Jewish Journal

The Women of the Wall and the Dictator

by Susan Esther Barnes

April 5, 2013 | 2:43 pm

Photo by Baz Ratner/REUTERS.

The Israeli news agency Ha’aretz has published a good summary here regarding what’s been happening in the last week or so in regard to the Women of the Wall.

The Women of the Wall is a group of women – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and other – who have been praying at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site, on the first of each Hebrew month for the last couple of decades.

Sometimes the women are allowed to pray unmolested. Sometimes, they have chairs and other things thrown at them. Sometimes they are detained and arrested, and sometimes individual members are ordered not to return to the Kotel for 30 days are more.

The latest chapter in the saga began when the police sent a letter to Women of the Wall, naming a list of actions that could get them arrested. One of the things the letter said they could get arrested for was saying Kaddish, the prayer we say for loved ones who have died. This created a good deal of concern, since nobody had ever been arrested for saying the Kaddish before. It looked like the police were going to impose even more onerous rules on the group than they had in the past.

After some negotiations – which, oddly enough, did not involve anyone from the Women of the Wall, the chief rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabiowitz, announced that no women would be arrested at the Kotel for saying the Kaddish. That’s good news on its face, but it leads to a rather ominous conclusion.

As Anat Hoffman, the leader of the Women of the Wall, is quoted as saying in the Ha’aretz story, the rabbi’s contradiction of the letter from the police “proves what we’ve been saying all along – the rabbi calls the shots.”

We Jews in the diaspora have been proud at pointing to Israel as a democracy in a sea of Middle East dictatorships. But whether or not a person is arrested, regardless of the law, is determined by the whims of a single man, even if that man is a rabbi, then that is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship.

The Women of the Wall, on the other hand, voted – that’s right, like one does in a democracy – to read Torah from a bound book at the Kotel this month, rather than read it from a Torah scroll, since that is forbidden by the rabbi.

Why should one dictator get to decide who can pray at the Kotel and what they can pray? Why were women allowed to pray unmolested one day (see my post about it here) and are arrested on other days? Because that is what happens when who the police arrest, when, and for what, is subject to the whims of a dictator. That is what happens when we surrender democracy to dictatorships.

The Women of the Wall will be praying at the Kotel again on Rosh Chodesh, Thursday, April 11. Those of us who value democracy over dictatorship should be praying with them in spirit, if we cannot be praying at the Kotel with them in person.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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