Monday, February 11, 2013

The Crime of Wearing a Tallit

Empathy is never easy. As a man, I confess that I have struggled to be empathetic to the cause of the Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel). This group of women has been coming to the Kotel Hama'arivi (Western Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem for close to a quarter century to pray in protest of the religious freedom they lack.

From thousands of miles away I have followed their plight after each Rosh Chodesh (new month) prayer service they conduct in the relatively small women's section of the Kotel. In the past year or so I've read about the women who are detained or arrested for having the nerve to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) at the Kotel, which according to Israel law is to be treated as an Orthodox synagogue. While I took interest in their civil disobedience and was supportive of their efforts, I felt they were too focused on the Western Wall when in fact they were being allowed to hold their prayer services (women only or mixed) at the Southern Wall (Robinson's Arch) which was historically more significant anyway.

Our group of male rabbis before heading down to the Kotel plaza

And then all that changed this morning. Together with about a dozen of my male rabbinic colleagues we woke up well before dawn and walked from our Jerusalem hotel to the Old City. I wrapped myself in my tallit, wound my tefillin (phylacteries) around my left arm and on my head, and joined my colleagues at the mechitza (dividing wall) next to the women's section. Rather than holding our own separate service we joined the women in their prayers. Several of the women proudly wore tallitot and I even saw one woman wearing tefillin. It was exhilarating to watch the women begin to spontaneously dance during Hallel, the joyous, musical psalms for Rosh Chodesh.

Conservative Rabbis Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Debra Cantor at the Kotel 

Israeli police -- both men and women -- patrolled the women's section. At first I thought this was to ensure their safety as angry protesters have thrown chairs at them in the past, but as I watched I could tell that one of the police officers was warning some of the women wearing tallitot. One female police officer videotaped the entire service, likely to prove that it was handled accordingly. A young man who works at the Kotel began moving shtenders (lecturns) and tables to separate us men from the rest of the men's section, in effect creating three prayer areas.

At the conclusion of the Hallel service, I saw some people begin to exit toward the plaza behind the women's section. I headed over there and saw two of the Israeli paratroopers who were in that iconic photograph at the newly reclaimed Kotel in 1967 after the Six Day War. The men were being interviewed by Israeli media and talking openly about how they liberated the Old City of Jerusalem so that all people would be free to pray there, not only the ultra-Orthodox. It was remarkable to see these paratroopers at the Kotel after seeing that powerful photo since I was a young boy. The Kotel immediately came to take on a whole new meaning for me. And a moment later I developed a much stronger connection to the plight of the Women at the Wall.

An ad hoc partition is created to separate our group in the Men's Section

I turned around and saw two of my friends and fellow rabbis were being escorted away from the Kotel Plaza by a police officer. Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Rabbi Debra Cantor called me over as they were walking behind a female police officer. They told me that she had taken their passports and was going to detain them at the police station. Robyn asked if I would stay with them for as long as I could because they didn't know what was going to happen. Immediately I began to feel concern for them. The officer wasn't saying anything and wouldn't explain where they were going. I was still wearing my tallit and tefillin and feeling guilty that my colleagues were getting in trouble for something that I take for granted.

Israeli paratroopers who liberated the Old City in 1967 with Anat Hoffman

Before coming to Israel, I traveled through Kiev, Ukraine with several rabbis including Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor. We spoke to Jewish people there who were forbidden from practicing their Judaism freely in the Former Soviet Union. They would have been arrested for being seen in public wearing a tallit during the Communist era. In Jerusalem this past Friday night we ate dinner with Joseph Begun, who was a Prisoner of Zion in the Former Soviet Union. He shared his amazing story with us, telling us of the years he spent in a Russian jail for the "crime" of being Jewish. This morning we met with former Refusenik Natan Sharansky on the 27th anniversary of his arrival to Israel. He has been charged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with coming up with a solution to this problem at the Kotel. Israel was intended to be a place of salvation for the Jewish people. It is the Jewish capital and no Jew should be refused her right to religious practice as our fellow Jews were in the FSU.

Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor have provided an important example of civil disobedience. To young girls about to become bat mitzvah, these rabbis have articulated why they shouldn't take their Jewish identity for granted. They have demonstrated to me why it is so critical that women feel comfortable acting as Jews in Israel. I have tremendous respect for both of them and they should be applauded for their courage. After this morning, the Women of the Wall have my respect and my support. Religious freedom must be a priority for Israel. The alternative will have horrific repercussions for the Jewish people.


David said...

Sh'koach! I am not sure tha Anat Hoffman is a Rabbi.

Rachel said...

Thank-you Rabbi Miller for your brave 'confession'. Our struggle is sometimes hard to explain. But I can tell you as one who does not have any synagogue in my city that I feel comfortable in (they are all Orthodox and exclude women) - Rosh Hodesh at the Kotel with WOW is my spiritual high of the month. There is something so special about getting up early on Rosh Hodesh, walking through the old city as the sun is rising and praying with the group at the historic and holy Kotel. Part of the specialness is actually because it is not a 'separate area' for egalitarian prayer - but rather a space where women from all streams of Judaism, including Orthodox can join together in joyous prayer. As you found out - you really need to be there to get it - and you did!! Thank-you, Rachel

Andrea said...

Thank you! I'm the one wearing the tefillin! It gave us so much strength to have so many men there. I hope you come again.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Andrea: Kol Hakavod!

Michael said...

Yes, empathy is never easy. We should have empathy for those who were raised in synagogues and temples that have mixed services, led by men and women, and who feel that something is missing when they go to the kotel. We should also have empathy for those (both men and women) who would like to pray in a traditional setting. For those with an open mind who would like to see some of the arguments from an Orthodox viewpoint, as well as those who would benefit from seeing a Charedi writer express empathy for the other side, I recommend Rabbi Shafran’s article on the subject which can be found here:

and his follow-up to that article here:

Talia said...

The 3 pillars of Judaism are Kashrut , Shabbat and Family Purity , which reform Judaism do not even uphold and are virtually ignored , Yet the "decorations" , the symbols are the mainstay of their faith .. Well it’s easy to wear a yalmuka , and so much harder to do anything else…Absurd…

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jason. Beautiful combination of the personal and factual reporting.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Jason. Beautiful combination of personal and factual reporting.

Rabbinical Assembly said...

RA Raises Concerns About New Arrests at Western Wall (Two Conservative were rabbis among those arrested) Posted on Feb 11, 2013 at http://www.

NEW YORK – Following today’s arrest of 10 women praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Julie Schonfeld renewed her call for a quick solution that respects religious pluralism and women’s equality. Schonfeld has been an outspoken critic of the treatment of non-Orthodox Jews at the wall.

Among those arrested today were RA members Debra Cantor of B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom in Bloomfield, Conn., and Robyn Fryer Bodzin of the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Flushing, N.Y. In response to the arrests, Schonfeld offered the following statement:

Today’s arrests at the Western Wall are a deeply concerning development at a time when we were hopeful for real progress on religious pluralism and women’s equality at this sacred site. It is unthinkable that in 2013, Israel is still denying the religious freedom of Jews wishing to express their faith without fear of being detained. Today’s action once again divides the Jewish community’s unity and drains energy away from crucial issues demanding our attention.

Adding to Schonfeld’s comments, Gerald C. Skolnik, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said:

I am proud of Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Rabbi Debra Cantor and all those who were willing to put their personal freedom at risk today on behalf of all of us. Cantor, one of the first women ordained by our movement, and Fryer Bodzin, ordained in 2005, embody the immeasurable contribution that women make to the Conservative Rabbinate and world Jewry.

Anonymous said...

When I lived in Jerusalem, I regularly prayer with WoW (even led services once). One time when trouble was expected, but fortunately didn't appear, the journalists were out in force. With nothing more interesting to do, they followed us to the separate area (not Robinson's Arch at that time) where we read Torah. A photographer must have used up a roll of film (that's how long ago it was) of me putting on my tefillin. He later used my picture as an illustration of an article on Reform conversion, saying I was a convert, a Reform Jew, and laying tefillin at the Kotel, none of which was true.

Anonymous said...

While we're on the topic of pluralism, freedom of expression and the right to choose how one relates to G-d: Will you defend the right of a Messianic Jewish Congregation which wants conduct its own, meaningful services at the Kotel?

Michael said...

The poster about “messianic Judaism” makes an excellent point. I’d like to delve further into this.

In a synagogue, the rabbi is the decider of halacha for that synagogue. (This is true for Orthodox synagogues, and I assume Conservative as well.) While there may be differing opinions on whether a woman can wear tallis and/or tefillin, in a particular place of worship, the rabbi of that place makes the decisions. If a rabbi of a certain synagogue says it is not allowed for a woman to wear a tallis, then that is the halacha for that synagogue, and it should be respected. A lady who wears a tallis should be told politely that the rabbi of this synagogue does not permit women to wear a tallis. If this person insists on doing so, then she should be asked to leave. If someone comes repeatedly to a synagogue and flagrantly disregards the decision of the halachic decider of that place, then that person is being disruptive, and all should agree that the synagogue is within its rights to contact law enforcement and make sure that this person is not allowed to disrupt the peace and decorum that has been established for that place.

Now, the Western Wall plaza has been established as an Orthodox place of worship. One could argue whether or not that was the correct decision. However, it is supposed to be the place for ALL Jews to be able to connect to Hashem and pray in both organized and public manners, as well as in private and personal ways. An orthodox person will not, for halachic reasons, go to an organized prayer service in a gender-mixed setting. A non-orthodox person, while s/he may be less comfortable with a prayer service being conducted in a non-familiar manner, is still halachically permitted to go. So making the plaza into a Conservative synagogue is actually LESS inclusive. And it also opens the door to the “messianic” poster before. Where do you draw the line?

I want to say that I understand and empathize with those who feel a tremendous connection to that location, but feel that something is lacking since they are unable to pray in the manner with which they are comfortable and familiar. But the Robinson’s Arch area was set aside for non-Orthodox prayer services. That is also along the wall of the Holy Temple Mount. Why is that not sufficient? Because you want to be where the tourists are? Because you want to be in a more prominent location? Because you want to stick it to the Orthodox and kick them out of there? Is it better that you feel comfortable, even if it means others are excluded? Are there dozens of Masorti Jews going to the kotel every day to daven vasikin? Would there be it if had mixed-gender prayers? And if the places were switched, and the main plaza was Masorti and Robinson’s Arch was Orthodox, would that solve all the problems? What if more people then started going to Robinson’s Arch? What if the main plaza was then so much emptier because so many people wouldn’t go? Let’s remember that, while there may be a minority of Orthodox world wide, Charedm are a more significant minority in Israel, and in Jerusalem itself, most are Orthodox.

Rather than taking a position based on the raw emotions felt when you were there in support of these women who were arrested, let’s think about all sides of this and do what is really the most inclusive solution, as well as what is best for the residents of Jerusalem and the Old City. Let’s not be covetous of those in the main plaza but be thankful for the opportunities given to you, both to pray in the Orthodox synagogue in the main plaza and the alternative synagogue at Robinson’s arch.

Talia bat Pessi said...

Great article. Keep your outrage burning.

Anonymous said...

Deliberately trying to provoke an incident is never productive.

To arrest a person who's in the act of such a provocation is to capitulate by participating in their game, in my opinion.

Both sides are wrong.

These women should be admonished, true. To arrest them only exacerbated the situation. They were only being immature, and immaturity is not a crime.

These women are often the kind of people who, once wearing a tallis or tefillin fails to provoke a reaction, will seek new ways of garnering attention.

There are so many more important things in life than this. Making mountains out of molehills destracts from issues that really matter.

Whereas it might seem bizarre or objectionable, or in this case criminal for women to wear tefillin or tallisim - Jews are well advised to unite over much more crucial issues than to allow ourselves to fall victim to those crying wolf over minor issues that are childish attempts to gain attention.

We really all need to just grow up.

Rabbi Miller, please, just be a mensch. This blog topic just silly in its pettiness.

Well Meaning Jew said...

Rabbi Miller, this blog topic is an exploration of pettiness and with all due respect, silly.

While it may seem bizarre, offensive or in this case criminal for women to be wearing tallisim or tefillin at the orthodox section of the wall, to react to this vie for attention by arresting them only exacerbated the situation by making into a bigger issue than it really is.

Both side are wrong. While these women should be admonished, to arrest them is just to become as silly and immature as they are. It is capitulating by become a part of their little girl's game. They aren't hurting anyone but themselves.

How much strife there is for Jews in this world must there be for us to relinquish the need to find fault with one another? These women often include the kind of folks who will, once their tallisim fail to get a reaction from others, find new ways to provoke people who couldn't otherwise be less interested.

The real crime is when we waste time by taking it so seriously we forget about issues that are so crucial to the survival of Judaism.

Really, Rabbi Miller. Please just start being a mensch. Could you find a less petty issue to concern yourself over?

Thanks in advance, Eliyahu

Michael said...

To Talia who said "Keep your outrage burning":

Is that really how we want to deal with important issues? With anger and emotion? How about we take a step back, try to see where the other side is coming from, and work on speaking calmly and respectfully to (and about) those with opposing views.

In the larger picture, this is the problem with society today. Whether it is Traditional vs. Modern; Orthodox vs. Reform; conservative vs. liberal; WSJ vs. NY Times, we all seem to approach opposing views with anger and emotion, and we rarely try to look at things from the perspective of our adversary. Both sides are entitled to their opinions, and usually, both sides are basing their viewpoints on genuine care and concern.

I don't claim to be perfect – I am certainly flawed in this area, as in many others. But your statement of "Keep your outrage burning" really seems over the top. I think that, on the contrary, that if we DON’T "Keep your outrage burning", then that is how we will get through these tough times.


Anonymous said...

" Surya T said...
So they were arrested just for wearing tallit? If it is the case, it is plain crazy and ridiculous ... This makes me angry somehow."

They were not arrested just for wearing tallit. In Judaism, women do not wear a tallit. Many Jews see it as a mockery of the tradition when women wear a tallit.

The kotel is divided into traditional sections and non-traditional sections. The women were arrested for refusing to observe those divisions.

They were not arrested for wearing tallit. They could have been in the non-traditional part of the kotel, but they wanted to prove something by provoking an incident. They went to the traditional part where they knew they would be insulting to the pious Jews praying there. This is what caused the incident.

Sorry for your anger. Hope this helps to absolve it.

Andrea said...

Do you remember when we had lunch together at the DIA...and your daughter was in my Tanakh class? Guess we already knew each other in a way. ;-) Andrea (Hason)