Last week, in honor of Israel’s 73rd birthday, my colleagues asked each other where they would go first when they next visit Israel. As a longtime religion reporter who has never been to the Jewish state, the first image that came to mind was the iconic and sacred Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites.
But heading there first when I’ve waited so many years to visit Israel would require more courage than I care to muster. As a woman, and a journalist no less, I would not be fully welcome at that wall. Encountering that reality and the cast of characters that enforce it would undoubtedly dampen the rest of my long-awaited trip.
Then came a welcome bit of news about another character in Israeli politics. Last week, on the first day of the Hebrew month, Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv smuggled a Torah scroll into the Western Wall plaza and handed it to a group of women during a prayer service. In doing so, Kariv flouted the Western Wall policy that only allows its own Torah scrolls to be read at the holy site, though it makes no scrolls available to women.
Kariv made one available and in doing so infuriated ultra-Orthodox lawmakers. As the first Reform Rabbi in the Israeli Knesset, Kariv took advantage of his parliamentary immunity, which shields Knesset Members from legal action. Fellow Knesset Member Moshe Gafni said he would file a complaint with the Knesset Ethics committee. He called Kariv a “well-known brat, always was and always will be,” adding, “And now he is bringing the Knesset down to the very depths of hell in order to harm the Jewish people all over the world for generations.”
Another lawmaker Yitzhak Pindrus likened the stunt to sneaking cellphones to prisoners convicted of terrorist acts — a curious comparison to women who seek the right to pray.
While historically men and woman have prayed together at the Kotel without the fear of lightning strikes, that has not been the case for decades in modern Israel. For three of those decades, a group of bold Jewish women — both Israeli and diaspora — have ushered in every Hebrew month with prayer in the plaza’s section for women.
Last week’s squabble was certainly not the first. The activists, who dub themselves the Women of the Wall, have been spat upon, berated, beaten, and arrested for “disturbing the public order” for evils such as singing and praying. Courts ruled in their favor in 2013, but because Israel’s Chief Rabbinate still has not seen to it that women have access to Torah scrolls, cloak and dagger capers have continued. When the women held a bat mitzvah for a young Israeli woman in 2014, the activists pirated a miniature Torah scroll into the site and read it using a magnifying glass.
In 2016, the Israeli government announced the creation of an egalitarian prayer space in the plaza for non-Orthodox Jews, a proposal conceived by the legendary Natan Sharansky. But those plans eventually evaporated into political ether.
Restrictions apparently go beyond prayer too. When former Vice President Mike Pence visited the holy site in 2017, female reporters were corralled behind their male colleagues, unable to see what they were there to report. Two years later, author Bari Weiss described being spat upon while reporting there on International Women’s Day.
The Women of the Wall have the courage to speak the truth to power that I would not. They speak for most affiliated Jews in the diaspora who belong to the sundry other branches of Judaism besides Orthodox — Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal. They speak for Ashkanazi, Sephardim, and Mizrahi, Jews who survived the Holocaust, Jews from the former Soviet Union, converts. They speak for all Jews who have the right to recite the same prayers and read the same Torah at the same holy site, even if some of those Jews disagree.
They speak for me. And frankly, so does Kariv. But Kariv enjoys immunity. Bold women often do not.