Say what you will about cultural relativism, local custom, and long-cherished traditions, some things simply are wrong.
Apparently, there is some disagreement, at least in some circles, about whether a woman has to right to say the Sh’ma out loud, at least if she is standing near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, even if she is in the (very small and ever-shrinking) women’s section. That itself is new; the constraints on women at the Kotel, which has the legal status of an Orthodox synagogue, are growing. The struggle over whether they can wear tallitot – a right that has been theirs since the talmudic period, according to some halachists, although they do not have the obligation to wear them and often are actively discouraged from doing so – has been going on for years. They are not allowed to pray aloud while wearing them, and they must smuggle in Torah scrolls lest they break the law by reading aloud from them. (See page 27.)
The place of women in Jewish religious life is a contentious one; it is the fault line that more than any other issue separates most Orthodox Jews from liberal ones. People of good faith can and do disagree strongly about it.
But Anat Hoffman, president of Women of the Wall, a group of Jewish women from all streams who meet monthly at the Kotel for a Rosh Chodesh celebration, was arrested, chained, dragged, strip-searched, and thrown into jail overnight for the crime of saying the Sh’ma out loud. Standing at the Kotel, a retaining wall at the base of the Temple Mount, reciting the basic declaration of faith, that simple core statement that martyrs said as they died because they were Jews, got a Jew thrown in jail.
In any place other than Israel, if someone would be treated for saying the Sh’ma as Anat Hoffman was treated, civil libertarians and human rights activists would be enraged, and they would be right. But this was in Israel!
As writer Yossi Klein Halevi tells us (see page 11), Israel faces existential threats now. Israelis and diaspora Jews cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from that truth.
But we also have to understand that Jews around the world are distancing themselves from Israel, and behavior like this does not help. It would be one thing were it correct, if Israel was upholding unpopular truths in the face of vulgar popular demand, if halachah demanded such behavior. But it is wrong, untrue, and unhalachic.
We must not allow it. No Jew should be mistreated for saying Sh’ma Yisrael out loud.