By Yemeli Ortega
Jerusalem, Feb 10 (EFE).- As dawn breaks over Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, the murmur of Orthodox prayers is drowned out by the vibrant chants of a group of feminist Jews claiming their right to pray freely at the sacred site.
Defying Orthodox tradition, dozens of members of the Women of the Wall (WOW) organization arrive once a month at Judaism’s holiest site clad in flower-embroidered ritual cloaks and wearing rainbow-hued kippah, their melodic yet forceful chants of “May no woman or girl be silenced ever again among Your people Israel” bouncing off the square’s famous limestone walls.
But if a bill from the ultra-religious Shas party — which seeks to criminalize all types of prayer at the Western Wall besides strict Orthodox custom — is passed, wearing religious garments traditionally reserved just for men and reading aloud from the Torah could land the women in jail for six months or a 10,000 Shekel ($2,844) fine.
“What was a religious issue has become political. The Orthodox branch has a monopoly in Israel to determine what can and cannot be done in holy spaces. There is no religious pluralism, other branches of Judaism are not taken into account,” such as the Reform or Modern Orthodox movement, Sandra Kochmann, the first rabbi of Paraguay’s Conservative movement, laments.
“You arrive in Israel with the dream of praying in the most sacred place and they tell you ‘you have no rights here, you are useless’,” Kochman, a WOW member who emigrated to Israel in 2005, tells Efe.
RELIGION VS DEMOCRACY
The Shas initiative has proven so controversial that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shelved the bill despite the proposed legislation being a key element in Israel’s coalition government deals with far-right and ultra-orthodox allies.
According to Shlomit Ravitsky Tur-Paz of the Israel Democracy Institute, such political contradictions are endemic in Israel.
A self-proclaimed Jewish and democratic state, Israel needs “on the one hand, to be modern and give equality to women; on the other hand, to preserve the traditional status,” she says.
But Anat Hoffman, who has led WOW’s 400-strong collective for over three decades, is fearless.
“God help me, I will go to jail for praying the way I do,” she says defiantly.
In 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and the Western Wall, the Chief Rabbinate appointed ultra-Orthodox leaders to maintain “traditional Jewish practices” at the holy site.
The rules included removing women from the traditional prayer site and making them pray in silence, individually, and without wearing ritual accessories or reading from holy scripture in Torah scrolls.
Men, on the other hand, pray in groupsq, use microphones and can wear full religious attire.
Although these norms are not enshrined in law, WOW activists are pushed around and insulted by Orthodox men and women when they pray in the holy square.
“Build your own wall in Tel Aviv!” people yell at them as they are escorted by police officers.
“I’ve been pinched, spat at, kicked and everything. The worst thing was a few years ago, when a few boys ripped our prayer books, they grabbed a bunch of 40 prayer books and started ripping them in front of our eyes,” says Tammy Gottlieb, WOW’s vice president, whose powerful voice frequently leads the women in chorus.
Made up of writers, scientists, former soldiers and daughters of Holocaust survivors of all ages and Jewish movements, including secular ones, the feminist group began praying at the Wall to reclaim women’s rights in 1988.