Treading on sacred ground

For the Women of the Wall and those defending adherence to tradition, the fight for the Western Wall didn’t end in 1967

Anat Hoffman arrested during Women of the Wall service 370 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Anat Hoffman arrested during Women of the Wall service 370
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
What enabled Judaism to survive for 3,000 years, through exiles and pogroms and assimilation and tragedy and rapidly changing cul- tures? Was it the religion’s ability to adapt to changing times or the way observant Jews insisted on maintain- ing strict rules without changing anything? For Anat Hoffman, the chairperson of Women of the Wall (WOW), the richness of Judaism lies in the challenges and the questions. From an early age, Jewish children are encouraged to pick apart minuscule parts of holy texts, to dissect them and examine them from different angles, to learn what the sages said and to add their own opinions, building on the commentary of the rab- bis or confronting them head on with a new idea or objections. For the past 24 years, Hoffman has led a group of women challenging the ultra-Orthodox con- trol of the Western Wall. Every month, they gather for the service that celebrates the new month.
“What’s happened to this whole fantastic tradition of arguments?” Hoffman asks in her office in Jerusalem, sitting under a shadowbox frame displaying the bag that held her personal effects when she spent the night in prison in October after police arrested her for pray- ing aloud at the wall. “The State of Israel has taken one faction of the Jewish people and has given it state power. The argument ended. It’s bad for Orthodoxy, it’s bad for religion, it’s bad for the state. The playing field should be leveled so that there is competition in this market, as well as may the best rabbi win. I have no problem with the Rabbi of the Western Wall objecting to what I’m doing. I have a problem with the fact that he’s telling the police what to do.”
Situated across the divide from Hoffman is an angry Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the administrator of the Western Wall and holy sites. Rabinowitz argues that a strict interpretation of the Jewish tradition is the only thing that has enabled the religion to survive intact for more than 3,000 years.
“There’s the idea in Israel of status quo,” he explains, sitting in his office with a sweeping view of the Western Wall plaza below. “Most of the things that were created in 1948 with the founding of the state will stay that way until eternity. There are people who want the rab- binate not to have a monopoly. There are people who want Shabbat to be this or that. There are people who want to change many things in Israel... If we change everything from here to there, it will totally destroy the delicate makeup of the State of Israel. There is a very delicate and complicated mix in Israel, and everyone has their own opinion. And if every single person wants to do their own thing, it will lead to the destruction [of Judaism]. It’s forbidden for us to allow this to happen.”
THINGS CAME to a head on February 11 during the service for Rosh Hodesh Adar. WOW invited members of the paratroopers who liberated the wall in 1967 to draw attention to the fact that they still needed to lib- erate the wall from ultra-Orthodox control. The women called the service “emotional and meaningful” and marveled at the fact that the police hadn’t detained anyone for the first time in 22 months. Then in a flash, police detained 10 women, including Hoffman, WOW executive director Lesley Sacks, eight-months-pregnant rabbinical student Lior Nevo, two Conservative rabbis from the US, and American comedian Sarah Silverman’s sister and niece – Rabbi Susan Silverman and 17-year-old Hallel Abramowitz. Some of the women signed a deal with the police not to enter the Western Wall plaza for two weeks. Others refused and were later released.
Jerusalem Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said at the time that some of the women were detained for wearing tallitot, especially what police refer to as “male style” tallitot. Police allow women to wear colorful tallitot around the shoulders, which police refer to as “female tallitot,” as opposed to the “male tallitot,” which are blue and white or black and white and worn folded across the shoulders.
“The moment they put on the other [male] tallit, it’s problematic,” Ben-Ruby said. I’ve been there 24 years. That’s more than half the time [Jews have been allowed on the site since 1967].”
“The customs of the place were not determined by me,” Rabinowitz says. “The customs of the place were determined in 1967 at the liberation [of the Western Wall following the Six Day War], and they were determined by then chief rabbi of Israel Rabbi Nissim and Rabbi Getz, who was then the rabbi of the Western Wall. The order and prayers that exist today [at the Western Wall] are the way it was determined back then. They didn’t change it, for good or for bad, depending on your point of view. The haredim are angry that it became worse.”
Plenty of extremist haredim call on Rabinowitz to quit, angry over the fact that he allows the army to hold swearing-in ceremonies at the Western Wall plaza, or the lack of a “mehadrin” entrance to the Western Wall with separate entrances for men and women. He notes, however, that it was a “mistake” to divide the plaza into two-thirds men’s area and one-third women’s area, and claims he is trying to change this.
RABINOWITZ POSITIONS himself as a moderate force balancing between the ultra-Orthodox extremists and the radical Women of the Wall. Rabinowitz offers those critical of his stance towards Women of the Wall the following metaphor: Imagine a father who hosts a Passover Seder every year for his family. The father has 10 children, and each of his children marries someone from a different place with different tra- ditions. In their own homes they can follow these new traditions, but when they come back to their father’s home, they must follow their father’s traditions. Otherwise, Rabinowitz says, there will be chaos.
“I think what an impoverished Seder Rabinowitz is offering us, that everyone will do what dad is doing year after year after year,” says Hoffman. “And will dad ever benefit from the Yemenite sister-in-law or the Iraqi son-in-law, from all the different varieties that his chil- dren got married to? No. He will do exactly the same Seder all the time. It’s good for dad, but it’s not good for everybody else. He is ignoring our diversity.”
But Rabinowitz says he is bound by tradition, not diversity.
“There’s a phrase in the Talmud that means that not every rabbi can get up and say, ‘I’m going to change Halacha,’” he says.
Just because the rabbis didn’t know about electricity when they made the decrees about Shabbat doesn’t mean you can use electrici- ty on Shabbat, he explains.
“I can clarify, I can try to understand based on what they decreed, what happened in new technology changes, but to take it and change it – I can’t... You’re taking the Torah and you’re tearing it up into pieces. The fixed set of rules doesn’t change according to the political or state agendas,” he continues. “There is Halacha, and it was deter- mined. Sometimes it is compatible with the state agenda and some- times it is not. But let’s allow God to run things a little around here.”
Rabinowitz says his biggest problem with WOW is that they changed their prayer into a protest.
“The Western Wall needs to search for what we have in common, and not what divides us,” he says. “I understand that there are cus- toms that I believe are against Halacha ... but here at the Western Wall this isn’t the place to [practice those customs]. Do it at your own synagogues. Go look for the place that everyone can unite.”
But that answer won’t satisfy Hoffman. Part of the reason the world has paid so much attention to the plight of the WOW is their use of prayer as a form of protest.
“The fact that we use prayer as a subversive act is a kick in the head,” says Hoffman.
People expect prayer to be about observing tradition, not fighting for their rights. But for Women of the Wall, the prayer is both.
The war over the identity of the Western Wall will continue, both groups pulling in each direction, leading to angry arguments and impassioned pleas, sensational headlines and snarky retorts. But perhaps the survival of Judaism, and the vibrancy of Jewish life at the Western Wall, isn’t due to either side alone but rather to the tension created between these groups. Perhaps the best place for Judaism to flourish is in the gray area between change and tradition, adaptation and ritual.