Last week a woman who likes to pray wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) — behavior which would be considered quite normal for the majority of the Jews in the world, who are not Orthodox — was arrested for wearing her tallit at the Western Wall, the holiest place in the world for Jews. You can read the Jerusalem Post article here, and Haaretz's coverage here.
None of the articles I read include a discussion of the religious issues involved, so I will provide that here for my readers.
Wearing tzitzit (fringes) is a commandment found in the Torah. The commandment appears twice in the Torah, first in Numbers chapter 15:
"Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a thread of blue; And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, which incline you to go astray; That you may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God."
This is considered a "voluntary" commandment, even for men: you don't have to wear tzitzit, but if you wear a garment that has four corners, it must have tzitzit attached. It has become the custom for men to intentionally wear a garment with corners — and therefore tzitzit — when they pray, and many also wear an undergarment with tzitzit called a tallit katan so they can fulfill the commandment all the time.
Women are traditionally considered exempt from this commandment. The commandment is only considered operative during daylight hours — note above it says "that you may look upon it" and you can't see the tzitzit at night. As such it is called a "mitzvah aseh sh'hazman g'rama," a positive, time-bound commandment, and women were traditionally exempt from such commandments, as they didn't have control over their time (household duties, children, husbands or fathers, etc.).
There is technically under Jewish law no reason whatsoever that a woman cannot wear a garment with tzitzit. Under traditional Jewish law they are not obligated to wear tzitzit, and they would not get credit for doing a mitzvah if they wear tzitzit. But they are also not violating any rule. Many women feel that wearing a tallit enhances their spirituality — many of us, men and women, feel that it feels like wrapping ourselves in God's presence.
Some religious authorities say a tallit is "man's garb," and therefore women should be prohibited from wearing a tallit because there is a halachic prohibition on cross-dressing (except on the holiday of Purim). To them I would say, take a look at the above picture of a woman's tallit. Anyone want to say that's a "man's garment?" See Tzitzit for Women for a list of women in history who wore tallit and tefillin.
So what was the young Israeli woman, fourth year medical student Nofrat Frenkel, arrested for?
As reported by the Sisterhood Blog she was charged with “performing a religious act that offends the feelings of others.”
For this "crime" Ms. Frenkel was threatened by the police that she could end up with a felony on her record, torpedoing her chances of becoming a doctor!
Is this the kind of country we are becoming?
This is just the latest outrage from the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. This week they also trashed a synagogue at Intel's Jersualem plant to protest the plant's operation on the Sabbath, and in recent months they went on rampages in downtown Jerusalem to protest a parking lot that was open on the Sabbath to serve non-Jewish visitors.
How about if we arrest Haredim for performing religious acts that offend the feelings of others? I'm certainly HIGHLY offended by many religious acts they do — especially for their desecrating the Sabbath in public with their protests. I'm also offended by their refusal to allow others to pray to God in their own way. And that ritual with swinging the chicken overhead…I'm not so keen on that one either!
PS. My friend Rabbi Peretz Rodman wrote a thoughtful piece about the Intel situation which you can read here. His point is just because the Haredi are going wacko doesn't mean that we shouldn't discuss whether it's a good thing for Intel to be closed on Shabbat. I would point out that Intel has already agreed to only use non-Jews on Shabbat, and for technical reasons — semiconductors are manufactured in furnaces heated to very high and precise temperatures — shutting down for Shabbat is not practical for a production semiconductor facility. But in general, I support laws requiring businesses to close on the Sabbath.
Click here to see the US State Department report on lack of religious freedom in Israel — for Jews!