson’s Arch.)

    If we support groups like WOW who are fighting for change in Israel, perhaps other organizations will likewise support the fights of patrilineal Jews, Jews by Choice, interfaith couples and others in Israel.

    [sub]Deb, being forcibly detained:[/sub]

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