Jewish Women Fight For Equality At Jerusalem Western Wall

Israeli law prohibits women from reading the Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, one of Judaism's most sacred spots. Anat Hoffman wants to change that. She's the chairwoman of Women of the Wall and a leading figure in the Reform movement in Israel. Earlier this month she was arrested for carrying the Torah at the wall. Hoffman tells guest host Rebecca Roberts about the incident and why she is so steadfastly working to upend the gender-based restrictions.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Next to TELL ME MORE's weekly conversation, Faith Matters, when the focus is on matters of faith and spirituality. Today we continue our occasional series on women and faith with a story about Judaism's most holy site, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Thousands of Jewish pilgrims visit the sacred spot, also known as the Wailing Wall, every year to pray and reflect.

But Israeli law imposes limits on the way women can express their faith at the stone structure a remnant of the ancient site of the original Jewish temple. For years, a debate over that law has raged among Jews and Israel and around the world. Many call the restrictions antiquated and sexist. Others deem the rules necessary to uphold orthodox values.

Earlier this month, reform activist Anat Hoffman, who leads a group called Women of the Wall, intentionally defied the rules, openly carrying a Torah, although not reading from it, near the wall while leading a procession of women in song. Israeli police arrested Hoffman. She was fined and banned from the wall for a month.

Ms. Hoffman joins us now from our New York bureau. Welcome to TELL ME MORE.

Ms. ANAT HOFFMAN (Reform Activist, Women of the Wall): Yes, shalom. Millions come to the wall every year, thousands a day.

ROBERTS: And when you visited on July 12th, did you intend to get arrested?

Ms. HOFFMAN: I intended to challenge the powers that be on an issue that was not yet clear. We were carrying the scroll to the wall for the last 21 years, except we always carry it in a duffel bag. In the last eight months, the chief of police has decided, without any explanation, to confiscate the Torah scroll from us as we enter in the morning and stash it in the back of his car. We found that not very respectful of the book and of the whole location.

And we decided that as there are 200 Torah scrolls in the men's side, completely available for free to men's use, and ours is the only one for women's use, we decided that we will carry it outside the duffel bag holding it in our arms. That caused the police to be worried about safety and security because the bullies, the ultra-orthodox bullies at the wall might attack the women for holding a Sefer Torah.

ROBERTS: Well, we should clarify that that it's not against the law of the Israeli Supreme Court. It challenges the traditional norms of the ultra-orthodox.

Ms. HOFFMAN: The supreme court ordered that women cannot read from the Torah at the Western Wall. Women were allocated to the tune of almost six million shekel in an alternate site. You in America know this as separate but equal. We were given another wall. Why? There are many walls in Jerusalem, why stick to this one? There's a wall in my house. I'm surprised the Israeli government didn't, in its benevolence, didn't order that I would pray in my own living room.

We were given another site. I was walking with a Sefer Torah from the site where I'm forbidden to read to a site where I'm allowed to read. The court did not give an opinion over carrying a Sefer Torah. I run an organization, the Israel Religious Action Center, which is the legal and political arm of the reform movement. I have many lawyers.

And I came armed with quite a few legal opinions saying that carrying the Torah is legal. However, the wild card here is violence. It's because of violence that the police decided to take me to prison and not stop some of the people who are attacking. Instead of dealing with the bullies, they deal with the minority.

ROBERTS: By bullies you mean the ultra-orthodox?

Ms. HOFFMAN: Ultra-orthodox men and women who decide that they will enforce their way of belief at the wall by using violence.

ROBERTS: Now, the publicity from your arrest is highlighted, but could be a significant rift between the direction of Jewish law in Israel and the diaspora, particularly here in the U.S. You're in the U.S. now, what role do you think American Jews play in this debate?

Ms. HOFFMAN: This is an excellent question. I just want to add one more thing. Most Israeli Jews are not orthodox either. Not Israeli Jews, not Jews in the diaspora, the orthodox are a minority in the Jewish world. And yet they dictate life choices in Israel not just at the Wall. At the Wall, it's very pronounced, but it's in the issues of conversion, of burial, of marriage and a variety of other issues.

Segregated buses in Israel. I don't know if you're aware that there are 106 segregated buses run by our state bus company, where women are assigned to the back and men to the front. There are 2,500 rides like that every day. We're in the supreme court challenging this, representing orthodox women. It is orthodox women that are objecting to the segregated buses.

And let me tell you another thing, the Women of the Wall are in the majority, orthodox women. The most courageous feminists I know are orthodox women challenges orthodoxy from within.

ROBERTS: And where do you think you mentioned a conversion law which is a debate that has been postponed but not taken care of. That is a debate particularly that American Jews have gotten involved with. Where do you think this is headed? What role do you think is going to form between the diaspora and the ultra-orthodox in Israel?

Ms. HOFFMAN: Well, hopefully that is my wish is that Jews all over the world will understand that Israel is way too important to be left to the Israelis.

ROBERTS: If Israel's too important to be left to the Israelis, who should it be left to?

Ms. HOFFMAN: I think the Jewish people have to discuss, what are the values? What are Jews' values that govern a sovereign Jewish state? What are these values? Are these values of tolerance, of pluralism, of openness, of equality or the opposite of that? And I think the Jews of the world have a voice in this. And I'm delighted that with the unfortunate conversion bill but we heard that voice. The giant has awakened. Jews from Australia and Jews from Europe and Jews of North America have made it very clear to the powers that be in Israel.

Jews have never had a pope and there's a good reason for it. We're an argumentative bunch by definition. If you read the Bible, it's one long litany of us arguing with each other, with God, with the kings, with Moses, with -everyone is resigning, everyone is throwing hands up saying, I hate these people, I can't stand them anymore and it's still like this today.

We are a culture of argument. And we are great at debate. And I refuse to accept that in the Jewish state there will be one way to be Jewish. And that way is orthodoxy.

ROBERTS: Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall. She's also the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center which advocates for the reform movement in Israel. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. HOFFMAN: Thank you. Shalom.

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