This first morning of the month of Tammuz, the month in which we begin to count the days toward commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem, Israeli police detained a woman for wearing her prayer shawl in the plaza of the remnant of the ancient Temple. Whether we agree or disagree with the particular religious observance by this specific Jew, a few clarifications are in order.
In a discussion of the matter with the police officer responsible for the Western Wall Plaza during the incident, he explained the reasons behind his action. The government official who determines the status quo at the Kotel prohibits women from wearing prayer shawls (and kippot) in the plaza. The official is willing to overlook kippot; he will tolerate prayer shawls only if they are wrapped around the wearer’s neck, and not worn draped over her shoulders.
This morning, most of Women of the Wall wore their prayer shawls in the traditional fashion according to their religious observance. Police interrupted women praying to instruct them to adjust their prayer shawls to adhere to the official’s ruling. At the conclusion of the morning prayer, the police singled out one woman for detention. They behaved aggressively, in a manner of intimidation.
During attacks by ultra-Orthodox opponents in the Kotel Plaza in the 1990s, the Israeli Supreme Court admitted the relevance of the status quo to the Women of the Wall case. The official of the Western Wall — an ultra-Orthodox rabbi — was given unilateral authority to judge acceptable practice at the Wall for every person. The purpose was to minimize the violence by restoring a status quo until a decision was rendered.
The Israel Declaration of Independence guarantees “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” The Declaration also promises to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” These freedoms are foundational and precious to Israeli civil society; they are among the foremost responsibilities of the state. Momentary infringement of them is to be tolerated where there is an actual or near-certain risk of endangering public order and safety. During the 1990s, the police submitted to the court that women wearing prayer shawls constituted a near-certain risk to public order.
Over these past 23 years, the monthly prayers of Women of the Wall contribute to the inevitability of women’s full participation in public life — religious and secular. This morning, the women’s section was humming with many voices of prayer. Many tapped their feet to the joyous rhythms of the prayers of Women of the Wall. The ample police presence ensured that small concerns were easily dismissed. The only threat to the security of Israeli civil society was posed by the police themselves. Enforcing sectarian religious positions on women at prayer, and detaining a woman on the grounds of the position of her prayer shawl on her own body, they curtailed basic freedoms and offended the dignity of the State of Israel, its officers, and its citizens.
Until the establishment of the State of Israel, observing Jewish precepts had been a free act of conscience. The plurality of fulfillment of the Torah, and the development of Jewish tradition across years and cultures, has sustained Jewish peoplehood, as it is recorded in texts and enacted in our vibrant diversity. Let us betray neither the ethical drive of Judaism, nor the promise of our homecoming, by applying police enforcement to religious practice.