Last month former Jerusalem city councilor Anat Hoffman, a brightly colored prayer shawl draped about her neck like a scarf, took a stand. Backed by a band of dancing, chanting, clapping women and the mound of stones that is Judaism's most revered shrine, the Western Wall, or Kotel, she cradled a heavy Torah scroll. In moments, a YouTube video testifies, the Israeli police were there, pleading with her to abandon the holy book. When she refused, they made attempts to pry it from her arms.
"It's mine, it's mine!" she yelps over and again in the footage of the scuffle. Hoffman was still gripping onto the scroll when she was jostled into the backseat of the van that would take her to the police station. The women continued to sing even after the car had pulled away.
Twenty years ago, Women of the Wall, the religious activist group of which Hoffman is chairwoman, petitioned Israel's Supreme Court for the right to worship freely at the Kotel, in the manner of Orthodox Jewish men. They asked, in other words, for authorization to pray as a group, their voices raised, while wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah. Meeting in supplication at the start of every Hebrew month, they were and still are assailed with curses and hard objects, hurled across the partition that separates ladies and men at the site. Customarily, women at the Kotel pray individually and in silence.
The court ultimately ruled against them. After a lengthy legal battle, it determined in 2003 that women are not permitted to read from the Torah or wear tallitot, fringed pray shawls traditional to men, at the Western Wall on the grounds that it might disrupt public order. Instead, they may hold services any way they like at the adjacent Robinson's Arch, a monument set in an archaeological garden tucked just out of view. The 1967 Protection of Holy Places Law that governs the Kotel bars "holding a religious ceremony that is not according to local custom." Israel's Chief Rabbinate, its supreme Jewish religious governing body, and Religious Affairs Ministry have interpreted that as Orthodox custom. The definition stands.
In the early years of the State, the Chief Rabbinate was in the hands of Orthodox Zionist parties that prioritized the building of Israel and felt a connection with secular Jews. But in recent years that movement has focused almost exclusively on settlement building in the West Bank, allowing religious power to shift to the more liturgically rigid ultra-Orthodox. Thirty years ago, ultra-Orthodox parties held five of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel's legislature. As of the 2009 elections, they hold sixteen. "Narrow-minded parties have become the kingmakers," says Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "And the more the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] consolidate power, the less pluralism and liberal expressions of Judaism are allowed to be expressed in the Israeli religious landscape."
That landscape is becoming increasingly fractured. On the same day that Anat Hoffman was detained, a law on religious conversion proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu member David Rotem passed through a Knesset committee by a 5-4 vote. The bill was initially aimed at facilitating conversion for the 300,000 Russians immigrants in Israel who are not considered Jewish due to their mixed parentage, granting local rabbis across the country the power to convert. But under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, the bill was amended to grant full authority to the Chief Rabbinate and declare Orthodox Jewish law the basis of conversion. The reaction from members of the American Jewish community, who fear that their more lenient conversion processes will be invalidated by the law, has been overwhelming. "The bill completely delegitimizes North American Jewry, 85% of which is politically liberal," says Wernick. For now, both sides have agreed to a six-month period of negotiation, a delay instituted by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has said that the bill "could tear apart the Jewish people."
But though they sympathize with liberal Jews in that growing crisis, most of Women of the Wall's 106 members are themselves Orthodox. Jewish law mandates that women are exempt from performing what are called "positive, time-bound mitzvot," or commandments that are to be carried out at specific intervals, such as the wearing of the tallit. Opinion, even among Orthodox leaders, differs as to whether women may, in keeping with religious law, waive this exemption. But even among those who agree that they can, many rabbis maintain that to pray in such a way at the Wall would be an impermissible departure from tradition. "Custom is much harder to fight than regulation," says Hoffman. "The wall has been in Israeli hands for 43 years. Women of the Wall has been around for 21 years. When will I become custom?"
That is the question that prompted Hoffman to slip her exposed Torah past security, a scroll that had previously only ever seen the women's side of the Wall from the inside of a dark duffel bag. She is said to have only been carrying the holy book, not reading from it as is illegal. An investigation into her case is still underway. "In Israel state forces the police, the courts, the municipalities have somehow become servants of only one stream of Judaism," says Hoffman, who was fined $1,300 and banned from visiting the Western Wall for thirty days as a result of July's run-in. "The secular police of the democracy are under pressure to stop us. And they are completely out of their jurisdiction." This is their second female arrest in two years: in 2009, Israeli medical student Nofrat Frenkel was the first woman in the country to be detained during prayers at the Kotel for publicly wrapping herself in a tallit.
Hoffman's detention gave a sense of urgency to a pre-planned conference held by the Knesset's Lobby for Civil Equality and Pluralism one day later on July 13th. The meeting was led by Nitzan Horowitz, a liberal member of the parliament, who intends on introducing a bill that would amend the Holy Places Law and advance more inclusive solutions at the country's sacred sites. It will propose that the Kotel plaza be divided into three sections, the largest of them a non-segregated space, recognizing the Wall as a national place of pilgrimage rather than a religious site where worship must follow strict Orthodox practice. The proposition is an audacious one. "Secular Jews are much more bold now than they ever were in the past," says Professor Menacham Friedman, a Bar-Ilan University sociologist of religion, in response to the idea. "They are pushing back." On whether he thinks the bill will become law, Friedman predicts, "Not now. But probably yes, in the end. Revolutions do not happen in Israel. Everything is evolution; slowly, carefully, things are changing."
Among those in attendance at the meeting were former paratroopers who brought the Kotel under Israeli control in the 1967 Six-Day War fought with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and who spoke of the need to "liberate the Wall once again," this time from intolerance. "The time has come to return the Wall's plaza to the hands of the entire Jewish people," Knesset member Horowitz told the crowd of civil rights activist, religious groups and political party members. "It belongs to us all."
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the religious authority who has overseen the Wall for nearly fifteen years, shares that sentiment, but has come to a radically different conclusion. "The Kotel belongs to everyone, and so it needs to be run according to what is mutual between us, not what separates us," says Rabinowitz, who was notably absent from the Knesset gathering. What is common to the diverse worshippers who visit the site, he stresses, is the custom of the Wall. "That is why the Supreme Court came to the decision it did. If the Women of the Wall would like the state to be more liberal, this is not the place to voice that opinion. This not a political place." A common criticism of the women's group is that its members are motivated by a desire to make a political statement, not a sincere wish to pray.
It is likely that a mix of politics and prayer brought the women to the stretch of coarse, white limestone, the last remnant of the ancient Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., this week. August 11 marked the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, when it is customary to blow the shofar, or ram's horn. Hoffman has sounded the first blasts, meant to begin the process of ushering in the Jewish High Holidays, on the group's behalf since its founding in 1988. This year she was absent, her restraining order still in effect. So was the shofar, which was confiscated by police and only returned to Women of the Wall upon their departure to Robinson's Arch. But upwards of one hundred members and supporters came to show their solidarity in the spirit of the soldiers who reached the Wall 43 years ago and, singing the Israeli national anthem, wept for victory. "We are going to take back what most Israelis have given up for lost," Hoffman says. "If we can get pluralism at the Kotel, we can get it anywhere. This is where we're going to win our liberation."