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Heed the Pronouncement: 'The Wall Is for All'!

December 3, 2009 By:
Bonna Devora Haberman
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Some ultra-Orthodox crowds in Jerusalem have adopted new modes of Shabbat observance -- stone-throwing outside the Intel plant, and cursing and havoc-wreaking at a parking lot in town. While many of us smell spices to soothe our souls at the departure of Shabbat, men and boys in black hats and jackets dump garbage into the streets and ignite a toxic stench. Attacks against law-enforcement officers, civilians and property often accompany these activities.

On Saturday evening, concerned Israeli citizens responded to such blatant violations of Shabbat and civil society.

Jerusalemites marched through the city en masse to proclaim that Judaism does not admit coercion, that violence is unacceptable, that Jerusalem is a free city, and that the Kotel/Western Wall must be liberated again -- this time from ultra-Orthodox domination. Placards and stickers declaring, "The Kotel is for all, women and men," adorned the rally.

An incident on Nov. 18 in which a woman was arrested for wearing a tallit at the Kotel prompted the inclusion of the Kotel among the banners. Like hundreds of Jews praying that day, Nofrat Frenkel donned a tallit -- a prayer shawl in observance of a biblical commandment. Frenkel, a fifth-year medical student, was among the Women of the Wall, who have held monthly prayers in the women's section of the Kotel plaza since 1988.

Women of the Wall assemble from across the spectrum of the Jewish people: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and unaffiliated. Police did not arrest any man wearing a tallit that morning -- just a woman.

They were selectively enforcing a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that prohibits female Jews from fulfilling the Jewish ritual public prayer commandments at the Kotel. The basis for the ruling is not religious law, for the court did not find any admissible religious legal objections to women praying with tallit and reading from the Torah scroll; the grounds were jeopardizing public order.

The court tacitly accepted ultra-Orthodox control of a site laden with meaning for the entire Jewish people and embraced the priority of those willing to violate female Jews at prayer.

At the demonstration Saturday night, some tried to sabotage it by slicing the loudspeaker cables. Yet the electricity flowed, and liberating voices rang clear with Israeli unwillingness to continue to accept sexism and coercion.

Ironically, the restrictions the Jewish sovereign state imposes on women resemble those that foreign powers imposed on Jews. During the pre-state Mandate period, 1917-1948, wary about the combustibility of Muslim religious-political interests, British officials prohibited all public Jewish prayer rituals at the Kotel. They forbade Jews to read from a Torah scroll. Officials punished the blowing of the shofar with fines and imprisonment.

The similarity of repression under colonial and democratic rule points to two serious and related flaws in contemporary open society: oppression of women and capitulation to the violence of law-forsaking religious forces.

In the West, the validity of civil rights ends de facto at the gates of the mosque, church, temple, synagogue -- and at the Kotel. Democracies not only tolerate, but also uphold the right of religious communities to trample core tenets of civil society. This we do not only on account of our self-deprecating "tolerance," but out of fear, to appease those who hurl curses and stones, burn and violate.

Discrimination against women is among the egregious offenses against human dignity sheltered under the wing of religion. Exclusion from public places and rituals, from knowledge and positions of authority; physical, educational, and social restrictions; and the enforcement of "modesty" through invasive surveillance and dress codes are daily humiliations to which religious communities subject their female members worldwide.

Behavior long deemed unacceptable to ethical sensibilities in Western culture is ignored, accepted -- even respected -- when it is under sacred aegis.

We need to work respectfully and collaboratively to liberate religion from its oppressor role. In the climate of tension and fear, Women of the Wall set an example for active participation in responsible religious practice that addresses profound Western hypocrisies. So raise the banners higher: "The Kotel is for all, women and men."

Bonna Devora Haberman, an initiator of "Women of the Wall," combines scholarship with arts and activism. She has taught at Brandeis, Harvard and Hebrew universities.

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