Anat Hoffman: Fighting on holy ground

Women of the Wall’s chairwoman talks about her group’s strategy and the corruption of the Chief Rabbinate.

Anat Hoffman with Zandberg and Shaffir 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Anat Hoffman with Zandberg and Shaffir 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 goal.
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 women.
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 marriage.
The group has had many legal triumphs, including outlawing gender segregation on public buses.
Hoffman sat down with The Jerusalem Post 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 victims.
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 not victims.
And the Israeli media love women as victims.
Women 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 widows.
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 out.
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?
If I 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.
Many 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 injured.
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 state.
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.
Orthodoxy was 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 Israel?
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 state.
The municipalities all have departments of sports and culture and so they should have departments for Jewish religious services run by a professional.
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.
How 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?
Freedom of 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?
It’s a 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 laws.
Once a government falls, then there will be another window.
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 happen.
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.