Tonight's service is joyful and full. I don't want to prolong it unnecessarily, but there is something I have to talk about tonight because of what happened in Israel this morning. It was an event that marks an important shift for Israel, and perhaps for the Jewish people.
If you have ever stood at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, you know it is a place that has an intense, quiet power. Standing in front of those immense stones, some of which date back more than two thousand years to the days of the Second Temple, one feels awed. We recognize that the Wall marks a place where Jews have come to seek the closest presence of God since the time of King Solomon, three thousand years ago.
The Western Wall belongs to the Jewish people. It might, actually, be more accurate to say that every Jew belongs to what the Western Wall represents—our history, our tradition, and our search for the God who, in turn, seeks us. In all the diversity of the Jewish people — religious and secular; Reform, Conservative, Orthodox; Jews by Birth and Jews by Choice — there is not one Jew who does not share in that heritage and spiritual connection.
You probably know that the Western Wall, which should be a place that unites the Jewish people, instead has been a focus for controversy and division within the Jewish people. This morning in Jerusalem, the Western Wall again became a center of controversy as 500 women from the organization Women of the Wall came to pray at the Wall, and more than 5,000 Ultra-Orthodox Jews came to protest their presence.
First, a little history:
In 1967, Israel took control of the Western Wall during the Six Day War. Soon afterwards, A transformation began in the Wall's meaning and use. A permanent mechitza was put up to divide male and female visitors who came to Kotel, as it is called in Hebrew. Slowly, the Kotel was changed from an area of national gathering into a de facto Orthodox synagogue. A dress code was enforced at the Kotel to ensure that all men kept their heads covered and that women showed no bear shoulders. The Kotel was turned into a place where non-Orthodox Jews had to conform to somebody else’s idea of being Jewish.
Since 1988, Women of the Wall has sought to allow women to pray aloud together, read from the Torah and wear tallit at the Kotel. They do this out of conviction that they are demanding nothing less than their rights as Jewish women who live in a free society, and that they should be free to worship on sacred ground on the same equal basis as Jewish men.
For its part, the Orthodox establishment in Israel has strenuously opposed Women of the Wall, decrying that the group is primarily motivated by political opposition to the rabbinate, and not by any sincere desire to pray to God, to fulfill their religious duty, or to seek spiritual nourishment.
The conflict has made its way into debates at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and has prompted two decisions from the Israeli Supreme Court. In 2003, the Court gave a ruling that was interpreted as a ban on women reading from a Torah scroll or wearing tallit and tefilin if these practices constituted a threat to public safety and order. The ruling stipulated that the government should create a separate space at the nearby Robinson’s Arch, which is also part of the ancient Temple platform, at which Women of the Wall could pray.
Women of the Wall rejected that ruling, saying that it granted women only a second-class status at Judaism’s holiest site. Since then, Women of the Wall has gathered at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh, the holiday that marks the beginning of each Jewish month, to worship together, to read publicly from the Torah and to wear talit, just as Jewish men do at the Kotel every day.
Several members of Women of the Wall have been arrested at these worship services, some for doing things that appear to be within the bounds set by the Supreme Court ruling. In 2009, Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a talit under her coat and holding a Torah scroll. Anat Hoffman, the president of Women of the Wall, has been arrested, fingerprinted and interrogated several times for her participation in women-led services at the Kotel. She also has been fined thousands of shekels and banned from appearing at the Kotel for periods of time. In recent months, several other women have been arrested at Women of the Wall services, including two American rabbis.
At each of these events, ultra-orthodox protestors have appeared to shout down the Women of the Wall worshippers, to throw rocks at them, and to call them every vile name that is usually reserved for Israel's worst enemies. The police generally sided with the protestors, allowing their abuse while arresting members of the Women of the Wall.
One has to ask: Who in this conflict has lost track of what Jewish tradition teaches? Who are the righteous and who are the ones who are truly desecrating God’s name at Judaism’s holiest site?
Last month, however, there was a watershed moment for Women of the Wall. A Jerusalem district court ruled that there was nothing in the 2003 Supreme Court decision that prohibited the services led by Women of the Wall at the Kotel. The court ruled that the women had every right to worship and should not be arrested. Rather, the court ruled, the police had an obligation to restrain and, if necessary, to arrest ultra-orthodox protestors who harassed Women of the Wall worshippers.
This morning was the first time that ruling was put to the test. Five hundred Women of the Wall came for services to mark the beginning of the Jewish month of Sivan, which began last night at sundown. In anticipation, two ultra-orthodox leaders, one of them a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, called upon ultra-orthodox women to come to the Wall to block out Women of the Wall. While these leaders called for peaceful protest, the scene at the Kotel this morning was anything but peaceful. Protestors threw rocks and spit upon women praying in their talitot and reading from Torah.
This time, the police acted differently. They formed a human shield to keep back the protesters and to protect the Women of the Wall. When the protestors threw trash, water bottles and chairs at the women, three ultra-Orthodox men were arrested for disorderly conduct.
How does this all play out in Israeli society? It’s hard to say. Most secular Israelis don’t care one way or the other about who gets to pray at the Kotel or what they are allowed to wear. However, Israeli society seems to have reached a saturation point regarding the license the Orthodox rabbinate has enjoyed for 65 years to control the lives of the non-religious. Israelis are sick of a rabbinate that controls their weddings and funerals. Also, most Israelis are disgusted by the fact that ultra-orthodox men are exempt from army service on the pretext that they are serving the nation by studying Torah. Israelis are ready to change the power that the rabbinate and the ultra-orthodox have over them. The recent district court decision in favor of Women of the Wall likely is a result of the shift in power and greater public disapproval of the ultra-orthodox.
And what does this tell us about the way religious zealotry and liberty plays out in our American society? We, too, live in a country in which a minority claims the right to control the lives of others based on their fundamentalist religious beliefs. Whether it is over the issue of reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, or prayer in school, we, too, live in a society in which some people use their religion as a cudgel against others.
Perhaps we need to spread the message of Women of the Wall here. When others speak about promoting “religious views” on current social issues, we should be ready to say, “We are religious people, too, and our views are also ‘religious views.’” That is part of what it means to live in a free society.
Bravo to Women of the Wall for their courage in fighting for their religious rights and their rights as human beings at the Kotel, at the Western Wall. They stood up against a fundamentalist religious establishment and insisted that they are religious people, too, and they have the right to be the kind of Jews they want to be.
And bravo to us, too, when we stand up for our religion and insist that no one should tell us what we must believe or do to fulfill our obligations to God as we see them. We will keep saying that our vision of Judaism is strong. It commands us to see each person as being created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and it commands us to see men and women created as equals, with dignity and freedom for all.