Wear a Tallit, Go to Jail, Redux…

DSC_0208 Last Friday morning, Lauri and I braved truly miserable weather (well, OK, truly miserable by Jerusalem standards — it was raining!) to join the "Women of the Wall" in a protest at the Kotel (Western Wall).

Isabel Kershner's piece in the NY Times, "Challenging Traditions at the Heart of Judaism," did a good job of capturing the essence of what happened.

Kershner wrote:

JERUSALEM — A struggle for the character of the Western Wall, this city’s iconic Jewish holy site and central place of worship, is under way, and it is being fought with prayer shawls and Torah scrolls.

Some women wore prayer shawls openly outside the Western Wall; doing so at the Wall can incur a fine or prison time.

On Friday, sheets of rain obscured the Old City’s ancient domes. But by 7 a.m. about 150 Jewish women had gathered at the Western Wall to pray and to challenge the constraints imposed on them by traditional Jewish Orthodoxy and a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court.

Under their coats many of the women, supporters of a group of religious activists called Women of the Wall, wore a tallit, or fringed prayer shawl, a ritual garment traditionally worn only by men. Some wore their prayer shawls openly, an illegal act in this particular setting that can incur a fine or several months in jail.

The reason for the protest was that last month a woman, Nofrat Frenkel, was arrested while wearing a tallit.  Technically the "crime" was not wearing a tallit — it was "offending the religious sensibilities of others."  For a woman to wear a tallit–the ritual prayer shawl worn during morning prayers–is seen as an "offensive" act by some charedim (ultra-Orthodox).  See my post "Wear a Tallit…Go to Jail" for more on that event.

Lauri actually tried her best to get arrested.  As you can see in the picture, she was "provocatively"DSC_0212 wearing a tallit under her coat.  A policeman asked her to cover it up.  She refused.  Policeman again asked her to cover it up.  Again she refused.  The police officer sputtered "but the Supreme Court has ruled…"  Lauri shrugged, and left the tallit hanging out.  The cop went away.  No one was arrested that day.  It was Lauri's first act of "civil disobedience."  She was pretty charged up about it!

Given the weather — and how wimpy Jerusalemites are about things like rain — I thought the turn out was very impressive.  About 150 women, and a small contingent of guys like me who were hanging out by the women, to be there to lend support in case there were problems.  I commend the police on doing a good job of keeping the charedi away from the women.  The charedi kept shouting a chant, and for the life me I couldn't figure out what they were saying.  We finally asked one of them…and discovered they were crying "gevalt!" as in "oy, gevalt!" 

DSC_0209 There really weren't many problems.  Other than the chanting, a few guys tried spitting on the women when they were walking below on their way to Robinson's Arch.  Not a terribly effective threat on a rainy day when everyone had umbrellas!

Earlier today, Lauri was commenting that it's a weird country we live in, where the government is considering releasing 450 terrorists and murderers from jail to ransom one captive, yet a women can go to jail for praying in her customary fashion.

Recent surveys show 90% of Israelis are more or less fed up with the way the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall, is being turned into an ultra-Orthodox enclave, with the "modesty police" out in force to make sure everyone toes the line on the "rabbi of the wall"'s modesty standards. 

There is plenty of room at the Wall for all to be accomodated.  It's not right that it should be an ultra=Orthodox synagogue — the Wall belongs to all of us.  For me, the best solution would be to simply have three sections — men, women, and mixed, and let everyone go where they are most confortable, and not worry about how other people pray or who they pray with.  But that's too logical for here…everyone who is convinced their answer is the right answer feels compelled to impose that right answer on everyone else. Even, or perhaps especially, if their right answer is actually wrong.

Whatever happend to "Love your neighbor as yourself" as one of the most important teachings in Judaism?  What this country really needs is political leadership that can show as much skill as Yehuda shows in this week's Torah reading, Vayigash — brave, incisive, intelligent, diplomatic, repentant, concerned for others, and capable (see Vayigash 5769 — Yehudah's Model of Leadership). 

Reb Barry

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

2 thoughts on “Wear a Tallit, Go to Jail, Redux…

  • December 26, 2009 at 2:59 pm
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    Good for Lauri!!! (and you, too, for being supportive!). I like your suggestion: 3 sections. Won’t work because the charedim will riot….on second thought, if they riot, maybe they’d get arrested and be given a stay-away order? Naw, never happen…..but I’m heartily sick of the chareidi-will-riot-over-anything-we-don’t-like-even-on-Shabbat routine.

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  • December 27, 2009 at 12:23 am
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    Thanks for the chizuk. The lack of tolerance from the charedim drives me up a wall. Why did they need to go out of their way to see the women wearing tallitot? Why cant they just stay on their own side of the mechitza and mind their own business? Who made them the mitzvah police?

    When I was in congregational life, if ever a congregant said something indicating he/she felt awkward or embarrassed about his/her level of observance, I would assure them that I was NOT the mitzvah police, what they ate or what they did on Shabbos was between them and God. I will answer questions, I will encourage people to do more, but its not my role to be judgmental about how someone else connects with God.

    If they would say its davka because its at the Kotel, my reply would be that this is an attitude that borders on avodah zarah. The Kotel is a bunch of stones put up by Herod. Whatever happened to mlo kol haaretz cvodo?

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