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Rabbi Laura Geller

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Arrested for Praying Out Loud?

Posted: 10/19/2012 2:13 pm

It's hard to believe, but you can be arrested for singing the Sh'ma out loud at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the place that is considered to be the holiest site in the Jewish world. You can be arrested -- if you are a woman. If you are a woman, you can also be arrested for wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl.

Last Tuesday evening, the beginning of the new month of Heshvan, Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and chairwoman of Women of the Wall, was arrested during a prayer service in the woman's section of the Wall with 250 other participants, including members of Hadassah who were in Jerusalem to celebrate the organization's 100th anniversary. Anat led the service wearing her tallit wrapped like a scarf so as not to be in violation of the law.

Anat was held overnight in police custody. This is not the first time. Over the past 20 years that she has led Women of the Wall, which holds services at the Western Wall 11 times during the year to celebrate Rosh Hodesh (the new month), she has been arrested six times. But this time was different:

"In the past when I was detained I had to have a policewoman come with me to the bathroom, but this was something different. This time they checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw the food through a little window in the door. I laid on the floor covered with my tallit."

She was led to court in shackles and handcuffs wearing her tallit. Why did they take away her phone but not her tallit? Hoffman explained, "They don't recognize it as a tallit." She was released with the condition that not go to the Western Wall for 30 days or face a stiff fine.

On Wednesday morning, while Hoffman was still in police custody, Women of the Wall held morning services for Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. In the middle of prayer, police arrested Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, and a member of the board, Rachel Cohen Yeshurun.

Ironically, on Thursday, Hadassah presented Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with its Henrietta Szold Award. Henrietta Szold (1860-1945), the founder of Hadassah, was one of the most important women in Jewish history. The Jewish Women's Archives says about her: "even beyond the enduring contributions of Hadassah, Henrietta Szold's life and career proved both a model and a catalyst for transforming and redefining possibilities for women in Jewish communal life." I would add -- in Jewish religious life as well.

Her letter, to Hayim Peretz, written in 1916, has given me courage over the years of my own career. Peretz was a friend who offered to say Kaddish for her mother because traditional Judaism didn't permit daughters to say Kaddish:

"It is impossible for me to find words in which to tell you how deeply I was touched by your offer to act as 'Kaddish' for my dear mother. I cannot even thank you -- it is something that goes beyond thanks. It is beautiful, what you have offered to do -- I shall never forget it.

You will wonder, then, that I cannot accept your offer... I know well, and appreciate what you say about, the Jewish custom; and Jewish custom is very dear and sacred to me. And yet I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly and markedly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which his parent had, and that so the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family, I must do that for the generations of my family.

I believe that the elimination of women from such duties was never intended by our law and custom --women were freed from positive duties when they could not perform them, but not when they could. It was never intended that, if they could perform them, their performance of them should not be considered as valuable and valid as when one of the male sex performed them. And of the Kaddish I feel sure this is particularly true.

My mother had eight daughters and no son; and yet never did I hear a word of regret pass the lips of either my mother or my father that one of us was not a son. When my father died, my mother would not permit others to take her daughters' place in saying the Kaddish, and so I am sure I am acting in her spirit when I am moved to decline your offer. But beautiful your offer remains nevertheless, and, I repeat, I know full well that it is much more in consonance with the generally accepted Jewish tradition than is my or my family's conception. You understand me, don't you?"


I believe that if Henrietta Szold were alive today she would be standing next to Anat Hoffman singing the Sh'ma wrapped in a tallit. If I were in Jerusalem this week I would be there, too.

 

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