A modern-day Deborah

Anat Hoffman has been campaigning for the right of Jewish women to pray at the Western Wall for more than two decades.

December 11, 2012 12:23
ANAT HOFFMAN at the Western Wall

ANAT HOFFMAN at the Western Wall 370. (photo credit: Reuters)

One ironic aspect of Anat Hoffman’s fight for Jewish religious equality in Israel is that in her early life she was devoutly secular, avoiding synagogues, disdainful of rabbis, not at all interested in Judaism.

Today, she is the Reform Movement’s most visible warrior, waging a struggle against ultra-Orthodox dictates over the role of women. She calls herself a datiya reformit – a Reform religious person. She admits the phrase sounds like an oxymoron.

The focus of her struggle is the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site, “a very concrete visual symbol,” in Hoffman’s words.

Her struggle turned violent on October 16, a nightmare from which she has yet to recover. Police arrested Hoffman at the Western Wall for wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and reciting the shema prayer while she was surrounded by 250 Hadassah women in Jerusalem for their annual convention. Then, she says, police officers physically abused her for the next eight hours. The police deny any abuse.

Strip-searched, her arms and legs shackled, dragged on the ground, then forced to sleep on the floor of a jail cell that she shared with a prostitute and a car thief, Hoffman says she had never experienced such police abuse in the 24 years she has been leading her Women of the Wall movement in monthly prayers at the Wall.

Upon her release, she was barred from the Wall for 30 days.

Why have the police victimized the 58-year-old Hoffman? The rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, directed the police to make the arrest, Hoffman believes. After all, she tells The Jerusalem Report, “he is under pressure to become more and more Haredi. He is drunk with power. He can tell the police what to do. He can tell anybody what to do.”

Hoffman’s office at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem 11 days after her arrest: She is on the phone exhorting colleagues to urge the police to cease the violence against her. She is still traumatized. She displays bruises on her arm from the handcuffs, but says she cannot talk about that night. The memory is too emotional; to talk about what happened would make her physically ill, she asserts. Instead, she hands over a detailed, nine-page document describing moment by moment her interactions with the police on October 16.

Hoffman helped found Women of the Wall in December 1988, when 100 non- Orthodox women showed up at the Wall to pray. They were taunted and physically abused, but not deterred in their mission to have the same right to pray at the Wall as the Orthodox Jewish men who run the place through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Hoffman serves as Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.

From 1988 to 2002, she was a member of the Jerusalem City Council, fighting the city’s right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc on a variety of issues. She once unsuccessfully sought a Knesset seat, but the need to woo voters is not a skill she says she possesses.

Today she seems at her most content, fighting on her own, running her own shop.

From her earliest days Hoffman has had political activism in her blood. Born in Jerusalem in 1954, she became a champion swimmer, competing in the Maccabiah Games, and holding titles in nine events. But she preferred art to swimming. Attending the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, she noticed that the school did not have a student union. She spent much time there defending students’ rights. A professor told her, “Anat, you belong in politics more than art.”

She grew up in a secular Zionist environment inspired by her parents – Varda Blechman, the first child born at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel in Jerusalem in 1930, and American-born Charles Weiss, the long-term correspondent in Israel for the Voice of America. The family treasured ideas. “We were a family that read newspapers. Everyone at the breakfast table was reading a different newspaper.” One result was that Hoffman became a diehard secularist, averse to anything to do with Jewish religion, synagogues, rabbis, and ritual. She had feminist impulses, but knew little of what it meant to be a feminist.

Then she and her then-husband Michael traveled to the United States in 1974 to take up their studies. Obtaining her BA in psychology from UCLA in 1980, she founded the Israeli Student Organization. She still had no interest in Judaism. UCLA Hillel Director Chaim Seidler-Feller, an Orthodox rabbi, got her excited about Judaism and feminism. His Orthodox Judaism was not the “my way or the highway” kind. “I found that Reform Judaism was not in collision with my feminist views. It inspired my desire for pluralism.” For the first time a rabbi had been friendly and accepting of her. She now realized there was more than one way to be a Jew.

While in the United States, she grew to envy the American Constitution because it committed its citizens to strive for social and political equality. “I wish we in Israel had pledged our allegiance to political and social equality. If we had I would be unemployed. We would have our own constitution tomorrow, if it weren’t for the Orthodox Jews.”

She returned to Israel, eager to become an activist for religious pluralism. Her life took a religious turn. She helped found what would become the Kol Haneshema Reform synagogue in Jerusalem. Gradually she began living a Jewish life. “In my weakest moments it is Jewish texts that I think of.

And in my most miserable moments, it’s Jewish people that I look to for support.

And I have devoted my adult life to what I see as Jewish values.” Surrounded by Jewish texts in her office, she notes that she hosts a Jewish study group in her house. Of learning about Judaism, she says, “I love the stuff.”

In the early years of their struggle, Women of the Wall appeared to win support from the Supreme Court. Three and a half years after Women of the Wall was formed, it sought Supreme Court sanction for its activities at the Wall – and won.

On May 22, 2002, a three-judge panel of the 15-member court ruled that it was legal for Women of the Wall to pray and read from the Torah undisturbed on the first day of each Hebrew month, rosh hodesh, in the women’s section of the main Western Wall Plaza. But four days later, Haredi political parties introduced legislation that would have overturned the court decision and made it a criminal offense, punishable by up to seven years in prison, for women to pray in non-traditional ways at the Wall.

The legislation did not pass, but the court agreed to reconsider its 2002 decision.

On April 6, 2003, reversing itself, the full 15-member court upheld the government’s ban on the Women of the Wall reading Torah or wearing tallit or tefillin i n t he main public area of the Wall; the court reasoned that such behavior constituted a threat to public safety and order. It did require the government to come up with an alternate site, and Robinson’s Arch, along the Western Wall but at a distance from the Wall plaza, was chosen.

From 2003 on, Hoffman and her Women of the Wall grudgingly held prayer services at Robinson’s Arch, acknowledging that it was part of the Wall, but, as Hoffman notes, “just not the part of the Wall where Jews go. It’s separate all right but it ain’t equal. We don’t believe in separate but equal.”

She adds, “I want to be where all the Jews are. I want to be seen, not because I am an attention-seeker or a provocateur, but because I want to inspire women to know that in many places in the world it’s the norm for a woman to wear a tallit, to pray out loud, to read from the Torah.”

One argument that the Orthodox Jewish leadership at the Wall makes against the Women of the Wall is that by wearing a tallit and reciting the shema, they are not following the accepted customs of the place, the principle of Judaism known in Hebrew as minhag hamakom. Hoffman balks at that argument. “The Wall has been in Israeli hands for 45 years, and for 24 of those years the Women of the Wall have been at the Wall. How long do we have to be there to qualify to be minhag hamakom? I think I am minhag hamakom. My rule of thumb is that if someone is doing something for 24 years, it doesn’t qualify as a provocation. You don’t provoke for 24 years.”

Following her arrest, she has continued her fight for religious equality at the Wall.

Though she knows it may make her sound like a provocateur, she argues. “If I have broken the law, charge me and let’s work it out in court. I don’t think the State of Israel has an interest in charging a woman for wearing a tallit.”

Nor should the State have an interest in keeping the ultra-Orthodox in charge of the Wall, she maintains. “I want the Wall to become a national monument open to all, including the ultra-Orthodox.” She wants to replace the Heritage Foundation with a council that would represent all groups with an interest in the Wall. “If we can share with the Muslims the Tomb of the Patriarchs,” says Hoffman, “we Jews can share the Western Wall.”

The trouble is that Hoffman has gotten little support from her fellow citizens who “dream about this but don’t believe it’s possible to liberate the Wall again.” She finds it odd that those citizens express far greater support for gay rights and animal rights than for her fight for religious equality. But in the days after her arrest, parts of the public seemed to shake itself loose from the indifference it had shown toward Women of the Wall.

Reform leaders called for an investigation into police abuses against Hoffman. In New York and Jerusalem, Jews recited the shema in flash mob events. Two weeks after Hoffman’s arrest, the Jewish Agency passed a resolution calling on the government to revisit its opposition to women praying at the Wall; it stopped short of demanding that the Orthodox be stripped of control over the Wall.

Jews in the Diaspora have long been supportive of Women of the Wall, finding Hoffman combative, articulate and exotic.

As a result, she gets dozens of speaking invitations a year, accepting only six. In her view, Women at the Wall has become one of Judaism’s most important issues worldwide – and she looks to world Jewry to help her win her battle.

When the Woman of the Wall convened at the Wall on November 15, Hoffman did not attend. The police detained six women.

Hoffman vows that she will be back at the Wall on the next rosh hodesh. Meanwhile she plans to petition the Supreme Court again next April to strike down its decision a decade earlier allocating Robinson’s Arch to Women of the Wall.

“Even if people don’t realize it,” says Anat Hoffman, “the Wall has to be reliberated.”

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