June 8, 2000
The Wall, Week Two
So now a woman blowing a shofar in Israel could be committing a crime. So a woman reading aloud from a Torah scroll could be sentenced to seven years in jail. For an ancient tradition, Judaism is moving exceedingly fast, and in a crazy direction.How seriously should American Jews take last week's lunatic legislative threats from the ultra-right? Very seriously indeed. As has been clear all along, the rights of Orthodox women in Israel have an impact on all expressions of pluralism throughout the Diaspora. These women are our stand-ins. Our battle is joined.On May 22, the Israeli high court ruled that a group called Women of the Wall had the right to pray at Jerusalem's Western Wall "according to its custom," which included Torah, tallit and in audible voice. Judge Eliahu Mazza wrote decisively that the women were entitled to the protection of the state; the threat of violence from those opposing their ritual could not be allowed to impinge upon women's basic rights to worship.
Though there was jubilation in women's circles, a closer reading of the decision raised alarm. The justices approved of women's ritual in principle, but did nothing concrete to resolve the case that had been in the courts since 1989. Quite the opposite. The court turned the matter over to the government for resolution, setting a six-month deadline.
To Miriam Benson, legal liaison to the International Committee for Women of the Wall, that six-month deadline was of great concern.
"The last six-month deadline turned into six years," Benson told me.
Last week, the religious right retaliated. The United Torah Judaism party introduced legislation in the Knesset that would overturn the court ruling, making a crime out of women's worship that included shofar, Torah, tallit, tefillin and mixed gender prayer. Incredibly, the bill passed the first of three readings by a 32-26 vote. Joining in the coalition were such moderate Likud members as Reuven Rivlin and members of the Russian Israel B'Aliyah party.
How outrageous that the Israel B'Aliyah party, which came to Israel after escaping religious persecution in the former Soviet Union, would inflict oppression on Jewish religious women. And what a perverse abuse of faith.
That's only the beginning.
"We're engaged in a war of attrition," Benson told me.
Beware of two other bills: Shas would declare the Kotel (the Wall) to be an Orthodox synagogue, in which women's ritual can be severely circumscribed by the administrator of the Kotel. And the Mafdal (Religious) party bill would move the women to Robinson's Arch, a distance away from the main Wall. This last bill would violate the court decision, which declared Robinson's Arch an inappropriate bypassing of women's right to pray.
In response, Naomi Chazan (Meretz party) has introduced a bill which would enforce the Supreme Court decision on women's prayer rights.It must be stressed that the Women of the Wall have, for more than a decade, adopted a mode of prayer in line with Orthodox custom. If the religious right cannot tolerate this group, it will not tolerate any kind of elastic interpretation of pluralism at the Wall or elsewhere in Israel. No accommodation has been satisfactory.
Yes, it's true that Women of the Wall were able to celebrate Rosh Chodesh last Sunday without incidence. But bear in mind, the women have yet to celebrate at the Wall "according to their custom." They are following to the letter the court ruling that they wait before bringing Torah and tallit to the Wall until a full procedure is in place.
But will they ever get one?"This is not about uppity women," Carol Levy, a Los Angeles community activist, told me. "It's about who determines issues of holy space. It's about who determines issues of holiness."There is no doubt that the court itself flinched from imposing a remedy. By refusing to act decisively on behalf of women's worship at the Wall, the court gave the demagogues their day. Americans can only look to our own past, to people like Gov. George Wallace blocking the schoolhouse doors, for the equivalent of Israel's religious intransigents. The rights that are being violated today are our own. We can look to Brown vs. Board of Education for an opposite example, for a time when a brave court acted boldly because politicians would not do so. The Wall could be put in receivership if politicians flout the law."Our ideal scenario is not to have us marched in to the Kotel by police," says Benson."But if that's what it takes to preclude the capitulation to the threat of charedi violence, it may have to be done. We would prefer to carry out sacred prayer using paths of peace."
It is time for action. Write to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, email@example.com, saying you support the rights of Women of the Wall to pray in the women's section of the Kotel with Torah and tallit. Demand that the government make suitable arrangements in accord with the Supreme Court decision of May 22, 2000.And pray for an Israeli Earl Warren.n
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org