She’s been arrested, spat on and cursed by haredi worshipers at the Western
Wall. But Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of the Women of the Wall and the director
of the Israel Religious Action Center, along with her fellow activists in arms,
are not giving up, and don’t plan to stop their crusade to make the Kotel a
freer religious space until they have achieved their 24-year-long
Best known for fighting for the rights of women from all Jewish
denominations to pray aloud, read from the Torah and wear traditional prayer
garments like tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin at the Wall, Hoffman also leads
the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. Now WoW’s
issue has risen to the top of Israel’s national debate and political agenda, in
conjunction with, and perhaps as a result of, an ever-sharpening dispute about
the role of religion in public life and the form and definition of Judaism that
is accepted by the state. It also has sparked outcry, solidarity services and
media attention among Jewish publications in the Diaspora.
Women of the
Wall won an historic victory in April, when the Jerusalem District Court ruled
that participants in the group’s prayers could pray in the manner in which they
saw fit, performing practices generally not accepted for Orthodox
Just several days ago, the Women of the Wall prayed at the Western
Wall without any restrictions on their service or fear of arrest, and they
received police protection from the thousands of haredi protesters, some of whom
threw stones, garbage and coffee at them.
In her work with IRAC, she has
filed countless High Court petitions to fight discrimination against women, and
advocate for state recognition of non- Orthodox Jewish denominations and civil
The group has had many legal triumphs, including outlawing
gender segregation on public buses.
Hoffman sat down with The Jerusalem
last week to discuss her most recent achievements with Women of the Wall as
well as the state of Judaism in Israel and the changes she is still working to
effect.Do you think the Women of the Wall are criticized more for the
methods they employ than the principles at stake?
Criticism of Women of the Wall
is not about law and order, it’s about the fact that we’re not
Women of the Wall has been going for 24 years and we’re not
battered wives, we’re not rape victims, we’re not taking back the night, we’re
And the Israeli media love women as victims.
are portrayed more accurately and get greater exposure in the media if they are
presented as victims. We love women as victims, as bereaved mothers and bereaved
When the police misguidedly started arresting us we became
victims, and you see immediately that’s when the media changed. The minute we
were victims in shackles and in handcuffs, suddenly we got more accurate
coverage, suddenly people noticed we are from all denominations, until then we
were always portrayed as Reform women.
I stood with a journalist once and
I told him, “if you write ‘Reform women’ about Women of the Wall I’m gonna hit
you.” He wrote “all denominations,” and in Tel Aviv the editor changed it to
“Reform women” because the idea that Orthodox women may be non-passive is just
shocking to the secular editor in Tel Aviv.Do you think your comparisons
of WoW’s fight to the civil rights movement in the US is a fair one, or is this
the kind of rhetoric that upsets some people?
I’m borrowing the images from the
history of the Western world because of the criminalization of what we do. I’m
borrowing the images of the back of the bus, because of the criminalization of
something so simple.
I certainly think what happened to blacks in the
Deep South were life-and-death issues, they were seen as less than people. But
I’m talking about the aspirations of the modern democracy of Israel and under
this democracy women are criminalized for wearing a tallit, praying out loud,
putting on tefillin, reading Torah. I was in prison for just 24 hours but it was
extremely traumatic, it’s meant to break you and they do a fabulous job, they’re
really good at it. After 24 hours I was willing to do anything to get
So I’m using these images to explain, and I think Robinson’s Arch
was the back of the bus, is the back of the bus, and was a way to dismiss our
sincere desire to pray.
It’s not a serious argument for people to say
we’re doing it just to create a provocation. I know provocations, they have an
expiration date, perhaps a year? We’ve been going for quarter of a century, a
generation...only a sincere group can last that long and I think we are.
We’re a unique congregation on the planet. I don’t know any other congregation
which prays with all denominations together.What’s more effective: to
take on the system head on or approach things through a less combative way?
look at some of the organizations that succeeded immensely in Israel in changing
the reality, some of them were through education, like the saving of wildflowers
by the Society for the Protection of Nature. On the other hand, some of the
greatest gains achieved by settlers and their supporters were by breaking the
law and by making the establishment face facts on the ground. I don’t know which
one is more successful. I know Women of the Wall adhere to the letter of the
law. We never believed in breaking the law. We never opted for civil
disobedience of any kind.
In the Supreme Court case in 2000 we won by
demanding just 11 hours a year – one hour a month – for equal prayer rights for
WoW at the Western Wall. We bent over backwards to avoid offending the feelings
of others and to show our goodwill, we even let the government decide when that
one hour in which we could pray according to our customs would be.
people called me a traitor and said I was selling out the Women of the Wall
because I was willing to accept just one hour a month, but I think this was one
of the wisest decisions. I wanted to push the government to show that this is a
territorial war, and it’s not really about the feelings of others being
One has to really want to have their feelings injured by hearing
our beautiful group.
We won a unanimous decision in 2000 because the
court was impressed with our sincerity that we just wanted one hour to pray
according to our custom.
Was I completely sincere? I believed that the
one hour would turn into two hours. But still, I wasn’t asking for 24 hours a
day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, as is my right. I was willing to give
up on my Godgiven right for shlom bayit, for harmony, but I’m not willing to
give up on the minimum that we asked for, that I’ll never give up on.Is
there a deeper problem with the connection between religion and state in Israel
than just prayer rights at the Western Wall?
The bigger problem is that we have
a sovereign Jewish state and we’re not clear what our Jewish values are. We’re
not clear what Jewish values we have in common. There isn’t a more interesting
dialogue we can have than what are the Jewish values of the Jewish
But Israel has taken the easy route. It has taken the keys to
Judaism and given it to one minority faction in the Jewish world. And the
minority faction has done what every minority faction would do. The Reform would
have done the same, none of us are immune. That minority faction became corrupt,
it became a monopoly and it became more and more extreme. And through this we
have injured Orthodoxy and we have contaminated Orthodoxy.
always a place of discourse; of many lights. “Both these and these are the words
of the living God.” In Jewish law we adhere to the rulings of Beit Hillel
because “they preceded their words to Beit Shamai’s.” They were so aware of the
value of pluralism that they would first explain the position of Beit Shamai and
only then voice their own opinion.
We are a culture of argument, we cast
doubt from the day we’re born and we encourage children to cast doubt and we
smile when they first do. That’s a Jewish sport. Suddenly in Israel we got a
sickness called the chief rabbis. We inherited this from the British Mandate,
but we never had it before.
In the past, rabbis became leading rabbis by
the force of their knowledge and character. No one gave them a salary for that.
No one elected them. I look now at the elections for the chief rabbis and
Judaism weeps. It weeps over this. Judaism in Israel is bankrupt, at least
establishment Judaism is.
We made a terrible mistake in giving this
minority the keys and it has hurt Judaism, it hurt Orthodoxy, and it hurt
Israel. As a Jew, I was freer and prouder when I went abroad than I am in the
State of Israel.
That is craziness, but we are raising a generation of
Israelis who have terrible misconceptions about Judaism.What can be done
to rectify this situation?
The first thing that needs to be done is open the
sphere of religion to free competition. For a start, the 4,000 state-paid rabbis
should all be fired tomorrow and then may the best rabbi win. We need to level
the playing field, but at the moment Orthodox rabbis are on the state’s payroll
and ours are not. Once we start competing, and people can choose their rabbis,
things will improve.Should we do away with established religion in
We’re not ready for such an operation. That would be an amputation,
which I don’t think Israel is ready to take. And I’m big on radical surgery, but
this is too much. We need to start with opening the field to competition and
have religious services provided by municipalities and not by the
The municipalities all have departments of sports and culture and
so they should have departments for Jewish religious services run by a
The thousands of Israelis that go to Cyprus to get married
break my heart. That they’re not free to choose a rabbi in Israel breaks my
heart. And the fact that we don’t have freedom of choice in marriage, freedom of
choice in burial and conversion, this is terrible and it’s crazy.
weak are the Orthodox that they need this monopoly to be defended by the state?
If you’re so good, if you’re the real thing, then fight with me on a level
playing field. Let’s offer conversion to all those who need conversion. You
bring your best people forward, and I’ll bring my best people forward and let’s
see where they go.
Regarding marriage, I think most Israelis will still
go for Orthodox weddings, which also means Orthodox divorce. But I think 25
percent wouldn’t. That’s a huge figure.If and when equal prayer rights
at the Western Wall are achieved, what’s next on the agenda for you?
choice in marriage is the next big thing. When you look at the members of
Knesset, each and every one of them knows personally many couples that got
married in Cyprus or elsewhere in the world. They realize what the problem is
but they vote against marriage freedom. So it’s time to free Israel. We must
have the ability to choose the way you want to get married.
IRAC is going
full steam ahead in the next couple of years and we want to have legislation
passed in the Knesset on the issue. Right now, the existing law gives a monopoly
of marriage and divorce to the Orthodox and this is one of the prime examples
where they abuse their monopoly and their absolute power. It doesn’t matter if
the rabbi is really sweet during the wedding, like the Tzohar rabbis, it’s still
the fist in the velvet glove.
We have a window of opportunity for
bringing about freedom in marriage right now, and the MKs should vote their
conscience. If they’re allowed to vote their conscience then we’ve got
it.So it’s a lobbying effort more than a fight in the courts?
huge lobbying effort that will be grassroots supported.
And we’re not
alone, we’re part of a coalition of many organizations, all the pluralism
organizations such as Mavoi Satum, Kolech, and the most radical such as Hiddush
and Free Israel. We’re all united.
Bayit Yehudi have said they’ll veto
changes to religion and state, so this is really a window for such
Once a government falls, then there will be another
If the public was as riled up about this as they were about the
price of cottage cheese, then the politicians will pay a price if they don’t
vote for freedom of choice in marriage and we can make this price
We might have to settle for less than civil marriage, perhaps
something like embellished civil union, we might have to compromise. But we will
not settle for what exists today. But what’s happening now has to stop,
specifically because of what happens to women with divorce in the rabbinical
courts. It has to stop.Do you see your activism for religious and civil
rights as a religious act?
I believe it is. I believe this is why we came to the
world. I’m very low on the pursuit of happiness that Americans seem to be very
interested in. I’m in the pursuit of meaning in my life. Discipline, meaning and
Shema are all from the same root.
There’s a story about one of the rebbes
of the Lubavitch hassidim whose son was studying so hard he couldn’t hear his
own baby crying. So the rebbe, the grandfather, picked up the baby and told his
son, “I don’t know what you were doing, but it wasn’t studying Torah.” If you
are too busy with the ritual of Judaism that you can’t hear a baby crying then
you’re not studying Torah, you’re doing something else. I run an organization
that listens out for babies crying, whoever they are. run an organization that
listens out for babies crying, whoever they are.
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