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Arrested Torah

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av.  The new Jewish month of Av.  Each First day of the new month Women of the Wall gather to pray and read Torah at the Kotel, The Western Wall in Jerusalem. It is a sacred holy place. A remnant of the outside walls of the Ancient Temple mount. 

Jews for thousands of years have come to pray at the wall. To pour out their hearts and souls and to place small pieces of paper with their prayers into the crevices of the ancient masonry.

The Women of the Wall group has for many years sought equality in prayer at that holy site. It is divided in two although not equal halves. One side for men (of course the larger side) and a smaller side for women. But according to the Orthodox who control the site-women can not lead a service, read from the Torah, or sing a prayer at the site.   This group sued for equality in the Supreme Court.  They lost.  Oh they were allowed to gather–but their tallitot (prayer shawls) must be wrapped like scarves. They must pray in quiet voices. And they can only read from the Torah scroll far away in a different section not considered the traditional sacred site. 

Led by former Jerusalem City Councilwoman, Anat Hoffman who now heads the Israel Religious Action Center, the Women at the Wall have put the cause of equality for liberal religious groups and women’s equality on the map in Israeli society.  The group has been increasingly harassed in recent months.  One of the prayer leaders, Nofrat Frenkel, who led this morning’s service too, was arrested only a few months ago in November. Nofrat is a fifth year medical student and a member of a Conservative congregation.

This morning an especially large group of women gathered at 7 am to welcome the new month of Av.  Rosh Chodesh is a mini-holiday dedicated to women as according to Jewish tradition is a reward for Hebrew slave women resisting participating in the making of the Golden Calf  at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  There were many American women rabbis including myself participating and showing solidarity with the Israeli women who make up this group.

We prayed the morning service, surrounded by police.  The officers tried to keep us in a small tightly knit group. But our numbers kept growing.  Curses rang out from the men’s side toward us. There were several liberal men, praying with us on the men’s side that we could only barely see through the screen. They were there in part to protect against thrown items from the men’s side.

Photographers filmed. The snapping of the cameras provided a rhythmic background noise to the chanting of the Hallel.  The police were not happy that the numbers kept growing.  They kept trying to keep our clear strong joyous prayerful voices quieter.  They approached several women in tallitot (prayer shawls) to tell them they couldn’t wear them the traditional way and had to wrap their tallit around their shoulders like a pashmina. A fashion statement rather than an instrument of spirituality and Jewish tradition. 

When we got to the Torah service we had to move. The Supreme Court of Israel forbade the reading of Torah by women on the women’s side of the wall.  I learned that usually at this point in the service the Torah is carried in a special bag to the reading spot far from the Kotel. Today, Anat carried the Torah toward the exit of the Plaza toward the Dung gates to Robinson Arch. We sang songs and followed behind.  A wave so large that the front and back were singing different songs.  As we exited the security gates a scuffle ensued.  A solider tried to grab the Torah from Anat’s arms.. The police surrounded her. Participants tried to get between Anat and the police.  They pushed her up the stairs. Some of us me included ran up other stairs, horrified as they shoved Anat holding the Torah (which others were trying to remove from her arms) into a waiting police jeep.  They drove off with blue lights flashing to the police station outside of Jaffa Gate. 

Anat and the Torah arrested.

How odd.  All we wanted to do was pray, welcome the new month of Av and read the Torah scroll. We didn’t threaten anyone, build a bomb, throw stones, or pull a gun.  We sang and carried the story of our people’s history. 

The Torah arrested shows how arrested the Torah has become.

We all followed to the Police Station and finished our service without Anat and without the Torah.  She could hear us singing while inside.

Anat has been banned from the Kotel for 30 days.  Seems like that will be just in time for Rosh Chodesh Elul.  

I was glad to be there to lend support and to pray and lift my voice in song.  You should lend yours by donating to help end this kind of segregation.  Go on-line to IRAC.

10 thoughts on “Arrested Torah”

  1. Denise, so glad that you were there, and that you have shared such a complete and detailed report of what happened with us. what news to wake up to. and great photos too! sending love to you and let us know what happens…

  2. Dear Denise,

    Thank you for the well-written report. I will share it with my congregation (who is very supportive of WOW) immediately. Thank you for your strength and example in standing together at the Kotel.


  3. Barbara Topf Uziel

    Thank you, Denise, for standing with Anat and WOW during these trying times. I will share this with my Rosh Chodesh group.

  4. Good job Denise! The Reform men are behind you 1000%. (BTW…I am 30,000 feet right now in a plane over Kansas chatting with the passenger on my left–an Orthodox Jew retrurning to LA. Hmmmm. should I ask his opinion on this topic? Not sure if I have guts to do it.

    Thanks for posting from ISrael.

  5. Pingback: They arrested the Torah « Rabbi Eleanor Steinman's Blog

  6. Denise,
    I feel so proud seeing you and Lucy together supporting the Women of the Wall and Judaism. Thank you for such a detailed report of what actually happened. Ann

  7. My own Rabbi Audrey Pollack was among the American Rabbis there. How proud I am that she was there to stand with Anat. I only wish I could have been there as well…

  8. I carried that Torah in its gym bag from the Kotel to Robinson’s arch on my first visit to WoW a couple of years ago. Last year, on my second visit, I carried it from Robinson’s Arch to the car. Next month will be visit #3 – on the morning of my granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah. My son-in-law said I can’t get arrested on her Bat Mitzvah day, so I guess someone else will carry it next month.

    On Tisha B’Av we learn that the Temple was destroyed for baseless hatred. The horrible invectives that are spat over the barricades against women peacefully praying shows us that over all these centuries nearly nothing has changed.

    My heart hurts to see the Torah so disrespected.

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