Knesset members join Women of the Wall at rosh chodesh services

Three female members of Knesset joined the Women of the Wall for their monthly prayer service at the Western Wall.

No arrests were made during the prayer service Tuesday morning marking the new Jewish month of Nissan, the first time in at least a year that no arrests were made during the rosh chodesh gathering. But the female lawmakers, as well as several other women, reportedly were stopped by police who demanded that they leave their prayer shawls behind before entering the Western Wall Plaza.

The three Knesset members, Stav Shaffir of the Labor party, and Tamar Zandberg and Michal Rozin of the Meretz party, used their Knesset immunity in order to enter the area with their prayer shawls. Other women hid their talitot in bags or under layers of clothing to get them inside the plaza.

Shaffir wrote on her Facebook page: “For 24 years, the Women of the Wall have been praying at a site sacred to the Jewish people and for years they have been stopped just because they seek to pray in their own way. This morning, following hate banners in the haredi press, I joined them. At first we were prevented from entering the square on the grounds we were disturbing the order but there is nothing that 100 women armed with a shawl can't do.”

The Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, condemned Tuesday's prayer service in a statement issued to the media. He said the women brought “brothers against brothers in unnecessary confrontation” and said that the wall next to Robinson's Arch has been designated as the area for women's prayer services. 

“The Western Wall is the only place shared by all the people of Israel – and it is not the place to decide or express a world view,” Rabinowitz said. “I urge anyone for whom the Wall is dear to do whatever he can to keep disputes outside the plaza, and leave the people of Israel one place where there are no demonstrations, clashes and hatred.”

Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman on Sunday lodged a formal complaint with Minister of Public Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Israel Police Chief Yohanan Danino alleging “incitement of violence against Women of the Wall” over  unsigned posters, called pashkevillim , that were hung in haredi Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the organization said on its website. 

Women of the Wall has held a special prayer service at the holy site almost each month for the last 20 years on rosh chodesh, or the beginning of a new Hebrew month, at the back of the women's section.

At the beginning of the last Hebrew month, Adar, Jerusalem police arrested 10 women, including the sister and niece of American comedian Sarah Silverman, for disturbing public order. Two weeks later, a women's Megillah reading for Purim took place undisturbed.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit, prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Wall.

Events in support of the Women of the Wall took place in cities throughout the United States, including in Washington D.C., where about 125 women, men and children sang songs and prayed in front of the Israeli Embassy, accompanied by guitars, tambourines and clapping.

A letter from Anat Hoffman was read aloud to the crowd. “I want to hug each of you. I want to shake everyone’s hand,” said the letter read by Judy Gelmen, who also spoke about the history of the growing movement. “We are one in conviction that there is more than one way to be a Jew in Israel and at the Wall,” Hoffman wrote in her letter.

“The words ‘A woman was arrested for wearing a tallit should not be coming out of Israel,” but rather from a “more regressive nation,” said Rabbi Esther Lederman of Temple Micah in Washington D.C., who was in the crowd with her 20-month-old son, Ari.

Aaron Sagui, embassy spokesman, promised to convey the group’s message to Jerusalem.

Blind Faith

Jews often live in calendar dialectics. Annually, we oscillate between two Jewish New Years (Tishrei/Nissan) and two “Judgment Days” (Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur). the Dubner Maggid, Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, perhaps the greatest Jewish storyteller of all time, was once asked: Why do we celebrate both Simchat Torah and Shavuot? Why not condense them into one grand holiday?

Characteristically, he responded with a story: A king and queen were childless for many years. Desperate, they visited a sage who conveyed a potent blessing with a cautionary clause. Shortly, the queen would successfully bear a baby girl. No man outside the family, however, must see her until her wedding day, lest she die. And so it was. When the queen gave birth to a baby girl, a secluded island was prepared for the princess. There she was raised in regal style with the finest female educators.

As the princess came of age, the king encountered a serious technical difficulty in marrying off his daughter. Each nobleman in the king’s court was thrilled to accept the princess’s hand in marriage — until it was explained that the first date and the wedding would coincide. On the verge of despair, the king approached the final nobleman, who remarkably assented to marry without as much as a peek.

As the wedding date approached, the nobleman’s repressed bridal fears shook him profoundly. He was for better, but probably for worse, stuck. On the wedding day, the whole world came to dance, except for the anxiety-stricken groom. As he peered underneath the veil, he braced for disaster — but inexplicably the princess was incredibly beautiful. A nagging nervousness persisted: “What’s the catch?” But none was coming. Everyday he unveiled yet another wondrous aspect of her personality. Not only was she stunning, she was also spunky, spirited, charming and deep.

Months later, the nobleman approached his new father-in-law to admit his delight in his new bride and confide his disappointment — that he had essentially missed out on the wedding. The king decided that a new party would be arranged. All the guests would be invited back but this time only one person, the prince himself, would dance to express his absolute delight. And so it was.

Shavuot, the Dubner Maggid explained, marks the Jew’s unshakable commitment to God’s wisdom and His Torah. Not knowing what was in the Torah, at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Jewish nation confidently proclaimed Na’aseh V’nishma (we will perform the mitzvot and then we will understand them). That faith remained blind until the Jew was exposed to the sweetness of the Torah. Simchat Torah celebrates, through dedication to Torah study, the Jew’s joy and ever expanding appreciation for the Torah’s pristine beauty and depth.

Is that not a metaphor for Jewish history? When we had nothing but faith — throughout the numerous darks spots, spanning from Babylonia through Rome to Medieval Europe and 20th century Germany — the Jew always celebrated deep Torah study. It was the study halls of Babylonia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Lithuania and Poland that illuminated our blackest moments. And today — as we begin the “Lexus” period of the 21st century America Jewish community — where are we?

In May 1964, Look magazine ran a cover story on “The Vanishing American Jew,” predicting that by the year 2000, there would be no more Jews left in this country. Since that dire prediction, Look has vanished and we remain 5 million plus. All, however, is not rosy on the American Jewish front. Sub-zero replacement rates, an aging population and a 52 percent intermarriage rate do not bode well for the future of American Jewry.

When historians will wonder what happened to all those American Jews, I believe they will reach the inescapable conclusion that many analysts of the classic 1990 National Jewish Population Survey have already reached: “Jewish day school was … the only schooling that stands against the assimilatory process indicated by intermarriage and its related behaviors” (Elimor & Katz, 1993). In other words, only a consistent commitment to serious Torah will create the joy critical to ensure Jewish survival. Of course these historians will have only been echoing the words of the sweet singer of Israel, King David, who more than 2,500 years ago penned in his Psalms the sentiment: “Had the Torah not been my constant delight, long ago, I would have long since been lost”

Amid the wild craziness and the merriment (and the unfortunate alcohol) that often accompanies Simchat Torah, we may want to reflect upon the secret of our eternity.

After that reflection, I humbly submit, we might just do ourselves and our unborn grandchildren a favor and commit to attend one of the numerous deep (and often entertaining) Torah classes that can be found year-round in our local synagogues or kollels. The Torah is quite a bride — and marriage, after all, is a beautiful thing.

Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.