Arrest threatens Orthodox too

Last month, Anat Hoffman donned her talit and began leading a prayer service for women at the Western Wall. As she hummed her first tune, she was interrupted by a policewoman demanding that she wear her talit like a scarf. She complied and continued. During the Shema, she was interrupted again, this time by a policeman telling her to lower her voice. When - according to her account - she continued singing at a lower volume, she was arrested.

Her crimes? "Disobeying a lawful instruction", "behaving in a manner liable to disturb the peace" and "offending religious sentiments" by wearing a prayer shawl and leading women in song at the Kotel.

There have been countless similar episodes since Hoffman - head of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Centre - and others started conducting prayers at the Kotel in 1988. How you feel about the Women of the Wall probably depends on your denomination. For most Progressives, they are heroines being denied their religious freedom. For most Orthodox Jews, they are provocateurs making a political point.

Neither side is likely to change its mind so I won't debate their merits. But even those who disagree with the Women of the Wall for religious reasons should stand behind them - if only for selfish reasons.

Forget about whether you support their activities. The important question is: are you comfortable with the state dictating which religious practices are allowable in modern Israel?

When it comes to the Women, most Orthodox would probably say "yes". Of course we approve of state interference when we agree with the state's actions. But it is easy to foresee circumstances in which the state might ban religious rites that some Orthodox groups actually support. What then?

This is already happening, at the Kotel. The Women of the Wall might feel viscerally wrong to most Orthodox people. But plenty of frum congregations, including a couple in the UK, have women's prayer groups. Israel is saying "no" to them, too.

A woman wearing a talit might be socially taboo in Orthodoxy. But it is not a halachic problem. If it is cause for arrest at the Kotel, which other halachic practises are going to be outlawed? If your Orthodox shul allows women's megillah readings, will you be arrested if you hold next year's by the Wall? Hoffman has been detained for carrying a Sefer Torah. What if you want to dance with a scroll on Simchat Torah, as thousands of Orthodox women do? At what point does a woman giving a shiur in the Kotel plaza become objectionable?

The problem is that we have already ceded the principle: the state gets to decide. Effectively, this means that the strictly Orthodox rabbis who hold the balance of power in the coalition, and who dominate Israel's ministry of religious services and the religious courts, get to decide. Recently, they have been pushing very stringent standards of halachah in the public arena - standards which may be normal to Charedim, but which are extreme in modern Orthodox circles. Remember the rows over conversion a few years ago, when the Israeli Charedi establishment refused to accept Orthodox conversions from almost every rabbi in America; cancelled thousands of giyurim (conversions); and made it so difficult to convert that numbers dropped by nearly 50 per cent between 2007 and 2011? The moderate Orthodox voices were silenced.

You may think that Israel's religious establishment can be counted on to crack down on the Progressives and tolerate your own Orthodox practices. But that's quite a gamble. Meanwhile, if you do not speak out for the Women of the Wall, who will speak out when they come for you?

    Last updated: 10:16am, November 16 2012