We planned our vacation to Israel around my being able to daven with the Women of the Wall for Rosh Chodesh Av.
I wanted to show my solidarity with this group, which has been meeting for over 20 years and demanding the right of women to pray together at the Kotel. It has been an uphill battle for their recognition. Although the Israeli Supreme Court initially upheld women’s right to read from the Torah at the Kotel, it reversed itself under political pressure. Not only was the right to read Torah eliminated, but women were prohibited from wearing tallitot or tefillin because of the threat to public safety and order.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I hurried to the Kotel (late as usual to services, as my rabbi would point out).
The Women of the Wall group was obvious; they were the 150 women gathered at the back of the women’s section who were being led through Shacharit by a woman with a lovely voice. Her chanting was sometimes drowned out by men who shouted over the mechitza at us.
The secular police, some of whom did not even wear kippot (required of all men at the Kotel), were an irritating presence. They told women at the edge of the group that they had to wear their tallitot round their necks like a scarf if they wanted to keep them on. At one point a female police officer circled us, videotaping the participants.
At the end of Shacharit , we were supposed to conduct our Torah service at Robinson’s Arch, the area outside the Kotel proper designated as acceptable for “alternative” prayer services. Anat Hoffman, the spokesperson for Women of the Wall, decided to take the Torah out of its duffle bag and carry it openly to Robinson’s Arch rather than leave it hidden.
The group turned, singing, to leave, led by Anat and the Torah.
The police officer who was in charge of security around our group was clearly infuriated by this. He got behind Anat and began to push her, trying to hustle her out of the Kotel area as quickly as possible. Anat continued to move as slowly as she could despite the police pressure to move along.
Once we were out of the Kotel courtyard, the police tried to wrestle the Torah out of Anat’s arms. She refused to let go, and they arrested her with the Torah still in her arms. Her offense? Walking with a Torah at the Kotel, an act that occurs in countless synagogues across the world. While one could argue that Anat’s activities were politically motivated, it is still a slap in the face to liberal Judaism that our practice should be so marginalized as to be considered illegal.
It is ironic that this event occurred at Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of the nine days of communal mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av. The Talmud states that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, between Jews of that period. We obviously haven’t earned our lesson; sinat chinam if anything has been institutionalized by the descendants of those exiled Jews. Lip service is given to solving this problem with statements such as the following from the website of Aish HaTorah, a right-wing Orthodox group:
States the Talmud (, 9b): “Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred of one Jew for another.”
What is the antidote to this problem which is so rampant in the Jewish world today? The answer is ahavat chinam, the Jews have to learn to love their fellow Jews.
There’s no hope for the Jewish people until all learn how to communicate with each other, and respect each other, regardless of differences.
God has no patience for Jews fighting each other. It’s extremely important to study this period of time carefully because there are many valuable lessons that we can learn about the pitfalls that need to be avoided.
But actions speak louder than platitudes, and the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox groups who control Jewish life in Israel are not really interested in communication and respect. They are interested in consolidation of power and in elimination of any dissenting opinions. They do this in the name of preservation of Judaism, but their motives are often political. The proposed conversion bill that was introduced into the Knesset on Rosh Chodesh Av is a prime example of this.
Tomorrow I will be back in my own Conservative synagogue, where I can openly wear a tallit and carry the Torah. While I will appreciate these rights more than I ever did before, my experiences in Israel will compel me to work harder for religious pluralism in Eretz Yisrael.