The reaction was fast and furious — and rightly so. American Jews were outraged by the notion that an Israeli woman could be arrested for praying at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.
The incident occurred last week, when activist Anat Hoffman, leading a group of women in prayers to mark the new month, was taken into custody and allegedly mistreated.
The controversy over female prayer services at the Kotel dates back more than 20 years. Israeli law bars women from praying while wearing a tallit or tefillin, or reading aloud from the Torah. In 2003, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld those rules on the grounds that “local custom” at the Kotel did not allow for such practices.
By and large, the Women of the Wall have taken their monthly service to nearby Robinson’s Arch, where egalitarian services are permitted. But last week, they tried once again. Hoffman, the leader of the group, as well as the head of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, was joined by scores of Hadassah women celebrating the organization’s 100th anniversary.
The struggle for prayer rights at the Kotel is part of the larger struggle for religious pluralism in the Jewish state, where religious affairs are controlled largely by the Orthodox establishment and non-Orthodox streams are not recognized. This so-called “status quo” arrangement that grants Orthodox monopoly over marriage, divorce and burial is mired in coalition politics, where Israeli leaders depend on the Orthodox parties to form governing coalitions.
For decades, Reform and Conservative voices have tried to make inroads through legal channels. Sometimes they have achieved victory, as happened this past spring when Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer won an agreement for non-Orthodox rabbis to be paid by the state. But as our story (see page 12) shows, even that seemingly historic agreement has yet to be implemented.
So what is American Jewry to do? The answer is not to turn away from Israel as some might be inclined to do. Instead, we must continue to press these issues. We must support those in the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel who have not given up their struggle to attain equality in the place we all see as central to our Jewish identity and existence.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, put it well in expressing a prevailing view among non-Orthodox Jews:
“The question of religious pluralism is an existential threat to Israel’s soul,” he said. “I find it unconscionable that in the Jewish homeland any Jew would be arrested anywhere for the public expression of their religious identity.”