Pluralism is a very foreign concept in Israel,” said Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman. “There isn’t a word for it in Hebrew.”
Hoffman is fighting to bring pluralism into Israeli language and society. Earlier this month, Jerusalem police questioned Hoffman about her group, which regularly shows up to pray in the women’s section of the Western Wall. Late last year, one of its members was arrested for donning a tallit at the Kotel, considered an offense by the Orthodox rabbis who oversee the holy site.
“Separate but equal doesn’t work,” Hoffman said during a teleconference last week organized by Meretz USA. “And at the Wall it’s not separate but equal, it’s separate but unequal.”
Jerusalem is the battleground in this fight for what WOW calls women’s equality, but here in America – where egalitarianism and the ordination of women is more acceptable – the issue has struck a chord as well.
“The battle they face is hard for us to imagine here, where we have comfortable Jewish lives that enable people a degree of religious expression that isn’t possible right now in Jerusalem,” said Rabbi Jarah Greenfield of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel of Bergen County in Maywood. “The fight they’re taking up is in my mind for Jews everywhere.”
Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes has been involved with WOW for some 15 years, and this latest confrontation illustrates a growing recognition in Israeli society that a problem exists, she said.
“There is a perversion to the ‘religious’ claiming this part of the Wall at the Temple Mount as a synagogue – and as an Orthodox synagogue,” she said. “Women of the Wall has done a great deal to promote this issue publicly.”
In 2005, WOW lost a 17-year Supreme Court battle that would have granted women legal protection to don tallitot and read from Torah scrolls at the Western Wall. The group continues to pray at the Wall every Rosh Chodesh, but in order to hold services with Torah readings and tallitot, the organization must go to a nearby archaeological site called Robinson’s Arch. The disadvantages of the site include an entrance fee, Hoffman said. Entry to the Western Wall is free.
“We are not enjoying all the different services that people enjoy at a holy place,” she said.
WOW isn’t looking to do away with gender separation at the Kotel. According to Hoffman, the organization seeks equal rights for women to pray – with all of the accoutrements – within the women’s section. The organization is halachic, she emphasized, and wants to expand women’s rights within the boundaries of Jewish law, not to abrogate that law.
Supporters agree that there is room for co-existence.
“Any reasonable or thoughtful voice calling for creation of an Israeli society in which religious pluralism can flourish is a voice that would recognize a need to afford Orthodoxy the same privileges,” said Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar in Demarest.
At the center of the debate is the Orthodox grip on Israel’s religious institutions and regulations. It’s an issue that goes back to the very foundation of the state, Lewittes said.
“As the Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist and even secular Jewish movements are gaining more and more ground in terms of communities being developed in Israel,” Lewittes said, “maybe what we’re seeing is the pushback.”
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first premier and himself a secular Jew, placed Orthodox institutions in charge of the country’s religious institutions as a way to encourage Orthodox support for the fledgling state, said Samuel G. Freedman, a Columbia University journalism professor, New York Times religion columnist, and author of the 2000 book “Jew vs. Jew.”
“They needed Orthodox allies,” he said of Israel’s founding fathers. Many Orthodox circles were against the creation of the state at the time and this was a way to draw them in, he added. Now, the religious parties have become a powerful political force within Israel.
“They bring a lot of bloc votes to the elections,” Freedman said. “It makes it difficult for a center-right government to stand up to them. They bring more votes and more political clout than the Reform and Conservative movements and Jewish feminists do.”
Women’s prayer at the Wall is not a religious issue but a political one, Frishman said, acknowledging the clout of the religious parties. Because of this, the solution for WOW is going to come one step at a time. She pointed to Yotzma, Barnert’s sister congregation in Modi’in, which was the first non-Orthodox synagogue in the country to win partial government building funds.
“Ultimately, what we want to do is change people’s attitudes,” she said. “This issue will actually draw more Jews to Judaism because it opens doors.”