10/18/2012 05:33 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Equality for All at the Western Wall

When women are detained and arrested at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for wearing tallitot (Jewish prayer shawls) and "endangering public peace" by intoning word and melody of prayer, we are all diminished: all genders, all denominations, all people of faith, all lovers of Israel, all who value equal rights, all of us.

When I learned that Anat Hoffman had been arrested on Tuesday evening, and two other leaders of Women of the Wall detained on Wednesday morning, for committing the "crime" of wearing a tallit and praying aloud, I felt anger and shame. I was angry that such hypocrisy could occur in the land whose national anthem so powerfully raises up the Jewish yearning "to be a free people in our [own] land, the land of Zion, Jerusalem -- l'hiot am hofshi b'Artzeinu, Eretz Tzion, Yerushalayim." And I was embarrassed that yet again, this treasured land would message to the world that it allows itself to be puppet to the will of one extreme group out of the countless many that the country actually represents and who call it home. For when any citizen or visitor to Israel has to "admit to wearing a tallit" to the police, or "deny disturbing the peace" because they "dared" to pray aloud in a public space designated for just that, it is a shonda for us all.

I applaud those who have spoken out. Yizhar Hess, head of the Masorti Movement in Israel, said that the women detained by police "didn't steal, hit, threaten, or even go over the speed limit. They just sang ... We must be forthright -- we have experienced an historical accident. The Kotel wasn't freed, but abandoned by the Ministry of Religious Services and the ultra-Orthodox who run it." At the time I wrote this article, The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), The Union for Reform Judaism, The New Israel Fund, Hadassah and of course, Women of the Wall had all issued statements condemning not only the detainments, arrest and horrific treatment of Anat Hoffman, but also calling for Israel to abolish the "law" that forbids women to wear prayer shawls and pray aloud at the Western Wall. I hope this is the only the very beginning of a collective cry for equality for all at the Wall.

For those who will discount these words because of sources like Talmud Bavli's Megillah 23a, Tosafot on Sukkah 38a or others, I would urge you to consider the fact that all orient their prohibitions around zila milta, the notion that a woman praying or participating in public worship was considered an "insult" or "dishonor" to a man or the community of men, because it was a breach of the social order that governed the world at the time, if one perceived a woman as more knowledgeable than a man. In our world today, by and large, women and men traverse the same fields, and any country that chooses to call itself democratic bases itself and its laws in foundations grounded in the value of equality for all. Perhaps it is time for a halachic call of dina d'malchuta dina on the matter of women in worship in Israel, if indeed women and men are guaranteed equal rights in the land of Israel as outlined in its Declaration of Independence when it states that Israel "...will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture." If not, I take to heart Blu Greenberg's often criticized, but nevertheless true words on matters of halachic evolution: "Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way."

But even if no change comes to the governance of the Western Wall and its "laws," one must wonder, what is the real zila milta ("insult" or "offense") with women wearing tallitot and praying? After her release, Anat Hoffman reported that her treatment while in jail was abusive. She said, "In the past when I was detained, I had to have a policewoman come with me, but this was something completely 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 ... and for what? I was with the Hadassah women saying Shema Yisrael."

All of Am Yisrael is shamed, insulted, offended and lessened by that.