In Israel, Women of the Wall hit raw nerve over religious clout in state life

Today, Israel's Women of the Wall went to the Western Wall to pray for the first time since a court said they could worship there without fear of arrest. But they met plenty of opposition.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Members of 'Women of the Wall' group wear prayer shawls and one (c.) wearing Tefillin, leather straps and boxes containing sacred parchments, that Orthodox law says only men should don, during a monthly prayer session at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City Friday.

Women seeking the right to worship as men do at Jerusalem’s Western Wall are hitting a raw nerve: the dynamic between religion and state.

The Women of the Wall, who don prayer shawls and accoutrements normally reserved for men, have been holding public prayer services for more than 25 years – and have been arrested repeatedly in recent months for doing so. Today they entered Judaism’s holiest site for the first time since an April 24 court ruling determined that they were not contravening “local custom” and were free to worship as they have been without fear of being arrested.

But while the feminist activists were protected by police, they couldn’t even reach the revered wall. Whole schools of ultra-Orthodox girls made a stand for tradition, packing the women’s section at the urging of their rabbis. The standoff is emblematic of a broader challenge to the outsized influence of Israel’s religious minority over everything from marriage to politics.

 “To the extent that we focus on the Women of the Wall, we’re missing the larger picture,” says Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi and president of Hiddush, an organization that advocates for religious freedom and equality in Israel. “Israel’s founding promise ... was freedom of religion and equality regardless of religion. That is a promise that still awaits its full realization.”

Thanks to the growing size of Israel’s religious groups and their frequent role as kingmaker in the fragmented political scene, they have so far largely been able to ensure the predominance of their traditions and customs.

Now, however, they are facing “signs of the crumbling of Orthodox control of Judaism and they don’t know what to do,” says Israeli parliamentarian Tamar Zandberg, a secular Jew from the social democratic party Meretz, standing a few yards away from a police barricade holding back crowds of shouting ultra-Orthodox men with top hats and sidecurls, and rows of women bowing their covered heads in prayer. “This is the backlash.”

Excluding women from the public sphere?

The Western Wall, or Kotel, is a powerful symbol of the tensions between religion and state – including its impact on women’s rights, says Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, which has represented Women of the Wall for 10 years.

“The attempt to exclude women from the public sphere begins here and it seeps into other areas of society,” she says. “I’m happy that the … ultra-Orthodox girls that are here can see how we worship, and I’m happy that they can pray, too.”

Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, agrees. “I just love having them here,” she says, adding that it would be a victory if even one asked herself why it wasn’t OK for women to pray with prayer shawls and phylacteries, the leather bands that are wrapped around the forearms and are connected to a small box containing the divine commandments, worn on the forehead.

But such influence is just what some opponents are afraid of. An ultra-Orthodox woman who refuses to give her name but says she comes here every day to pray, says reformists are directly contradicting the Torah, or Hebrew scriptures, and encouraging others to do the same.

The Kotel is the house of God, and at the house of God, you need to do what God says … what is written in the Torah,” she says, holding up a little book with well-worn pages. “We don’t go to their house and tell them what to do.”

The idea in Judaism is that men and women have different but complementary and equally valuable roles, says Leah Aharoni, an Orthodox woman who also opposes Women of the Wall. "We believe that in order to be a first-class, liberated, empowered woman does not require praying in a manner exactly the way men have prayed for the past 2,000 years."

‘It’s a provocation’

Women of the Wall has gained significant support in the US and Canada by focusing on women’s rights, but their detractors in Israel say they’re treading on respect for religion in the process – and Israel isn’t doing enough to stop them.

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, which works closely with the Israeli government, has proposed to introduce an egalitarian area of worship at a separate area of the Western Wall, which Women of the
Wall initially seemed open to but have moved away from since the April court ruling.

Moshe Reich, a yeshiva student from Toronto at the protest this morning, compares the affect of the Women at the Wall services to walking into a Catholic church during mass and starting to laugh at the rituals or enter a mosque and start arguing.

“Imagine a church service … and a guy comes and says, ‘You idiot, what are you doing?’ right in front of everybody,” he says. “You would understand why these people, the real Christian guys, would be fuming.

“The analogy is not the same,” he adds, acknowledging that the Women at the Wall are not arguing or cursing with other worshipers. “But the feeling is the same.”

With the Western Wall lying in the shadow of the Muslim holy sites where Israel police stop Jews from praying, some see the Israeli government as going to greater lengths to avoid offending Muslims than Orthodox Jews.

“If I move my lips or … if I bow, I’ll get arrested, because they think it will offend the Muslims,” says Jeremy Rossman, an Orthodox Jew studying in Jerusalem.

“For some reason, the Israeli government can’t understand that in the same way you don’t disrespect Islam by going to the mosque, you don’t disrespect Orthodox Judaism,” says Yaakov, a ruddy-cheeked yeshiva student standing nearby who didn’t want to give his last name. “It’s a provocation.”

An ‘existential threat’ to Israel

To some, the saddest part is seeing Jews battling each other at the place where they are supposed to be worshiping the divine.

“It’s very disturbing when we see other Jews fighting over the desire to pray at the Kotel,” says Joseph Shamash, who moved here from Los Angeles and is wearing phylacteries.

Jacob Weiss, a corporate attorney who came straight off a 5 a.m. flight from London to accompany his wife, who supports the Women of the Wall, says even he was heckled on the way in.

“One guy told me, ‘Take off your kippa. You don’t belong here,’” he says. Another yelled, “You’re going to die for your sins.”

Mr. Weiss, who has lived here for 33 years and whose five children have served in Israel’s military, says such insults don’t bother him personally. But on a societal level, he says the same baseless hatred between Jews that rabbis blamed for the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. is playing out again.

“To me," he says, "the only existential threat in the state of Israel isn’t Iran or Syria, it’s this.” 

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