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Israeli Judaism – Under Arrest

There is no 'Rabbi of the Western Wall' and there is not one 'local custom' at the Kotel
Women of the Wall at the police station in October (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Women of the Wall at the police station in October (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Now that the war is over, we have returned to everyday Jerusalem challenges. The first of this Hebrew month of Tevet was the twenty-fourth anniversary of Women of the Wall – the Israeli initiative I convened for morning prayers to celebrate monthly at the Kotel. On that sunny morning when we were all much younger, I did not anticipate that a women’s Torah-reading, wearing customary prayer shawls would ignite so much interest or opposition. This rosh hodesh Tevet, the police met us at the checkpoint – not to welcome and celebrate, but to confiscate our prayer shawls before we even entered the plaza. Having arrived with the light of Hanukkah in my heart, the police demand to take my tallit and my tefillin-phylacteries broke my spirit. Last month, the Israeli police detained six women praying at the Western Wall. Reports convey many inaccuracies about events related to Women of the Wall – for good reason. The situation is complex and confusing. I propose some corrections, and share a few curiosities about being arrested for praying with a tallit.

Last month, when I entered at the security checkpoint, I exchanged friendly greetings with the officer in charge of the Kotel plaza. I ducked behind dozens of women who were gathered at the back of the women’s section, and discreetly draped my creamy tallit around me. (I refrain from putting on my tefillin in the plaza.) As we began our morning prayers – with our intention toward the wellbeing of our embattled nation, and peace – a couple of officers, having selected their targets, led off the first few of us. Accosted by the violation, I breathed myself back into prayer. In an instant, the same officer who had greeted me earlier was pointing and directing me out. I finished a verse as he put his arm around my back, pushing. I asked that he desist from touching me, picked up my bag, and went along with the small woman officer to whom he transferred me. Five other tallit-wearing offenders were already in the courtyard of the station off an alleyway behind the plaza. I was arrested – for resisting, and therefore taken to an inner room. I sat on a chair, and resumed my morning psalm in a quiet voice. An officer wearing a black velvet kippa behind a counter shushed me. “Kol Isha” – a (prohibited) woman’s voice, he said, as he tapped at his keyboard. I calmly quoted a couple of authorities I thought he might respect who permit hearing a woman’s prayer voice. He recoiled.

Soon we were loaded into a van, and driving to the Kishle, the main Old City station. Our driver was a Border Policeperson, wearing the same uniform as my son who completed his service as a commander the day before. The driver had on a large knit black kippa. I asked what flavor of Judaism he practices – Rebbe Nachman’s, he answered. We began a traditional Reb Nachman song about the precept to live in joy. The driver and woman officer beside him smiled, nodded, and hummed along. She liked the voice of our companion, Deb Houben. She could be a professional singer, the officer commended. We flowed into a medley about Jerusalem and peace, singing and clapping heartedly together through traffic descending from Mount Zion.

We were led into a foyer in front of the interrogation rooms. The door was open wide, sun streaming. I laid my tefillin. We chanted our prayers and praises together. “From the narrow place I called out to You.” Inside the station, the police did not interrupt our prayer. The driver peeked in a few times, intrigued by our fervor. Our lawyer arrived and spoke with the police. He advised us to sign the restraining order that would be put to us, barring us from the Kotel for five days – he had negotiated them down from fifteen. If we resisted signing, he explained that we would be taken before a judge who would probably bar us for sixty days. Each of us was invited in separately for interrogation.

Bonna Devora Haberman (right) with Women of the Wall outside the police station in October (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Bonna Devora Haberman (right) with Women of the Wall outside the police station in October (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The courteous interrogating Druze officer listened attentively and recorded faithfully what he called my “lectures” in response to his questions. At the end, he thanked me for sharing with him my insight and interpretations. He said he was honored to have spent the time together and looks forward to future conversations – outside the police station. The manner of the other officers was helpful and friendly. They were following orders over which they have no control.

Quoting a JTA release, in his news story, Aaron Kalman writes,

Western Wall regulations dictate that women cannot wear tallitot, or prayer shawls, in the same manner as men, as it contravenes the “local custom” as determined by the Wall’s chief rabbi. In 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallitot, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall. (my emphasis)

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no “Rabbi of the Western Wall,” no “chief rabbi.” According to the legal definition, there is an administrator appointed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This individual is not empowered to act as a rabbinical authority, but as a state official of the Israeli civil government. As such, s/he is meant to serve and be accountable to all citizens, women and men.

The Western Wall is a public site of utmost historic and spiritual significance to the entire Jewish People. After millennia of yearning, Jews come to that place with diverse customs – a symbol of the Zionist homecoming. There is not, nor can there be one “local custom” at the Western Wall. There is not, nor can there be, any single authority who might determine and enforce his or her sectarian religious opinions in any public place.

Most of us detained that day refused to sign the restraining order. After we had all been questioned, photographed, weighed, measured, and finger-printed, the interrogator called in those of us who had not signed. He plied us with savvy arguments. Sitting in a row facing him, our silence spoke our decision. Faced with our objection to the State of Israel barring us from praying at the Western Wall, he rose up from his chair, pen in hand. He stroked out the clause on each of our depositions. The presiding officer respected our principle and opted not to take us to court. We were unconditionally released.

Kalman states that existing regulations dictate the manner in which women are to wear tallitot. His next sentence contradicts this statement claiming that the Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tallitot. Existing regulations cannot both ban tallitot and dictate the style for wearing them. Indeed, the fact that many officials seem to have arrogated the authority to police women’s tallit styles is pretty clear evidence that they do not consider it to be illegal to wear them.

Without elaborating the complexity of the legalities, suffice to say that the police could not cite any substantive law as grounds for their detentions or arrests. No indictments have been made; the State clearly does not want to press charges. The police are likely not the source of the tactical decision to disturb our prayer, detain and, demoralize us by attrition. Some suggest that the Western Wall Heritage Fund, of which R. Shmuel Rabinovitch is chair, is one possible source; widespread Israeli acquiesce to ultra-Orthodox-haredi control over our Jewish lives is another. As a result, women are prevented from full participation, contribution, and leadership – increasingly erased from the public sphere.

Women of the Wall have been among the regular worshippers at the Western Wall for 23 of the 45 years that the Kotel has been in Jewish hands. Our prayer customs are part of the Kotel landscape, and the landscape of the Jewish People. Police harassment plainly offends the sensitivities of worshipers concerning the place. Ten years after the last Supreme Court verdict in 2002, the police demonstrate full capability to peacefully soothe minor interferences. Furthermore, the State’s primary responsibility is to protect the right to pray, not to protect the right to prevent other people from praying.

While we were waiting in the foyer at the Kishle, one of the detainees who was schooled in Beis Yakov, Rachel Cohen Yeshurun asked me to help her lay tefillin for the first time. With awe, we bound the straps affixing the sacred boxes to her arm and head, to her thoughts and actions. She recited the shehechiyanu blessing for having reached that moment. A strange moment indeed – banished from the holiest site of the Jewish People, we conducted dignified and meaningful prayer inside a police station.

With Women of the Wall, Israeli Judaism is under arrest. Let us attain the unconditional release of Israeli Judaism from imprisonment by extreme and coercive state-backed religious authority. Let us rejoice in a vibrant plurality of Jewish observances. Let us rededicate our most sacred site for all Jews.

About the Author
The late Bonna Devora Haberman is author of 'Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink' and 'ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter,' National Jewish Book Award finalist. Dr. Haberman taught at Harvard, Brandeis and Hebrew universities. In Jerusalem, she initiated Women of the Wall, a 25 year strong movement for women's full participation and leadership of public religious practice. -- Dr. Haberman died on June 16, 2015.