Subject: +quot;You don't have to be Christian to enjoy Intolerance+quot; HADASSAH MAGAZINE

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

From: Blanche Nonken Subject: "You don't have to be Christian to enjoy Intolerance" HADASSAH MAGAZINE, AUGUST/SEPT. 1990 OVER THE WALL By Barbara Sofer At 7 o'clock on the cool winter morning of December 9, 1988, 26 women walked together to the women's section of the Kotel (the Western Wall). One of them was carrying a Torah scroll. Several others were wearing colorful woven prayer shawls. Two women gently lifted the Torah onto the wide table which usually holds frayed psalters. They opened their prayer books and began to recite the morning prayers "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your tabernacles, O Israel." Dozens of men in long black coats and round black hats pushed through the barrier that normally bars passage from the men's into the women's section. They grabbed the prayer shawls and knocked a woman to the ground. A young woman, eight months pregnant, lifted the Torah scrool and walked quickly to the Dung Gate. Thus 21 years after paratroopers reclamed the Wall for Israel, the first skirmish in the latest "Battle of the Wall" began. That early morning scuffle has escalated into a landmark case to be decided this year by Israel's High Court of Justice. Four women, representatives of the group popularly known as Women of the Wall, have petitioned the court to protect their religious freedom and allow them to pray as they see fit at Judaism's holiest site. They have also called on the state to defend the religious freedom promised in Israel's Declaration of Independence. "We are all well-educated Jewish women, experienced with prayer and conscious of our Jewish identity," says Bonna Haberman, the woman who carried the Torah scroll that morning. A soft-spoken mother of three and teacher of Jewish studies, Haberman grew up in Ottawa where she participated in women's prayer groups. "We didn't see what we were doing as radical. There are so many women's prayer groups in the world." "I have nothing against the women," argues the rabbi of the Kotel, Meir Yehuda Getz. "But here we are commited to maintaining the local tradition - and we've never had women's prayer groups." From a Western perspective this controversy might look like an uncomplicated case of freedom of religion. But in Israel religion and state are not neatly separated and the holy places - Jewish, Christian and Muslim - are administered by state-appointed religious authorities who, lik Getz, generally see their role as protecting tradition and the sensibilities of the more observant. (In Orthodox Judaism, women and men do not have identical roles, rights and responsibilities.) While some Orthodox groups have accepted readings from the Torah within women's prayer groups, most congregations have not. But the bitterness of the conflict goes beyond an intellectual and halakhic discussion. It reflects the clash of dramatically contrasting world views. Mostly North American-born women, the Women of the Wall see their action not only as the fulfillment of personal spiritual needs but as a sacred cause. "We need to make changes," says Haberman. "The stereotype of a Jew is a man in a black coat praying. Women are Jews too, and they need to be recognized in the fabric of public life." Opposition to their prayer, the women assert, is based not on religious grounds but on men's fear of having their turf eroded. "Women have always been able to weep vocally at the Wall - why can't they pray and celebrate there too?" asks Shulamit Magnes, director of the modern Jewish civilization program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. On the other hand their antagonists - the ultrareligious community of Jerusalem - see these women as mocking Jewish tradition. In newspaper articles and on wall posters the claim the women are interlopers importing foreign notions to defile the purity of Judaism; they accuse them of being The Kotel is the only surviving remnant of the Western Wall of the courtyard of the Second Temple built by the Jews returning from Babylon; constructed about 2400, it was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans. Since that time the Kotel has been a pilgrimage site for Jews, except during the periods when they have been denied access. The years from 1948 to 1967, when East Jerusalem was ruled by Jordan, was one of those periods. When Israel conquered the Old City in the Six-Day War the flow of worshipers resumed and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, together with the chief rabbis of Israel, appointed a rabbi to oversee prayers at the Wall. Following the tradition in Orthodox synagogues a mehitza (screen-like partition) was installed to separate men and women. Torah scrolls, prohibited under the British Mandate, were installed on the men's side. Any minyan (gathering of 10 men) has access to the scrolls. Women can either listen to the men's services or pray quietly by themselves. In addition to serving as an outdoors synagogue, the Kotel remains a symbol of national independance. An estimated 3 million people visit there each year. Many come to pray; others come for military swearing-in ceremonies, public candlelighting and lively bnei mitzvah (plural of bar mitzvah) celebrations. The seeds of the battle for the Kotel were sown at the first international Jewish feminists conference on "The Empowerment of Jewish Women" - held in Jerusalem November 28th to December 1, 1988, and sponsored by the American Jewish Congress, the Israel Women's Network and the World Jewish Congress. Rivka Haut, an Orthodox woman from New York, suggested that participants join for a women's prayer service at the Wall. Such a service way not have been an anomaly in North America, where many women's prayer groups have been organized over the last decade, even among the Orthodox. In Israel, however, such groups are rare. While in the last decade Israeli women activists pressed successfully for vastly expanded Torah-study opportunities, they did not pursue the establishment of a network of prayer groups. Haut's suggestion generated both excitement and controversy. The Orthodox women did not want to alter their usual morning prayers. Other women felt ideologically committed not to pray where men and women are divided by a barrier. Haut suggested that if Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist women could bury their differences and join in prayer they could achieve a great religious experience and a sense of unity. "She was right," says Magnes. "I was one of those with strong reservations about submitting to the restrictions of a halachic women's prayer service. But I think I would probably speak for us all in saying that it permanently changed our lives." Getz says the day the women at the conference held a prayer service at the Wall changed his life too, but not in the same way. He had recieved an anonymous phone call the night before warning him "that feminist women will come to the Kotel to overturn the fence that separates the women's and men's sections." "I didn't believe it, but in any case I notified the police to increase its forces the following morning," he recalls. "When the women arrived with the Torah it immediately incited the feelings of the men and women who were praying. I didn't prevent their entrance. I calmed down the angry feelings with the reminder that from a halakhic point of view, there was no prohibition except national custom... I like people who come to the Kotel to enjoy. I didn't want to spoil their event." Although there were tense moments, that prayer service went off withoug incident. "I thought this was a one-time happening and would disappear from the face of the earth," remarks Getz. Gets found he was wrong. A group of women carrying a Torah scroll appeared Traditionally, the celebration of the new moon has always been a half-holiday for women because of their refusal to participate in the worship of the golden calf after the Exodus. For that reason Rosh Hodesh (the first day of every lunar month) was often the choice of women's prayer groups in the diaspora (the Jewish community outside of Israel). Rosh Hodesh Tevet also coincides each year with Hanukka. "I felt there could be no more appropriate way to celebrate Hanukka, the holiday of the rededication of the Temple," says Haberman. "I didn't expect us to be greeted with open arms, but I couldn't have predicted the violence that would ensue." But there was worse in the months to come. In response to the December 9 violence the Women of the Wall decided to pray at the Wall each Friday and Rosh Hodesh. "That was a very heavy commitment for those of us with jobs and families," Haberman adds. "We felt the Torah belonged to us as women too and that we'd keep going to the Kotel until our presence was accepted." Eager to avoid further outbreaks, the women reached an agreement woth the Ministry of Religious Affairs in which they would refrain from wearing prayer shawls and bringing a Torah scroll in return for protection at the site. Nonetheless, over the course of the year they were often physically and verbally abused while they prayed. One woman was hit over the head with a chair. When the police blocked attacks from the men's section, other women shouted abuse, bit and pushed the women as they tried to pray. In one incident the police used tear gas to break up the violence and the women petitioned the Supreme Court to protect their rights. In another the Ministry of Religious Affairs had the Women of the Wall removed by women guards because they refused to leave the area on their own. The women charged publicly that the police and the state were remiss in not protecting them. They've insisted that the authorities lack sympathy for hem, hoping the extreme violence will drive them out. Getz denies this. He maintains that a quiet solution could have been arrived at if the women had not summoned politicians and announced their intentions in the newspapers. "We have a way of handling issues quietly at the Kotel, and they caused themselves problems by forcing a confrontation," says Getz. "In 22 years at the Kotel we never had to use tear gas to quiet crowds before this problem erupted." Zevulun Orlev, the director general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, accused the women of being provocative, claiming the violence was a result of "their own demonstrativeness." "I learned quickly that they didn't want to pray, but that they wanted a media event," he says. Haberman, Jerusalem councilman Anat Hoffman, archeologist Judith Green and Jewish educator Gila Robinson brought suit against Getz, the Minister of Religious affairs, the Chief Rabbinate, the local police chief and the Jerusalem police chief. While the case is pending, a temporary injunction has been issued ordering the women to conform to "local custom." That means no prayer shawls, no Torah scrolls, and - as a new restriction was articulated - no singing. Getz has warned that the prohibition against a man hearing a woman's voice in song (based on the idea that a woman's voice is sensual) would be stringently upheld. On a typical Rosh Hodesh today anywhere from 10 to 70 women gather at the Kotel to pray. After their morning prayers the Women of the Wall retire to a The Torah scroll is opened. Four women are called up to make the blessings and one or two women chant the Torah reading for Rosh Hodesh. Haberman believes that she and the other Women of the Wall have already had an impact. "Women often join in to pray with us," she notes. "Even our women antagonists now nod hello and seem to accept us better." "We've been through some pretty awful times," says Green. "But if we've opened up the space for other women, it was all worth it." Although the Women of the Wall have received little support from Israel's religious community, Jewish women and numerous organizations in the diaspora have issued statements of support. Branches of the International Committee for the Women of the Wall have been set up in New York, Washington, Boston, Berkeley, Chicago, Montreal and Stockholm. The International Committee raised funds to buy the women their own Torah scroll. (For information about the committee write to Women of the Wall, 1356 Coney Island Ave, Suite 130, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11230.) Representative of sentiment abroad is Ann F. Lewis, who chairs the commission on women's equality of the American Jewish Congress. "American women are saying this situation is outrageous," she says. "It never occurred to them that they might be denied their rights at the Kotel." Sue Mizrahi, a national vice president of Hadassah - which has urged the Israeli government to protect the rights of women to conduct religious ceremonies at the Western Wall - was a delegate to the 1988 conference. "We came seeking spirituality and sisterhood," she recalls, "and we found both." But we learned, too, what it feels like to be in physical danger in a holy place." But in a lengthy report defending the state from the petition's charges the Ministry of Justice did not agree that women's rights are being violated. "The practice of the petitioners stands in absolute contrast to the accepted halachic decisions on acceptable prayer ritual in synagogues, and particularly at the Kotel," wrote Nili Arad in summing up the Justice Ministry's case. "As a result of that, the sensibilities of those who came to pray at the Kotel were offended. Whenever they came to the Kotel public order was disturbed." It will be up to the High court to decide if, as Haberman claims, "Rabbi Getz has gone way beyond his empowerment as a religious official" or if he has acted within his authority. And in this country with its unique blend of religion and state, the judges will have to determine what must yield when freedom and tradition collide. --- Maximus-CBCS v1.02 * Origin: Blanche's Blue Bell Bombshell BBS (1:273/715.3)


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank