Israel: nation state, or ultra-Orthodox synagogue?

Next Thursday is Rosh Chodesh Iyyar, the first day of the month Iyyar according to the Hebrew calendar, and on that day, we can expect to see faithful Jews arrested in Judaism’s most sacred space for having the temerity to pray openly and with our faith’s most holy ritual objects.

Why? Because the Jews in question will be women.

As reported in The Forward’s Sisterhood blog:

In a March 14 letter to Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, Yossi Pariente wrote that he met with a deputy attorney general for the government of Israel to go over the rules pertaining to Women of the Wall, which include prohibitions on:

“…Wrapping yourselves in tallitot [prayer shawls], holding a minyan [prayer quorum] of women including the Kaddish [the mourners’ prayer] or Kedusha… and reading from the Torah.”

Pariente warns that, starting on the next Rosh Chodesh, which falls on April 11, Women of the Wall will be arrested and charged with breaking the law for doing any of these things.

“We would like to inform you that, starting on this coming Rosh Chodesh, the Israel Police will fulfill its duty to enforce the law.”

In the Jewish tradition, Rosh Chodesh is closely associated with women’s spirituality, and for the past 15 years, Women of the Wall has held monthly Rosh Chodesh services at the Western Wall because they

not only seek personal fulfillment in group prayer and Torah reading at our most sacred site, but also want to achieve recognition by the legal and religious Israeli establishment of our prayer service for the sake of all Jewish women.

They have often been met with violence, and many have been detained and then released by police, but at the most recent Rosh Chodesh observances, worshippers were largely left to their own devices, because three female Members of Knesset had joined their prayers, and MKs have legal immunity. It’s worth noting that for all these past struggles, Pariente’s most recent letter represents a genuine escalation—arrests and charges, rather than detention, and for the first time, a prohibition on saying Kaddish and Kedusha. Speaking with The Times of Israel, Hoffman said:

“Prohibiting women from saying Kaddish is a shanda [shameful] and brought on solely by the hegemony and short-sightedness” of the Western Wall’s rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz.

… Rabinowitz had “without a doubt, crossed a clear red line, as women’s right to say Kaddish is respected and accepted by the entire Jewish world, including Orthodox factions,” she said. Organization sources also said it held United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush to blame.

What Women of the Wall regularly do and propose to do next week is nothing that women do not do in synagogues across North America. Indeed, it is a limited version of the worship practiced by most Diaspora Jews, because it is still prayer held in segregation from men.

But Israel—the modern nation state that would claim our allegiance, our donations, and our political support—is once again paying from state coffers to strictly enforce religious limitations that reflect the worldview of only a small minority of the world’s Jews, the ultra-Orthodox. Once again, Israel’s government is telling the world’s Jews that they know what Judaism is, and we don’t.

This is not a women’s issue. This is not a social issue. This is not a niche issue. This is a Jewish issue par excellence, and if the Jewish state matters to Diaspora Jews, we all need to say so, men and women alike.

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