A group called ‘Women of the Wall’ holds monthly prayer meetings at the Western Wall. Recently, a woman was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl and reading the Torah at the Wall. The group is pushing for more women’s religious rights within Orthodox Judaism. And it’s getting some in Israel really angry, as Linda Gradstein reports.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. There are new tensions at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall. But these tensions are not between Israeli’s and Palestinians. Instead, a group of women is challenging ultra-Orthodox control of the site, as Linda Gradstein reports.
LINDA GRADSTEIN: A group of Finnish tourists listen carefully as their guide explains the history of the Western Wall. Nearby, a group of junior high school students seem more interested in each other than in the Wall, the only remnant of the second temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago. As you approach the craggy limestone bricks of the wall itself, the men and women’s prayer areas are separated by a tall fence. Women are asked, sometimes politely, sometimes not, to dress modestly and given skirts to cover their legs if they are wearing shorts. It was at this part of the site that an Israeli medical student, [SOUNDS LIKE] Nofrat Franco, was arrested during an early morning women’s prayer service. Her crime, wearing a talis, a fringed prayer shawl usually worn by men and carrying a Torah scroll, a handwritten Old Testament read during prayer. Traditionally, women did not wear the prayer shawl or read from the Torah scroll. Anod Hoffman is the chairperson of the group called Women of the Wall, which organizes monthly women’s prayer services at the wall.
ANOD HOFFMAN: We opened the bag, took the Torah out. Nofrat marched with us a little bit and in a second, two men from the Foundation for the Preservation of the Wall came and very brutally, two thugs actually, told us to stop this immediately and before we could turn around, police showed up and the policemen, Vitale, started pushing Nofrat who was wearing a talis, a prayer shawl, holding the Torah, the Torah scroll in her hands, starting pushing her away from the group.
GRADSTEIN: Franco was questioned for two hours and released. She is not allowed to approach the wall for two weeks. Rabbi Schmwell Rabinowitz who is in charge of the site, says the women were being deliberately provocative.
SPEAKER: This is something that will get people all stirred up. It will lead to disagreements. The wall doesn’t belong to the Orthodox or to the secular, it belongs to everyone. We’re trying to find a way that everyone can pray there without insulting anyone else.
GRADSTEIN: In the early 1990’s, Women of the Wall appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court for permission to wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah scroll at the site. After several years of deliberations, the court ruled 5-4 that they were not permitted to read the Torah at the wall itself. But the court ordered the authorities to find an alternative site. For years now, the women have started their monthly service at the wall itself and then moved to the alternative site known as Robinson’s Arch. Anod Hoffman says she’s not happy with the compromise.
HOFFMAN: It really is insane that on the one side of the partition every man facing the wall was wearing a prayer shawl and we are disturbing the peace for doing the very same thing when according to Jewish law, absolutely no prohibition on a woman wearing a prayer shawl. So yes, we were pushing the envelope, so to speak.
GRADSTEIN: This is not the first time the women have sparked controversy. In the past, they have been screamed at and had chairs and bottles thrown at them, often by ultra-Orthodox women praying nearby. Hoffman says they will be there every month, pushing the envelope, until they are allowed to pray the way they want, at Judaism’s holiest site. For The World, I’m Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem.
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