As chairwoman of the Women of the Wall and director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform movement in Israel, it is fair to say that Anat Hoffman has been a bit busy of late.
The signature agreement obtained by WOW and the progressive Jewish movements providing for a state-recognized egalitarian prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall was effectively scrapped in June, while a critical High Court petition regarding non-Orthodox converts faces preemptive circumvention by haredi-sponsored legislation.
Despite these setbacks, Hoffman remains as indefatigable as ever, insisting that real power is measured not by raw political heft but rather by a commitment to what she describes as the Jewish values delineated by the prophets and the struggle to uphold them.
The overarching principle of all her work, she says, is the vision described in the Israeli Declaration of Independence guaranteeing “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” and ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
So whether she’s dealing with prayer rights at the Western Wall, Jewish conversion, marriage and divorce or the myriad other issues relating to religious life in the Jewish state, Hoffman says she is guided by the overriding principle of the country’s founders of equality and justice for all the country’s citizens, regardless of their religious affiliations. “What are Jewish values? Chauvinism, racism, ethno-centrism? Or pluralism, tolerance and equality?” she demands.
“It says some 36 times in the Bible, ‘Do not oppress the stranger, because you were a stranger in the Land of Egypt.’ It’s saying to do right by the minority. That’s how a community is measured, by how we deal with the other, with the orphan and the widow. This is our great gift to the world.
“But have we developed a culture in Israel where you can ignore a minority, a widow and an orphan? Over my dead body!”
For Hoffman, building the Jewish sovereign state around the Jewish values she emphasizes is, “the biggest project of our lives” and one that is focused explicitly on what those values should be.
She nevertheless concedes that in the last few years, her goals of equality and of religious pluralism for progressive Jews have gotten further away – the setback to the Western Wall plan a primary example.
Critics of Hoffman and the progressive Jewish movements accuse them of failing to even see any intrinsic holiness in the Western Wall, and see the struggle for an egalitarian prayer section as more focused on undermining Orthodox control of Jewish life than any inherent desire to pray at the holy site.
Indeed, Hoffman says that the holiness of the Western Wall for her is not in its being part of the ancient site of the Jewish Temples where the Talmud says the Shechina
(God’s divine presence) rested, but rather in the sense of community Women of the Wall have developed in their prayers at the site.
In particular, she says, it is the breaking down of partitions and the coming together of Jews from different walks of life and different denominations and communities, as has happened within Women of the Wall, that inspires her activism for the group. “For me it [the Western Wall] is the arena for a holy community. Women of the Wall are a holy community, we built a sisterhood that has been sustained for 28 years under conditions that other groups would fall apart under. We have had major defeats, we’ve been harassed, threatened and beaten,” she says.
“Breaking partitions, embracing unity is a holy act… Holiness is when you’re yanked out of your ordinary routine and you’re part of something bigger. The resting place of the Shechina speaks to very few people anywhere. It [the Western Wall] is a place for community,” she says.
Despite the setback over the Western Wall resolution, Hoffman remains optimistic about her struggle and the ability of herself and others to bring about the changes she seeks, despite the heavy political power wielded by her haredi and religious opponents “I am as powerless as Jeremiah, Isaiah, Haggai, Amos and Hosea. They were all powerless politically; Jeremiah was locked up in jail. So why are they in the Bible? Because they were right,” avers Hoffman.
If the Prophet Isaiah were alive today he wouldn’t be in the Chief Rabbinate, she quips, but rather in administrative detention for his scathing attacks on the Jewish people, describing them as corrupt and Jerusalem as a prostitute and void of justice.
“I am as powerless as they [the prophets] were. I convey these values, and our group has inspired many people to remember these values.
“The fact that the haredim at the price of Jewish values have a victory here and there, shame on them and shame on us
that we have sold Judaism so cheaply, and shame on the state of Israel that has given them the keys to the holiest site of the Jewish people. But it’s time to take the keys back, and if there is one group trying to do so, it is this group of women.”
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