May 14, 2013
State, Religion, and Women of the Wall- an Interview with MK Stav Shaffir
On March 11, first time MK (Member of the Knesset,) Stav Shaffir (27) from Ha'Avoda (labor) party, joined the Women of the Wall in prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. With threats from several Orthodox groups, and attempts for arrests by the police, they welcomed the new "Rosh Chodesh." This is what she wrote on her Facebook page that day:
This prayer received large media coverage, and brought the discussion of women's religious rights in Israel back to the headlines. After the police arrested five women for praying at the Kotel, wearing talitot and yarmulkes, while claiming it is against the rule of the Israeli Supreme Court, the legal discussion was reopened, and there may be a light at the end of the tunnel: On Monday, Jerusalem District Court ruled that Women of the Wall were not breaking the law by conducting their monthly service. A big step forward, but there is still a long way to go.
Today, more than a month later, Shaffir, who also led the national struggle for "social justice" in the summer of 2011, has agreed to interview for Israelife and give her opinion on Judaism, Israel, equality and Women of the Wall.
Why did you join Women of the Wall for their monthly service and in their struggle?
"This struggle is not only about the equal right for women to pray. It is a much wider struggle, which symbolizes our fight for the freedom of religion in Israel. Out freedom to live how we want to live, with our own beliefs and our own personal way of practicing jewdaism or other religions. It is about how and where we choose to pray, but also about every other aspect of our lives. Nowadays, the marriage institution, women's rights and the most intimate, important choices of our lives are all in the hands of a small and powerful group within jewdaism - the orthodox, which many times doesn’t see, or is not respectful enough, for other forms of practices.
This situation also has the unfortunate, less notable, side effect of pushing people away from Judaism. The Judaism we know here, in Israel, is mostly Orthodox. This causes many women to feel discriminated in this specific culture. For many, the orthodox practice is considered extreme, and when the general perception is that this is the only Jewish life possible, many people step further away from the Jewish religion and culture.
One of the things that make Israel special is that we can live a Jewish life without necessarily having to live a religious life. Judaism is everywhere here, from our educational system to our national holidays. Everything here is the outcome of Judaism, mostly its cultural aspect. The moment all the Jewish streams are being sucked by one very small stream, there is a problem. It pushes people away from their own religion and sometimes from the Jewish culture and legacy.
All the beauty of Zionism, and this beautiful Zionist project called The State of Israel, must renew itself constantly. We must always understand the field we're at, and keep finding the ways to continue to realize it."
So you believe state and religion should be separated?
"I don't believe we need to strip the Orthodox stream from its power, but to simply provide more power to the other streams as well, and create a true Democracy. Allow freedom for non-Orthodox as well. The way it goes now, there is not a non-Orthodox marriage institution. People cannot legally get married, and enjoy marriage privileges in a non-Orthodox way. Same goes for any other basic rights in our lives, such as divorce, gender identity sexual identity, what women can and cannot do in their military service. There are many outcomes coming from this domination of one religious stream. The best solution would not be to remove them from all power, but to give other streams and groups within the Jewish religion with the same amount of power."
What were the reactions you received after joining Women of the Wall?
"Reactions came from both sides of the scale. Many asked me: "You are not religious, so why were you wearing a tallit?" This question is very hard for me, because what I felt there, during the service, was incredible. It was very powerful, empowering and moving to stand there, with these wonderful, courageous women. The prayer they chant is very beautiful and combines several streams. It took them years to write it, and it addresses the Conservatives, the Reform and also the Orthodox. It combines everything, and there is something very special in it. I think that I, as an Israeli woman, never felt I was an equal at services combining prayers. I felt discriminated, beneath men. As a woman in Jewish Israel, I always felt like I was being pushed aside. That's why the feeling of standing there with the amazing Women of the Wall, knowing this is our thing and that's how we choose to do it, was wonderful and really brought us closer to one another.
Hearing negative remarks on what I did made me realize it is all a misconception of religion and the definition of who is religious and who is secular. I mean, we each believe in our own way. This is what religion truly is- each person does whatever he or she feels in his or her heart. There is no one prayer better than another. I felt like there was an unreasonable appropriation of religion. I was born in Israel. I am Jewish, my grandparents are Jewish, and no one gets to decide for me how I must realize my Judaism and what is not "good enough." It doesn't work this way.
This kind of reaction was very condescending and again, very drifting away from Judaism. Instead of pulling us closer to religion, the message was: "it is ours, and unless you do this and that- you cannot be a part of it."
On the other side, there were very supportive, enthusiastic reactions. Many women, secular also, said that this showed them they can do this, and must never give up. There is a common perception in Israel that because there is a status- quo of some sort, we cannot make a change. We forget that things can be different. We live in a country with religious institutions, but this does not mean we cannot also throw a reform or secular wedding, just like in any other western, free state, that puts liberty as a higher value. So there were many positive reactions as well, and on a more general note, I feel like my party, Ha'Avoda, really aroused the civilian talk.
Nowadays, we are in a time of a change of generation in politics, as there are more young people in our Knesset than ever before. This is the perfect time to revive the discussion about religion and state. There are many things that weren't as clear for the previous generation as they are to us. As a woman, I will not accept limitation, something that women several decades ago may see as something that cannot be changed. I also think that the issue of LGBT is also something that we, today, accept as a part of our lives. For our generation, the acceptance is more obvious, a part of our culture, not something that needs to be on the side, hidden. Same goes for civil, secular, marriage. This topic is more out in the open now.
That's why the change in our politics, the younger breeze, is important for reopening these discussions. Now is the time to redefine Judaism and its connection to Israel. To turn the Zionist vision to what it is supposed to be. On some level, there is a very strong connection between what our grandparents dreamt of when they realized the Zionist dream, to what became of it- the state of Israel- but now it seems like this Zionist dream was forgotten, and when living under constant existential threat, that dream is sometimes being pushed aside. This is the role of our generation- to pull it back."
In summer of 2011, you led what can only be referred to as "revolution." You and your partners made hundreds of thousands of people get up from their seats and protest in the streets for "social justice." Do you think that the struggle for a true freedom of religion is the next revolution in Israel?
"I think it can be one of the main issues to capture the public's attention, but a true change depends on the involvement, both of the Knesset's as well as the public's ability to get up and join. But I think it is definitely possible, yes. We have a very indecisive government, and I really have no idea how the various parties will react to the matter of civil marriage. I think there is a place for a true, meaningful, discussion."
And is there a chance for a true change?
"Definitely, because there is no other choice. Even today, you can see how the discussion of the post- social-justice protest of 2011 still has a major impact on everything. Whether it is the decisions made by the national banks, the decisions made by Israeli tycoons, and the fear of our elected politicians to disappoint their electors. Same goes here. The talks about it can turn into a change similar to that of the 2011 protest.
In his speech in Israel, President Obama said "as a politician, I can assure you that political leaders will not take risks if the people do not push them to do so". I think this is very true. We lit a match with Women of the Wall, a struggle for a thorough change they've been leading for a long time now. It created a public discussion which must grow and spread, and if it will lead to a demand from the public, it will lead to a governmental change."
Do you see yourself as the leader of this struggle?
"We are all leaders of what we care for, and this struggle is a major part of our struggle for greater freedom. I've been dedicating time to meeting with all the parties involved, the Rabbi of the Kotel, the women, and I try to reach a compromise. If we will fail to reach a meeting point which will be accepted by all sides, especially for Women of the Wall, we will need to take this to the next level."