My last post spoke to the inequity of Israel society’s treatment of its Palestinian minority, specifically Arab women. Let it not be said though that Israel treats only Palestinian Arab women this way. It treats observant Jewish women similarly. A few days ago Nofrat Frenkel was davening with a group of women at the Kotel under the auspices of Women of the Wall. She was wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, according to Orthodox tradition worn only by men. She was carrying a Torah scroll, another privilege denied Jewish women in the Orthodox tradition ostensibly because they might menstruate and thus defile the sacred object.
For her trouble, Nofrat Frenkel was arrested by the Israeli police and taken to a police station for questioning. All this for seeking to pray in the same way Jewish men have done for centuries, if not millenia.
Apparently, she may have violated a Supreme Court ruling that said that women praying at the Kotel must abide by the traditional rules of behavior and practice there. The Court, hardly one to rock the boat or break new ground regarding controversial political or social issues, refused to consider that in this day and age other forms of Judaism might be recognized as valid at the holiest site for world Jewry.
The response of the Orthodox monpolists who control the Kotel was instructive and their abuse equally so. Note the rabbi’s introduction of Occupation terminology into his portrayal of the event:
“It is an act of provocation that seeks to turn the Western Wall into disputed territory and in violation of a High Court of Justice ruling. A prayer that causes contention and desecration of the sanctity of the Western Wall has no value. It is an act of protest.”
Rabinovitz further noted that he regrets that various bodies are attempting to compromise the Western Wall, out of “political interests.”
“The Western Wall was always excluded from that realm. Let’s leave it be – that it remains so in the future as well.”
It is common for Israeli nationalists and settlers to call the Occupied Territories “disputed” because they refuse to acknowledge that Israel merely “occupies” them, which seems to connote a temporary and possibly illegal condition. By calling the Kotel “disputed territory” he seems to be intentionally or unintentionally invoking the language of Occupation to describe this stand-off. The Orthodox men are the like the Israeli occupiers and the “usurping” women are like the Palestinian occupied. Like Israel, the Orthodox seek to declare their ownership of the site and seek to compel obedience from the rebelling women. Is this any way to run the holiest site of world Judaism?
The chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef’s response was odious:
…Here are stupid women who come to the Western Wall, put on a tallit (prayer shawl), and pray…These are deviants who serve equality, not Heaven. They must be condemned and warned of.”
In the eyes of the Orthodox, such behavior is indeed morally and doctrinally deviant since the protesting women are rejecting their assigned religious and social role and the “yoke of heaven” imposed on them. But who gave the Orthodox the right to determine what practices should be observed at the Kotel? Not I nor all the rest of the world’s Jews who are not Orthodox (and many Orthodox disagree with this practice I should add).
In this Ynetnews story, an American rabbi describes a scene he witnessed in 1970 at the Kotel when an earlier group of women sought to daven there:
“One Rosh Hodesh during a year when I was studying in Israel…“ wrote Rabbi Farmer, “there was a…women’s minyan at the Kotel on the women’s side…The rabbi of the Kotel…arranged for private security to be there. Only later did I understand why: What he asked them to do is something the police probably would not have done. They began to drag the women away from the Kotel as they were singing Hallel…
“The women offered no resistance, but no cooperation either. They were literally being dragged, with their skirts rising up on them and sometimes their hair getting mixed in, so that it looked as though they were being dragged by their hair…
Some men davening at the Wall…were Holocaust survivors who had seen Jewish women dragged through the streets in Europe by the SS. These men ran up to the rabbi and started screaming at him…Others were equally disturbed. Their point to the rabbi of the Kotel was clear:…’They are Jewish women singing praises to God and you are dragging them through the streets?! You are wrong – you must stop. They are wrong but what you are doing is much worse.’”Rabbi Farber added, “…I remember the look of horror on the face of one Orthodox man, who was a Holocaust survivor, and how he was screaming at the Rabbi of the Kotel, and then I remember him running up to one of the security guards who was dragging one of the women, and trying to break his grip and yelling at him, ‘Nazi, SS! Stop! These are Jewish women! Stop!’ He was yelling in Yiddish. I know enough to understand what he was saying, but he was so freaked out that he was probably oblivious to the fact that it was doubtful the security guards understood Yiddish. The rabbi of the Kotel, though, most certainly did.”
The same story quotes an Orthodox rabbi comparing this incident with another historical era:
“That’s what it was like 40 years ago in Moscow: wearing a talit and carrying a sefer Torah in public could get you arrested. But that was the Soviet Union, a repressive totalitarian state; this is Israel in the 21st century!”
From 1970 to 2009, too little has changed. This single incident encapsulates all that is wrong with allowing a minority religious entity to have a monopoly on Israel’s spiritual and social life (i.e. marriage, divorce, conversion, immigration, etc.)
The response by the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, of which Frenkel is a member, sounded like a call for religious revolution:
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, leader of the Progressive Judaism movement said in response…”It is in the Jewish State and the holiest site for the Jewish people of all places that police forces are sent to arrest a woman who seeks to pray according to her conscience and conviction. It is a great shame to the Israel Police and the State.”
…Executive Director of the Masorti Movement Yizhar Hess, said: “The Western Wall must be freed from the obstructionist orthodox establishment. It is inconceivable that a Western democratic nation such as Israel does not allow religious ritual freedom for its Jewish citizens. The Western Wall must be liberated.”
Soon may it come to pass and in our day.