Saying Sh’ma without a License, or, How to Get Strip-Searched by Praying at the Kotel

Anat Hoffman was arrested for singing prayers out loud—the Shma in this case—at the Western Wall during a Women of the Wall get together. Technically speaking, I do not know the particular violation Hoffman is accused of, but I assume that it was a form of “disturbing the peace” – the peace in this case being the Ultra-Orthodox control of the Kotel and their requirement that all observable religious behavior be in keeping with the halakha and Jewish custom, as interpreted by them.

In a sense, there is nothing new here. Ms. Hoffman’s arrest was expected. According to Israeli law, “No religious ceremony shall be in held in the women’s section of the Western Wall. That includes holding or reading a Torah, blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) or wearing tallitot (prayer shawls).”

The Women of the Wall know this (according to their website) and this is exactly what they are fighting. Here is their mission statement: “As Women of the Wall, our central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”

Anat Hoffman was arrested this week, but she and other members of the group have been arrested or detained before, for similar “violations” like holding a Torah Scroll or wearing a tallit. In a 2010 op-ed, Ms. Hoffman makes clear that although the primary purpose of the Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh prayer assemblies is prayer, they are also about rights. The group is engaged in classic civil disobedience with the hope that the Israeli public and lawmakers will understand their position and make changes in laws surrounding prayer at the Kotel.

This struggle has been ongoing since the 70s. In 1989, my parents took me to Israel for the first time for my bar mitzvah. At the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh, I distinctly remember looking on in fascination and horror as a group of women who had been praying were dragged out of the women’s section, their skirts and dresses being pulled up immodestly as their bodies were dragged on the ground. I don’t remember what their violation was—I was still only 12—but I must have said something, and someone (an adult man) came over to argue with me. I don’t remember what either of us said, but in my gut I was sure that whatever it was the women were doing, the authorities were in the wrong.

I truly hate the site of women being dragged from the Kotel; I would stop it tomorrow if I had the power. Nevertheless, in fairness, the police have a job and that is to enforce the law—however misguided. The arresting officers themselves have bosses, telling them to do their jobs and remove or detain those women. At this point, the women are violating the law, and even those of us who support them in their attempt to receive the right to pray in their own way at the wall must admit that it is within the police officers’ technical obligations to remove them when they violate the protocols. Police are agents of enforcement, not of legislation.

In fact, there are times when the police have been kind or helpful. My mother was once praying with a mixed group of men and women in the courtyard area outside the area for prayer but in view of the Western Wall. A number of angry Ultra-Orthodox observers began to throw things at them—hard things; my mother was injured. The police tried to protect the group but eventually told them that it would be in their interest to break up the service since the mob was getting restless and people could get hurt. I don’t know whether the police could have done more to protect them, but at least they were not antagonistic to the group.

This is why I was so shocked to read Anat Hoffman’s description of her experience yesterday. It seems to me that the interest groups involved are the feminist prayer group, Women of the Wall on one side, and the Ultra-Orthodox who wish prayer at the wall to remain traditional on the other. The audience for this show-down is the Knesset or the Jerusalem municipality, whoever it is that makes the laws. The police, I would have imagined, are simply stuck in the middle doing their, unpleasant, job.

This is what I imagined… and yet Ms. Hoffman’s report of what occurred tells a very different story. According to her testimony, she was dragged on the floor of the police station, handcuffed and legs shackled. Legs shackled? For what? And it gets worse. Here is the account in her own words:

In the past when I was detained I had to have a policewoman come with me to the bathroom, but this was something different. This time they checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw the food through a little window in the door. I laid on the floor covered with my tallit.

How is this aggression warranted in a case of simple civil disobedience? Are the police officers personally offended by her behavior? Even if they were, this would be no excuse, but I do not understand the brutality. Did she assault them? Did they think that she was carrying a concealed weapon? This sounds like an open and shut case of humiliation and intimidation combined with physical and sexual assault.

I’ll admit that when I first heard of this—one of the women in my Wednesday night women’s Talmud class told this to me before I had read the articles—I said that it couldn’t be. That this must be an exaggeration or a mistake that will be cleared up by the time we wake up the next morning. Well, it hasn’t been cleared up, and more and more news sources are reporting this as fact. My God, if this report is true (and I desperately hope it is not), this cannot be allowed to stand. Jobs must be lost, apologies must be made. Israel is a country of law.

I am not discussing now who should win on the question of decorum and prayer at the Wall. My personal view is that the Women of the Wall should be accommodated, but there are other creative suggestions on the table as well, like opening up Robinson’s Arch full time as an egalitarian prayer spot or making the Kotel a “minyan-free” zone, available for only personal prayer. However the matter is handled, as the situation stands now the Women of the Wall are going to continue with their Rosh Chodesh prayer groups, and until the law changes, or those in charge of the police change their enforcement policies, sadly, there will be clashes. Although I believe that dragging women away from the Kotel just for praying out loud or wearing a tallit is a ḥillul ha-Shem (a desecration of God’s name), this will not stop the other side from trying to enforce what remains technically within their legal rights. Nevertheless, I hope that some way can be found to avoid the dragging, and certainly brutality is out of the question. It is vital to remember that civil disobedience is just that, and must be responded to civilly in turn.

Zev Farber, Atlanta

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the editor of and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.