We should all be outraged. On Tuesday, October 13, a Jew in the Middle East was arrested, shackled, stripped and roughed up for praying the Shema in public. As it happens, the Middle Eastern country in question is the State of Israel, and the Jew was Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and chair of Women of the Wall (WOW).
Ms. Hoffman, or Anat as I suppose I have the right to call her, since we’ve met—more on that in a minute—was leading a special service with about 200 women on this Rosh Chodesh to celebrate the centennial conference of Hadassah (which for reasons best known to themselves chose Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu as the recipient for this year’s Henrietta Szold Award. Under the circumstances, they might want to ask for it back. Netanyahu, for his part, showed that he does have a sense of humor in his address to Hadassah, saying, “I will never tolerate discrimination of women.”)
Anat was leading the group in the Shema when she was arrested. The brutality with which she was treated is indefensible. She was shackled and strip searched, made to sleep on a floor, with only her tallis for covering.
I met Anat Hoffman on a trip to Israel with my synagogue. She sold me my most beautiful tallis, embroidered in red and purple and gold, with tributes to the Four Mothers at its corners. She spoke to our group about her passion for Torah and prayer, about wanting the Western Wall to be a space where all Jews can worship freely and the full range of Judaism is appreciated.
My own experiences at the wall were…complicated. I knew, of course, that we would be split up according to a male/female binary, but the experience of it was wrenching. I thought about transgender and intersexed people I know and wondered how they’d feel in my place. I imagined someone immobilized in the upper plaza as the hour grew late, trying to work out which of two lines to join; imagined trying to explain to the police who guard the Kotel why ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is an inadequate menu of choices.
Our group of provisional females made it into the women’s section, past the shnorers, to the wall where women sat in silent devotion, read t’hilim or shuckled, close to the stones. I placed the brief prayer I had written into the wall and then pressed my palm and forehead to the Kotel.
I was utterly unprepared for what happened then: I burst into tears. My conscious mind was horrified, jabbering in embarrassment, arguing frantically with whatever atavistic presence from my psyche had taken control:
“Okay, so this is a little excessive, right? Don’t you think this mystique of place is a retreat from radical monotheism? Do you think really think God can be concentrated in a bunch of material stuff? Suck it up, already. You know this wasn’t even part of the real Temple, right, just a retaining wall for Herod’s Folly, the expanded edifice of a vain unpopular king?”
“You know if you were visibly genderqueer, you couldn’t even be here without passing, right?”
“You know you only have a nice plaza to have this catharsis in because an Arab neighborhood was torn down to make room for it, right?”
“Do you even want a sacrificial Temple back?"
What’s the deal with charged space? How can one place be holier than anyplace else when God is everywhere? How much of the charge is about God and how much is the freight of human projections and needs? Even for this smarty-pants student, the Kotel is way over-determined. It gets around the rational part of people.
That can make for crazy. Since the 1967 war, there have actually been voices in Israel calling for the destruction of the Al Aqsa Mosque, a house of worship which is now situated on the Temple Mount, oblivious to the carnage such vandalism would provoke. The Documentary Praying In Her Own Voice features women rabbis who describe being spat on, attacked with chairs and prevented physically from praying out loud with the Torah at this holy site by screaming fanatics whose own sense of decorum seems more than a little skewed.
When it comes to women praying, the Israeli Supreme Court has upheld the restrictions. The State has given administration of the Kotel over to the Chief Rabbinate, which considers the lower plaza an Orthodox synagogue with a mehitzeh. We wouldn’t march into just any synagogue and disrupt services would we?
No, but most active synagogues aren’t tourist destinations or national heritage sites. They don’t swear in soldiers at most synagogues or film worshippers while prayers are said. Most synagogues aren’t contested sites of messianic or apocalyptic yearnings.
If ever I’m in Israel during Rosh Chodesh, I hope to stand with WOW. They bring a reminder of Judaism’s broad range of practices and understandings, of the fierce love for Torah that drives so many women’s lives and our determination to reclaim it, and they force a discussion about the proper relationship between synagogue and state. But I see their limitations. I don’t expect WOW to address the entangled claims of two peoples to the Temple Mount and all the stories and ghosts that the place invokes.
For myself, I don’t know that I need to pray at the Kotel. I’d rather daven in tallis and tfilin with people for whom I’m just one more Jew, praying our prayers. I can’t get a handle on the slippery relationship between the nation and the people Israel; I don’t want to pray atop the ruins of someone’s house. (The abandoned Crusader castle where WOW prays sometimes would be just fine with me; on those ruins, I could pray with a clear conscience and some glee.) If I’m honored to bless the Torah, I want it to be because Torah is the center of my Jewish world, wherever my body happens to be.