Right to light

It’s not the Wall, it’s ultra-Orthodoxy.

Women of the Wall carry a Torah scroll into the women's section of the Western Wall plaza (photo credit: WOMEN OF THE WALL)
Women of the Wall carry a Torah scroll into the women's section of the Western Wall plaza
(photo credit: WOMEN OF THE WALL)
This Hanukka, the Jews of two world capitals will be celebrating the festival of lights in strikingly different ways.
In Paris, according to Channel 10, the police has ordered Chabad to cancel most of its public Hanukka candlelighting events, considering the recent terrorist attacks and in fear of new ones. It was reported that community leaders were now trying to obtain a permit for a candlelighting at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Here in Israel’s capital, the celebration of Hanukka’s “miracles and wonders… in those days at this season” will this year be graced with a small miracle, one that is long overdue but blessedly fit for the times: a woman will take part in the national candlelighting ceremony at the Western Wall.
This week the Attorney-General’s Office wrote a letter to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, administrator of the Western Wall and Holy Places, in response to a long-standing Women of the Wall’s campaign opposing the discrimination against women in candlelighting at the Kotel, and ordered him to include women in this year’s ceremony.
Assistant Attorney-General Dana Zilber wrote, “Preventing women from participating in national ceremonies is wrongful discrimination, and we request that [Rabinowitz] ensure this fact is not taken for granted and that steps are being taken to include women in the national candlelighting ceremony on this coming Hanukka at the Western Wall.” Zilber further requested a list of all those expected to participate in the ceremony, to ensure enforcement.
Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman expressed satisfaction at the ruling. “Whatever woman is chosen for this great honor, she is standing on the shoulders of Women of the Wall, who struggled for 27 years to achieve freedom for women at the Western Wall. It is clear to me that one candle dispels a whole lot of darkness, but no amount of darkness can extinguish that candle.... For the Chief Rabbinate, time has stood still and stopped in the Middle Ages.”
In an open letter to the Women of the Wall, published in this paper, Rabinowitz made clear what the true issue at stake is. He is afraid one candle will lead to a conflagration – the destruction of the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on Israeli Judaism.
“You wish to call for a change of the entire Jewish nation’s ancient prayer practices,” he wrote, “and there is no greater pulpit from which to sound this call than the prayer plaza at the foot of the Western Wall, the place upon which the whole Jewish nation gazes.”
It’s not the Wall, it’s ultra-Orthodoxy.
One candle may indeed ignite a social movement, backed by our Basic Laws, to bring about a healthy separation of synagogue and state, anathema to the virtual monopoly on Judaism held by the Chief Rabbinate and its associates in religious discrimination.
Rabinowitz also took the opportunity in his letter to remind the Women of the Wall: “You too, like me, are familiar with the Jewish world and know that even today, for millions of Jews in thousands of synagogues around the world, women’s Torah reading is completely forbidden.”
He concluded by suggesting they should not obey the directive of the Attorney-General’s Office. “Therefore, I ask of you to give in. Not to give up your opinions, but to give up using the Western Wall as the sounding board for these opinions. I do not ask you to give up your beliefs, but to give up your desire to express them in the one place that demands that we all bow our heads in humility.”
Hoffman has said the organization would be happy to move the state ceremony from the men’s section of the Western Wall Plaza to the open upper plaza. She also pointed out that, according to Jewish law, women are obligated to light Hanukka candles.
This Hanukka has already seen one small human rights miracle, but another one is pending. The Center for Women’s Justice petitioned the High Court of Justice this week on behalf of four members of the Original Women of the Wall organization, asking it to void a directive drafted by Rabinowitz in 2010 that prohibits anyone – but meaning women – from bringing a Torah scroll to the Western Wall.
The court will soon have to decide whether it is legal for the state to cede its authority to theocratic bodies that violate human rights and the principle of equality before the law.