Sunday, December 2, 2012

Praying too loudly!

In October, Anat Hoffman was arrested for praying too loudly. The arrest took place in Jerusalem, at the Kotel—the Western Wall. She was taken to jail and held overnight.

Anat Hoffman is the leader of Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall. This is a group of women in Israel who have pressed for years for equal religious rights for women at the Kotel.

By government policy, the area in front of the Kotel is administered as if it were an Orthodox synagogue. There are separate sections for men and women, with a high barrier separating them, just like a mechitzah in a traditional synagogue. Traditional Judaism forbids men from seeing (or hearing) women while they (the men) are at prayer.

It may be hard to imagine that women don’t have the right to pray as they wish, at least in the women’s section, but that’s the case. The Women of the Wall go to the Kotel every month on Rosh Hodesh and attempt to pray the full morning service, including the reading of Torah, with some women wearing tallitot. Once in a while it goes smoothly; often they are forced to move away from the Kotel, to a location called Robinson’s Arch; sometimes they are attacked violently.

They say, “As Women of the Wall, our central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”

An Israeli law—nominally secular law—enacted in 1981 however, prohibits “conducting a religious ceremony contrary to accepted practice” and “wearing unfit attire.” In fact, it prohibits conducting any religious services without permission from the local official of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. A provision forbidding “a religious ceremony not according to local custom, which may hurt the feelings of the worshipers toward the place” was added to the regulations especially to limit the worship by the Women of the Wall.

What got Anat Hoffman into trouble was, ostensibly, that her voice could be heard on the men’s side. In addition to not seeing women while at prayer, Orthodox men consider themselves prohibited from hearing women’s voices. In a traditional synagogue, if the voices from the women’s section or gallery become audible, men will shout “Kol isha! Voice of a woman!” until all is quiet. Other women have been arrested just for wearing tallitot.

There was no gender separation at the Kotel before 1948. I have seen photographs from the days in 1967 just after the reunification of Jerusalem when separate men’s and women’s sections at the Kotel didn’t exist. Today, however, it is divided, with  police authority behind the separation. The Kotel even has its own police force.

There is no easy solution when some Jews feel unable to pray as they choose if other Jews are allowed to pray as they choose, and there is only one Kotel. The Women of the Wall do not consider Robinson’s Arch an acceptable substitute: it was built during Herod’s expansion of the Temple around 20 B.C.E. and is not considered a sacred area, and because it is an active archaeological site, there are other restrictions on access to it.

The next Rosh Hodesh, for the month of Tevet, falls on December 14. The easiest way to keep up with activities of the Women of the Wall is to “like” their page (Women of the Wall Nashot HaKotel) on facebook.

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