On June 7, a woman was arrested by the Jerusalem police for carrying a Torah to the Kotel. The Torah she carried was confiscated. It was Rosh Chodesh Sivan and paradoxical that this arrest was made in the same month as Shavuot at the women’s celebration of the new moon. It was more than 3,000 years ago when we stood at Sinai and received the Torah. What better day and place could there be for a woman to carry a Torah than Rosh Chodesh Sivan?
Three years ago my daughter-in-law Kerri Lorigan and I were at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Sivan. It was an historical moment: for the first time, the police were at the Kotel to protect women who prayed according to their custom, rather than to arrest them.
Every Rosh Chodesh for 27 years, a group of women who called themselves “Women of the Wall” had stood in the women’s section of the Kotel to pray in their chosen way. But there was a law stating that religious practices may be banned from public places if they violated local custom and offended the local community. The orthodox rabbis maintain the site and, with the agreement of the civil authorities, have enforced orthodox tradition: women pray in a separated space, are not allowed to wear a tallis or tefillim, nor may they raise their voices in t’filah nor may they bring the Torah. Over the years, there had been encounters with the police and women had been arrested the month before – during prayer.
And then a local judge ruled that there was no local custom that prevailed and the women could hold organized prayer according to their own custom.
Heartened, the Women of the Wall were returning to the Kotel for the new moon of Sivan just two weeks after the landmark decision. It was to be a celebration and they invited others to join them. Kerri and I had time that morning and decided to join the Women at the Kotel. Leaving the hotel, we walked through a quiet park, and boarded a small van in which several of the Women of the Wall awaited us. They warned us that there was likely to be a large crowd; the Chief Rabbi had put out a call for seminary girls to fill the female section and crowd the women away from proximity to the Kotel.
When we arrived at the public square, we watched thousands of young people getting off buses – the girls in long skirts and white blouses, the boys in black hats and suits. It was indeed a large crowd on a Friday morning. The Women of the Wall were congregated in the middle, held their prayer books aloft, sang, and prayed. Surrounding them, the seminary girls either prayed silently, checked their phones, or whispered to one another. On the other side of the small fence separating the women’s section from the men’s, the yeshiva boys yelled. And then escalated their anger; they threw chairs, water bottles and garbage at the women over the small separating barrier. Pressed and crowded against each other, we ducked in alert fear.
“In the four weeks that I’ve spent in Israel and the West Bank between 2013-2015, that morning was the experience that made me feel most physically unsafe,” Lorigan said.
“The crowd was filled with angry teenage boys, who were being agitated by their adult teachers. In terms of a sacred holy place (therefore important to this ancient history teacher), I felt unmoored by the disrespect of those considered ‘orthodox’ believers towards those who wanted to pray peacefully. As a teacher, I couldn’t believe the utter lack of responsibility on the part of the adults, the bystanders, to encourage the violence against a minority group with peaceful intent,” Kerri recalled for this piece.
And then a major police presence materialized and further separated the men’s section from the women’s by dragging in barricades and standing guard. They enforced the law, allowed different customs, and protected the Women of the Wall.
And when I think of the arrest of a woman praying in her way at the Kotel last week, I am disturbed to see the reversal of what had seemed like a promising change and acceptance of freedom of expression. And it is one more tragic example of the separations and differences in Israel: left wing and right, settlers and non-, Arab and Jew, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, women and men. For we Jews in diaspora, whether religious or secular, the arrest of a woman for praying in her way creates a clash between our values and the values that are dominating Eretz Israel.
Lynn Nadeau is a practicing Jew who has visited Israel regularly for much of her adult life. She is also an avid environmentalist with a strong interest in social justice for all. She is a member of the Jewish Journal’s Board of Overseers. She lives in Marblehead.