Thursday, Dec. 17, was a day that passed quietly in Jewish Pittsburgh, but it shouldn’t have.
That was the designated day of international solidarity with the Israeli organization Women of the Wall. This is a group of women — mainly Orthodox Jews — who assert women’s rights to pray freely at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Sadly, their struggle to pray freely at Judaism’s holiest site has evoked violence — not from Hamas or any other terrorist group — but from Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Nov. 17 was the latest such incident. On that day, Jerusalem police arrested Nofrat Frenkel, a fifth-year Israeli medical student and officer in the Israel Defense Forces. Her crime? She wore a tallit while praying at the Western Wall.
While Frenkel and other women (who wore their tallitim under their clothes, not ostentatiously over their shoulders) prayed the Torah service, two Haredi Jews stormed onto the women’s side of the michetza, Frenkel recalled, “and began abusing us.”
Preferring to finish their worship in peace, the woman took their Torah and began to move to an alternative site further way from the Western Wall. That’s when police arrested Frenkel.
The officers based their arrest on a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling prohibiting women to pray in ways that offend the customs at the Western Wall. The court determined that female assembly and vocal prayer at the Wall could endanger public order and lead to rioting by Haredi Jews.
(The previous year, the court actually sided with Women of the Wall and their right to pray undisturbed at the Western Wall, but Haredi lawmakers challenged that ruling. The court ultimately backed down.)
Whose custom is being offended here? Frenkel has worn a tallit all her adult life, and liberal Jews flock to the Wall every year for the same reasons as Haredi worshippers; it is not their custom to relegate women to the — no pun intended — fringes of Jewish worship.
The men who entered the women’s side of the michetza that day were not arrested. We doubt their behavior would be tolerated in most synagogues, but apparently it meets the custom of the Western Wall. Maybe if men disrupt services at the site, then they should be arrested — just a thought.
There are many reasons why the Haredi have been able to exercise such control over religious life in Israel: the most obvious being that the Israeli political system is so fragmented that the governing political party must strike an agreement with smaller Haredi parties in order to govern. Those parties typically demand control of religious affairs as their price for allegiance.
But there’s another reason: We Jews in the Diaspora have done too little to express our outrage at the mistreatment women worshippers at the Western Wall must endure. As we said, Dec. 17 passed too quietly in Pittsburgh, though some rabbis made the Frenkel incident the topic of their Shabbat sermons. That was good, but it was hardly enough.
It would be better to express our outrage directly to the Israeli government. That’s still possible. The Israeli consul general in Philadelphia, Daniel Kutner, can be reached at (215) 977-7600 and select 8 from the menu. And when Kutner makes his periodic visits to Pittsburgh to discuss pressing issues facing the Jewish state, he should not be allowed to leave without addressing the need for equal worship rights — at the Western Wall and throughout Israel.
Halacha (Jewish law) does not forbid women to read from the Torah or wear the tallit. Statements to the contrary, whether from the Haredi or anyone else, are simply inaccurate.