The Wall is Wailing

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Neither facts nor logic have impeded champions of Nofrat Frenkel, the woman briefly detained by police at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, or Kotel Ma’aravi, on November 18.

Needless to say, Ms. Frenkel’s charge that she was unnecessarily manhandled by police should be responsibly investigated. Even a violator of the law has the right to be detained in a nonviolent manner. But that Ms. Frenkel violated the law, as per the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision in 2003 to apportion a special area, at Robinson’s Arch, for women to chant at feminist religious services, is not at issue.

Ms. Frenkel’s detention was not spurred, as her champions (media and pundits dutifully trotting behind in step) have repeatedly proclaimed, by her having dared to wear a tallit, or Jewish prayer garment, at the site.

Indeed, by Ms. Frenkel’s own account (Forward, November 24), she and 40-odd other “Women of the Wall” prayed as a group that morning in the main Kotel area wearing tallitot, without incident.

But the tallit-garbed women did not stop there. They sang the Psalms that comprise the song of praise Hallel “in full voice,” as per the testimony of Ms. Frenkel’s fellow activist Anat Hoffman (quoted on the Forward’s “Sisterhood Blog” in a November 18 posting). Even then, though, recalls Ms. Hoffman, “there was no complaint whatsoever from anyone.” (It is odd – well, not really – that the lack of any reaction by others even at that point went unnoted in the paper’s news coverage, or that of other mainstream Jewish media.)

It was only what then transpired that motivated the police to accost the group. Ms. Frenkel had brought a Torah scroll hidden in a duffel bag to the site and removed it, according to her own account above, to publicly “read from the Torah opposite the stones of the Kotel.” That brought others at the site to object (“We told them to butt out,” recalls Ms. Hoffman), and the police to intervene.

Those who are unhappy with the Israeli Supreme Court’s 2003 decision have the right to their unhappiness, and even to seek to have the court revisit the issue. But if they choose instead to intentionally flout the law, they should honestly acknowledge that they are courting prosecution through civil disobedience – not seek to portray themselves as innocent victims wondering what they might possibly have done wrong.

Facts notwithstanding, one of Ms. Frenkel’s advocates, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., complained to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren that “If a Jew had been arrested for wearing a prayer shawl in any other country… there would be outrage,” and characterized the enforcement of the law at the Kotel as “religious persecution.”

Turning the tallit into a red herring (David Copperfield, watch out!), the rabbi went on to lecture the Ambassador, quoting Maimonides about the permissibility of tallit-wearing by women (but somehow overlooking the sage’s prohibition against women reading publicly from the Torah – Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilla, 12:17), and charging that Ms. Frenkel “had been den[ied] the right to expressly follow the teachings of the Torah.”

Not only are facts flexible in the religious progressives’ circle; logic is uninvited. Do the Freedom Chanters really want to open the Kotel plaza to all religious expressions?

Would the Frenkel forces be pleased with Buddhist intonations and incense-burning at the Kotel? Catholic hymns and processions? Taoist drumbeating ceremonies? Surely the activists don’t mean to limit their liberalmindedness to services conducted by Jews alone.

People of all faiths, after all, are welcome at the Kotel – as they should be. Out of respect, though, for the Jewish historical and spiritual connection to the place, public services there should respect a single standard of decorum. And that standard should be, as it has been, millennia-old Jewish religious tradition.

The Kotel is a holy place, and should not be made a battlefield by advocates for social or religious change. Men and women, whatever their backgrounds or beliefs, are welcome and unbothered by the traditionally religious Jews who most often frequent the site, seeking only to pray there as Jews always have prayed.

Ms. Frenkel and her friends are clearly committed to a cause. But promoting their particular view of feminism should not compel them to act in ways that they know will offend others, to seek to turn a holy place into a political arena.

Such “activism,” unfortunately, actively hinders the coming of the Messiah, and the rebuilding of the Jewish people’s true National Synagogue, the one that once stood just beyond the Western Wall.

© 2010 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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12 Responses

  1. Baruch Pelta says:

    Sure, Phil. I think Anat Hoffman was saying that was why she was arrested — because holding a Torah scroll ticked off the policeman — and I didn’t contradict that. But that wasn’t why she was arrested in the sense of what the “charge” against her was. Here are two sources off the top of my internet:
    1. Phil, the original mekor from which your Hoffman quote came! The original press release from Clare Needham where that quote from Mrs. Hoffman came from: “Though the women had already rolled up the Torah scroll and were headed towards Robinson’s Arch, Nofrat Frenkel, who was wearing tallit as she carried the Torah, was stopped by Israeli police and taken away for questioning at a station nearby. She was arrested for wearing tallit and thereby violating the dress code enforced at the Kotel and violating the religious sensibilities of others.”
    2. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld as quoted by Pat Murphy in the San Francisco Sentintel: “Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said Frankel was detained on suspicion of wearing a prayer shawl in violation of an Israeli high court ruling stating that women cannot wear religious garments at the site, in keeping with Orthodox rules…Frankel was also holding a Torah, a Jewish biblical scroll, in contravention of Jewish Orthodox tradition, but police did not mention it as a reason for her arrest.”

  2. Dave Weinstein says:

    Out of respect, though, for the Jewish historical and spiritual connection to the place, public services there should respect a single standard of decorum. And that standard should be, as it has been, millennia-old Jewish religious tradition.

    That’s certainly one position.

    Of course, you could also argue that, if there is going to be one standard, it should be the one that conforms with the practices and beliefs of the majority of the Jewish people. In which case, it would not be gender segregated, nor would there be gender based restrictions.

  3. Phil says:

    Baruch Pelta writes: “On their way, Ms. Frenkel was arrested on the charge of — lo and behold — wearing a tallis.”

    May I ask for your source? YNET quotes W.O.W. chairwoman Anat Hoffman saying, “It is unthinkable that a citizen of the State of Israel is arrested for donning a prayer shawl and holding a scroll…”

  4. David N. Friedman says:

    I am pleased Rabbi Shafran has penned this entry and C-C has chimed in regarding this controversy. First, the rules made by the Western Wall Committee must be respected and the claim that the baseline rules are set by Haredim is simply false. I am not a Charedi Jew and my experience at the Kotel has been very positive and I see it as a very open and “pluralistic” experience Jews can celebrate and advertise as a symbol of our standards.

    However, if the reports are correct, it seems wrong that a woman can be arrested merely for donning a tallit. I wish to add my opinion to that of others that the rules should accomodate women, on their side of the mechitza, from wearing a tallit. I have a clear memory of at least one woman wearing a tallit without incident on my last visit to Israel so I find this report confusing. I also witnessed no Jews at all at Robinson’s Arch so if there is a persistent quality of overcrowding at that location–perhaps a review of the demand of the public should be honored with longer times available for prayer for those individuals and groups. I have my doubts that this is the consistent experience of these groups but I believe the Western Wall authorities will assess this reality and if there is higher demand, make changes to reflect a new reality.

    In the meantime, the rules are fine as they are–they are there to protect and ensure the religious character of the site and these rules do not stand to prejudice any group or individual seeking to pray at this very holy place. The political mischief of these individuals is rightly decried–let’s make sure that authorities feel no mandate to arrest a woman merely for wearing a tallit and the rules are clear and understood by all.

  5. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Would Ms. Frenkel then support the right of Jews who believe it is permissible in particular areas and after going to the mikveh to pray on the Temple Mount despite the objections of the Muslim Wakf?
    I didn’t think so.

  6. Ori says:

    Mr. Cohen: The belief that Jewish women should pray wearing talet [or talis] and tefillin does not come from any Jewish sacred book. It comes from Feminism and Political Correctness that are only a few decades old.

    Ori: How old does a belief or custom have to be before it gains legitimacy?

  7. Mr. Cohen says:

    Dear Izgad,

    You said: “people are trying to worship God as they believe is right…”

    Where do those beliefs come from?

    The belief that Jewish women should pray wearing talet [or talis] and tefillin does not come from any Jewish sacred book. It comes from Feminism and Political Correctness that are only a few decades old.

  8. ms e says:

    rabbi Shafran, I believe that rabbi herzfeld and not you are correct relative to the Rambam cited. You write that the rabbi “somehow overlooking the sage’s prohibition against women reading publicly from the Torah – Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilla, 12:17.” Rambam limits women reading for a tzibbur – a quorom of ten or more males, and then only because of “kavod hatzibbur.” Do you claim that a woman reading for other women is included in this prohibition by Rambam? Who else would read the Torah for women, if women wish to read? I appreciate that you may have other objections to women reading from a torah, but the citation from Rambam is hardly a proof-text.

  9. Izgad says:

    “The Kotel is a holy place, and should not be made a battlefield by advocates for social or religious change. Men and women, whatever their backgrounds or beliefs, are welcome and unbothered by the traditionally religious Jews who most often frequent the site, seeking only to pray there as Jews always have prayed.”

    Sorry but people are trying to worship God as they believe is right and it is Haredim who object to it thus setting off a conflict. If this was really about keeping things the way they have always been then we would ban Aish’s video cam and cell phones at the Kotel.

  10. Baruch Pelta says:

    It was only what then transpired that motivated the police to accost the group. Ms. Frenkel had brought a Torah scroll hidden in a duffel bag to the site and removed it, according to her own account above, to publicly “read from the Torah opposite the stones of the Kotel.” That brought others at the site to object (“We told them to butt out,” recalls Ms. Hoffman), and the police to intervene.
    Rabbi Shafran’s narrative omits at least one detail: that upon being confronted by the offended parties, the ladies decided to leave for Robinson’s Arch to do what they wanted to do. On their way, Ms. Frenkel was arrested on the charge of — lo and behold — wearing a tallis.

  11. Mr. Cohen says:

    Orthodox Jews often violate the decorum of their own synagogues with: frequent personal conversations during the Torah reading, littering, disruptive children and coming late.

    So how can we expect Liberal Jews to treat Jewish holy places with decorum?

  12. The Contarian says:

    I agree with the points that Rabbi Shafran makes.

    My concern however is with that news item that appeared in the New York Times a month or so ago about the affair, The coverage was a throwback to the unbalanced reporting of the Western Wall conflict a decade ago between liberal Jewish groups who were provocatively trying to establish a beachhead at the Wall and the regular worshippers. The New York Times Times only reported one side of the argument. The Charedi voice was never heard in it pages of the Times.