November 18, 2009
Israel has always maintained that only it can maintain religious freedom in Jerusalem. Well, I wonder what the "Israel, right-or-wrong" and hasbara merchants would make of this little nugget from the Jerusalem Post. I always thought that arresting women for praying as they wanted was reserved for places such as Sudan, Iran and Pakistan, not "the only democracy in the Middle East".
Police and Western Wall officials expelled a female prayer group from the Kotel area and arrested one of the women after they attempted Wednesday morning to read from a Torah scroll.
"We debated amongst ourselves whether or not to read from the Torah at the Kotel itself or to take the Torah to the Robinson's Arch," said Nofrat Frenkel, who was arrested and later released by police.
"In the end we decided that because nobody seemed to mind we would go ahead and read the Torah at the Kotel."
According to a compromise reached two decades ago under Supreme Court mediation, it was agreed that women who wished to wear talitot [prayer shawls] and kippot and read from the Torah would be allowed to do so at the Robinson's Arch adjacent to the Kotel and not directly in front of the Kotel so as not to offend Orthodox visitors.
On every Rosh Hodesh (beginning of the Jewish month) the Women of the Wall conduct prayers at the Kotel and at the Robinson's Arch. On Wednesday's visit there was a contingent of women from North America who are in Israel to take part in a rabbinical ordination ceremony to take place at the Reform Movement's Hebrew Union College.
Frenkel said that as the women unrolled the Torah scroll and began to prepare to read, officials from the Kotel Foundation arrived and demanded that they leave the premises.
Frenkel said that the women agreed to roll up the Torah scroll and take it to the Robinson's Arch. But on their way out Frenkel, who was wearing a talit and was carrying the Torah, was seized by police.
"I was pushed into a nearby police station and transferred to the main police station at Yaffo Gate."
About 40 women who attended the prayer formed a procession and followed the police and Frenkel through the Old City to the Yaffo Gate where they congregated and sang songs until Frenkel was released.
Rabbi Felicia Sol of the post-denominational Bnei Jeshrun Synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side, said that the attempt to read from the Torah was an experiment with "pushing the boundaries".
"It is ridiculous that in a Jewish state that is supposedly democratic women cannot pray the way they want to and only one definition of Judaism is accepted," said Sol.
"It is sad that many secular Israelis are distanced from Judaism because in Israel religion is seen as a negative, divisive force instead of being compelling and meaningful."
Anat Hoffman, Chair of the Women of the Wall, said that the two-decade-old compromise that prevents women from reading from the Torah at the Kotel was outdated.
"Times have changed and women should be allowed to have a more central role in Jewish expression," said Hoffman.
Kotel Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz said in response that the women's actions were "a desecration of the sacred."
"They brought dissent and infighting to a place that is supposed to symbolize unity," said Rabinovitz. "And that is a desecration. They behaved like [biblical] Korah and his assembly."
Rabinovitz added that the women were motivated by a political agenda and did not want to simply pray.
However, Frenkel, who belongs to a Conservative congregation in Israel, said that her sole intention was to pray to God.
"We were not trying to cause a provocation," said Frenkel.
"I am not a political person. I come to pray and perform what is written in the Torah 'Speak to the Israelites and tell them to make tzitzit on the corners of their garments'", said Frenkel referring the biblical verse that teaches the commandment to wear a talit.
Jerusalem Police said that they arrested a woman from after she donned a talit, while praying at the Western Wall.
According to a police spokesman, the woman was approached by officers after putting the prayer shawl on, which police said caused an outcry from other worshippers.
"Police calmed the situation down, and took the woman in for questioning," a statement from the spokesman said.