Israeli Orthodox Establishment Arrests a Woman for Carrying the Torah

Women of The Wall spokeswoman Anat Hoffman, right, before the Kotel (Western Wall), in March this year.

The latest outrage came today when Anat Hoffman, a leader of the Women of the Wall, Jewish women who want to pray at “the Wall” (the remaining part of the ancient Temple, now a wall that sits directly at the western edge of the Temple Mount in a plaza which is also frequently used for Israeli state occasions including induction into the Army), was arrested. The charge was suspicion that she might be planning to disobey a recent order of the Israeli courts prohibiting women from reading the Torah at the Wall–a suspicion based on the fact that she was carrying the Torah near the Wall.

Though Orthodox law prohibits men and women from praying together, there is nothing in traditional Jewish law that would forbid women from praying in a women’s section at the Wall. But the Orthodox leadership in Israel has once again extended Jewish law in an oppressive and patriarchal direction. Tikkun recently co-sponsored a talk by Anat Hoffman in San Francisco, and we consider her one of our heroes in Israel–not only for her work in defending the rights of women, but for her previous work when, as a representative of the Meretz party she was elected to the Jerusalem city council and there championed the rights of Palestinians and the poor (including the Orthodox poor, of whom there are many in Jerusalem). The Union of Reform Judaism can be proud that they hired Anat Hoffman as the director of the Jerusalem office of the Religious Action Center. You can read more about her arrest at a ynetnews article I’ve linked to on our Current Thinking site where I put my recommended articles (and please see below the poem relevant to this incident written by Dr. Abby Caplin, Tikkun Daily blogger, member of Tikkun’s Network of Spiritual Progressives and an organizer for Women of the Wall support groups in the U.S. which Tikkun strongly endorses).

Let me by clear that not all Orthodox Jews agree with the Orthodox leadership on this or other points mentioned below. There are people like Rabbi Avi Weiss who is trying to extend women’s rights in orthodoxy by ordaining Jewish women, leaders like Rabbi Yehuda Amital z”l, who passed away this weekend but who was the founder of a peace party in Israel called Meimad, independent thinkers like orthodox Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard whose writings sometimes appear in Tikkun, and an Orthodox Feminist Alliance that has been courageous on this issue and which has received the support of some rabbis in the U.S. and Israel.

I stress this point because sometimes people blame the ultra-orthodox for being responsible for the Israeli settlement policies, when in fact it has been largely secular Israeli hard-line nationalists like Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu who extended the policies of settlement originally created by the Labor Zionists when they were in power after the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza during the Six Day war in 1967.

Nevertheless, today it is various branches of the Orthodox communities in Israel who are amongst the most vociferous groups supporting the settlers, opposing territorial compromise, and demeaning Palestinians, Arabs, and non-Jews. What a disgrace to Judaism and God that these people should put the various commandments to pursue peace (not only in Torah, but a whole section of the Mishnah urges compromises on a variety of issues “for the sake of the path of peace”–meepney darkey hashalom), and the commands to love the Other (ve’ahavta la’ger) as subordinate to their desire to hold on to the real estate (and no, there is no such command in Torah–the whole land belongs to God, the Torah repeatedly stresses, not to the Jewish people who are there only on condition that they live according to the principles of Torah which include loving the stranger/Other–and if there is a command not to sell or give away the land, the Jewish religious path would sensibly be to give the Palestinian people a long term lease on the land for the next thousand years in return for them living in peace with Israel).

And then there are the repeated attempts by the Orthodox establishment to keep homosexuals from marching in Jerusalem to demonstrate their existence as Jews and to call for full legal equality. Israel as a whole is one of the most gay-tolerant countries in the world.

As I’ve shown in my book Jewish Renewal, all these paths that the Orthodox take are actually without real foundation in Judaism (see for example my discussion of homosexuality).

If all this wasn’t bad enough, a group of Israeli rabbis have now publicly circulated a call for Israelis to not rent rooms to immigrants in Tel Aviv, and provided a set of crazy rationales for this behavior. These immigrants were brought legally to Israel in order to fill the low-paying jobs that the Israeli government was no longer allowing Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to fill. They are people of color, easily recognized, and targeting them is more about racism than about Jewish law. You can read about this also and the editorial about it from Ha’aretz via Tikkun Current Thinking (the third item down on that list).

Put all these offenses together and you get a picture of Israel that is far more repulsive than its actual reality. The Orthodox establishment in Israel, together with many (not all) of the West Bank settlers, are doing their best to create an image of Israel as a land of sexist, racist, homophobic and ultra-nationalist chauvinists. Just as we don’t blame all Americans for the morally outrageous wars of Empire that the U.S. has pursued since it violently overthrew the democratically elected regime in Iran in 1953, and subsequently has engaged in violent interventions and wars of aggression in Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan and through drones in Pakistan, even though we do all have SOME MORAL RESPONSIBILITY AND SOME REASON TO REPENT for paying taxes to that government rather than resisting, so we don’t blame all Israelis for the behavior of its government which has chosen to give the Orthodox a much greater power in shaping Israeli policy than their numbers would require in a democracy (though we reject the notion of calling Israel a democracy so long as it rules over the West Bank and doesn’t grant Palestinians who live there a vote in the Israeli Knesset elections). But we do believe that all Jews ought to be atoning for the way the State that calls itself “the State of the Jewish people” has treated Palestinians (though we in the past have called upon Palestinians as well to religiously atone for the ways that they have treated the Jewish people, particularly when it was we who were the minority and homeless before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, but subsequently with terrorist attacks on innocent civilians including the attempts to bomb Sderot and other southern Israeli civilian locations). Nothing is ever just one way and not another–and just as we call for compassion for the Jewish people and the American people despite our many failings, we also call for compassion for the Palestinian people, the Arabs, the Muslims, and indeed everyone else on the planet and compassion for the Earth itself.

But as a rabbi, I have another concern: that the Israeli government and the Orthodox Establishment in Israel, together with many (not all) Orthodox rabbis and just ordinary laypeople in the Orthodox world, plus their champions in this country, are giving Judaism, God, and Israel a horrible name in the world that will take generations if not centuries to repair. For those of us who see God’s message as a message of love, compassion, generosity, kindness, ethical and ecological responsibility, forgiveness, and caring for all people on the planet as embodiments of God, this development is a tragedy. We say this while nevertheless embracing the humanity and fundamental decency of all whom we criticize in this article and in Tikkun magazine, ready to forgive the moment that they acknowledge their wrong-doing and make public repentance for it, and in the meantime praying to God to forgive them for the hurt they are doing to Judaism, to the Jewish people, to women, to homosexuals, to immigrants, to people of color, and ultimately to all of us on the planet. Yet we also call for Jews to use the coming Tisha b’Av, the day dedicated to mourning for the destruction of Jewish life in the holy land that has happened twice before when Jews abandoned God’s message of love, justice, peace and generosity, to focus on mourning for the way that our people have so strayed from the very point of being Jewish in the first place, and thereby are earning a tragic outcome for all of us on the planet as predicted by our prophets and concretized in the first chapter of the book of Isaiah which Jews worldwide will read this coming Sabbath! And that atonement will continue for us on the High Holidays (see the Sept/Oct issue of Tikkun, and if you still haven’t subscribed, please please please do so now by clicking here).

If you wish to be part of this kind of Judaism, or support it in the Jewish world (and you don’t have to be Jewish to support this tendency in the Jewish world), you can join (even as a distance member who may never come to any of our services) Beyt Tikkun Synagogue or the Tikkun Community. If you would like to come to experience a religious service based on this way of thinking, come to celebrate the Jewish High Holidays with us in Berkeley, California (dates and details at If you are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Ba’hai, Wiccan, or secular humanist with a spiritual bent, you can find others who think in this same way about your own traditions by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Join us–we need your support!!!

P.S. a poem in honor of Anat Hoffman, arrested for carrying a Torah near the Wall in Jerusalem by Abby Caplin, M.D.

Tzelofhad’s Daughters

for Anat

By Abby Caplin

The five daughters of Tzelofhad,
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, Tirtzah
Strong Bible women, sisters,
Stood together, sand between toes,
Toe to toe with their male elders,
Just in sight of the Promised Land.

Our father died and left no sons.
Give us our inheritance! they insisted.
Moses, confused, did not know what to do,
Except to simply ask
God, who said,
The plea is just!
Give them their share!
And it was made so.
In the Torah, it is written.

Now the great great-granddaughters of centuries of
Daughters of Tzelofhad, grown women with daughters,
And granddaughters of their own
Stand before the stones of
The Western Wall, what remains of the great Temple.
These are Women of the Wall.
They tender prayers to God
And plead their case.
Give us our share, our place before the Wall,
To pray freely, as full Jews,
This is our inheritance!

But those who rule do not ask God what is just,
Will not think to listen for
God’s answer, instead
Allow the pitch of chairs,
Prayer books ripped from mothers’ hands,
Allow the din of curses raining down
Upon the daughters of the hot desert sands.

Here is also a link to “The Silver Thread Ritual,” which was first performed in San Francisco this year in support of the Women of the Wall, and which is available for all to use.


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