A Tipping Point – Rosh Chodesh Sivan and WOW
May 14, 2013
Photos and Writing By Mark S. Anshan
Mark S. Anshan is a leader in the Reform movement serving on the URJ Board of Trustees and in other roles. He is a past Chair of ARZENU – the International Federation of Reform and Progressive Zionists.
Rosh Chodesh Sivan could well be the tipping point in the struggle to achieve religious pluralism in Israel. On May 10, 2013 Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the Women of the Wall (WOW) came together to pray at the Kotel as they do each month. Together with many other supporters of WOW, I (once again) had the privilege to be with them as they assembled for shacharit services. This time however, the situation was completely different from all other Rosh Chodesh services.
By the time we arrived at the Kotel plaza, thousands of Haredi, young and old, were assembling, at the direction of their rabbinic leadership, to protest and do what they could to prevent WOW members and supporters from praying. The WOW have always prayed in the women’s section. This time they were prevented from doing so as the Haredi women arrived early to pack the section, leaving no room for others to enter the section. WOW assembled just behind the fence at the point where the men’s and women’s sections meet.
In the past WOW were subject to close scrutiny by the police, who were photographing them and watching closely for any infringement of (at that time) the regulation governing what women could and could not do in worship (i.e. not wearing tallit, tefillin or reading Torah) based on the meaning of “local custom.” In the past year many WOW members have been arrested for contravening the prohibitions then in force. Anat Hoffman, chair of WOW was arrested and held in jail for carrying a Torah and last month Lesley Sachs, director of WOW and others were arrested for wearing tallit. This time, as result of an important court ruling rendered by Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, the women were permitted to pray wearing tallit and tefillin. This time instead of watching closely and being ready to make arrests, the police and border police were out in full force to protect the women from the Haredi. At the moment I arrived in the plaza, I had a hard time moving from the security entrance through the crowd of thousands to get close to where the women were about to begin their prayers. The police formed a human chain around the group to prevent anyone getting near them – they were protecting them from any potential physical violence. Soon after, the police erected barriers that physically separated the Haredi men and women from the rest of us. But the potential for physical violence remained as the men and boys continued to shout, blow whistles and throw objects (coffee, water, garbage) in a vain attempt to interrupt the service. I took photos and watched with interest the expressions on the faces of young Haredi students (male and female) who were standing there in silence as the older Haredi men engaged in shouting and disruptive behavior. I wondered if the younger students understood why they were brought to the Kotel.
Ironically, we – men and women – were praying together as WOW led the shacharit service. The Kotel plaza, a place for prayer and meditation and ceremonies where honour is conveyed on those serving in the defence of Israel and other like occasions had been turned into a place of protest with the threat of violence. That too was an irony – women coming to pray were prevented from doing so by religious men who came to protest. Not only did they attempt to disrupt the women from praying but their conduct clearly interfered with those who were actually praying at the Kotel in both the men and women’s sections. Following the conclusion of the service, the women were escorted by the police out of the plaza area to buses that the police had arranged for to take the women safely away from the plaza. As they boarded the buses, they were met with violence by Haredi men waiting for them. Rocks were thrown at the buses creating a very dangerous situation that could have resulted in serious personal injury.
The Haredi are doing what they can to overturn the ruling of Judge Sobel. (an appeal from the Magistrates Court decision). The Israel Police had arrested a number of women the previous month for wearing tallitot. A smaller but no less threatening situation arose and the police intervened by arresting the women. The police were attempting to prevent WOW from coming to the Western Wall plaza for the next three Rosh Chodesh prayers. The Magistrates Court ruled that the women were not the ones “…who had committed a breach of the peace and had initiated the provocation” but rather “…the responsibility for the breach rests with other people who were present at the site and expressed their protest against the Women of the Wall.” The unconditional release of the women was ordered. The police appealed and Judge Sobel was presented with the situation where he had to rule on the integrity of the regulation. The police argued a number of points including the critical issue whether the women violated the Holy Sites Regulations, which state that anyone “…who takes part in the performance of a religious ceremony other than in accordance with local custom (emphasis added), which offends the sensibilities of worshipers from among the public with respect to the site in question is committing an offense.” The police argued that “local custom” meant status quo, i.e. the custom that has prevailed. Judge Sobel, citing previous case law, disagreed with the police interpretation and accepted the precedents of earlier decisions that stated the “…nature of a custom is that it changes according to the changing times, and [the phrase] should express a pluralistic and tolerant approach to the opinions and customs of others…” and accordingly, the women did not violate “…the prohibitions set forth in the Holy Sites Regulations.”
Faced with this decision, the Haredi community embarked on a demonstration on Rosh Chodesh Sivan aimed to disrupt and intimidate not only WOW and its supporters but those in authority – the government and the judiciary. The battle lines are now fully drawn and, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote earlier this week “As these developments become more likely, a desperate reaction was to be expected—and the violence at the Wall is only the first round. What this means is that the Women of the Wall are wise to keep up the pressure. And it is to be hoped that Israel’s political leaders, fortified by the January elections and the expectations of an impatient Diaspora, will retain their resolve as well.”
Earlier in the year Prime Minister Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky to make recommendations that would resolve the issue of prayer at the Kotel. The recommendation brought forward was the construction of a second prayer plaza at Robinson’s Arch that would be for egalitarian prayer. It is interesting to note that while this recommendation resulted from the efforts of the WOW in forcing the issue of how all forms of prayer should be accommodated at the Kotel, the solution only deals with one of two issues. It is a solution to the question of egalitarian prayer, i.e. men and women who choose to prayer together. The WOW’s efforts deal with another issue, that of women who wish to pray in the women’s section in the manner they choose. Thus, while the Sharansky proposal is to be welcomed and supported, it does not deal directly with this other issue that is of direct concern to women, particularly modern Orthodox.
Anat Hoffman reminded us that “…a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that, for the first time, a majority of Israelis support women’s right to pray at the Kotel as they see fit.” While these are significant developments with the full force of jurisprudence in support of open and equal prayer, it is disheartening to note that the new Diaspora and Religious Services Minister, Naftali Bennett from the Bayit haYehudi party is now planning to impose more regulations against women praying at the Wall. His threats of unilateral actions would undermine the Sharanksy proposal and bring about further legal challenges that could reverse the cogently written decision of Judge Sobel.
The issue of prayer at the Western Wall is important on its own merits. But it also serves as the metaphor for the larger issue of religious pluralism in Israel – a Jewish society in which all forms of Jewish religious practice and custom should be recognized and respected. For liberal Jews the very essence of what Israel should be as a Jewish state is what holds our commitment and connection to the land and the state. WOW, led by Anat Hoffman and Lesley Sachs, is to be applauded for creating the tipping point that will change the religious environment in the State of Israel. Hopefully this will be resolved in short time and Israel will avoid the necessity of seeing a March on Jerusalem mounted to force the government to do that which it knows should be done.