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Spending the night with a mosquito
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Spending the night with a mosquito

Women of the Wall founder Anat Hoffman on the buzz of persistence and goal of obsolescence

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

Anat Hoffman raises a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the Western Wall during a November 2016 protest. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
Anat Hoffman raises a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the Western Wall during a November 2016 protest. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

At the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Biennial Convention last month, Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and a founding member and chairperson of Women of the Wall (WoW), led a session called “Whose wall is it anyway?” During the session, Hoffman talked about the organization’s next steps after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on an agreement that would have expanded the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, placed it under the authority of a pluralist committee, and given it a common entrance with the rest of the Kotel plaza. I was unable to take notes (the session was held on Shabbat afternoon), but the following day Hoffman and I met for Diet Cokes in the lobby of the Sheraton Boston Hotel to discuss WoW’s 30-year struggle. This interview was edited for length and clarity:

NJJN: Your audience was very supportive of WoW’s cause, but do Netanyahu and Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate care about liberal American Jews?

Hoffman: You’re saying Netanyahu and in the same breath the Rabbanut. I am not at all in the business of trying to influence the Rabbanut. They’re doing what they want, I have no qualms with that. My problem is with the overwhelming government power that’s given to the rabbis. But Netanyahu is very sensitive, and altogether bad press in English influences Netanyahu more than bad press in Hebrew. I want him to read something, and he reads best in English from [media] abroad. He is affected, he’s just not affected enough. I think we have to keep the pressure and make it stronger. Values matter. And the survival of Mr. Netanyahu as prime minister, even though it is a very important goal to this government, it is not a value. Values are such things as quality, and tolerance, and religious pluralism.

NJJN: You talked about how outside Torah scrolls aren’t allowed to be brought into the Kotel plaza, and how someone from the Rabbinate refused to accept a gift WoW had offered to decorate one of the Kotel scrolls because, he said, he did not accept gifts from “prostitutes.”

Hoffman: And what do you think, should we adorn the Torah with the scarf that was given by a “prostitute”? Does it lower the Kavod HaTorah (honor for the Torah)?

NJJN: What’s going to lower the Kavod HaTorah?

Hoffman: Zeh bidiuk hainyan (That’s exactly the point).

NJJN: In that vein, I always wonder why so many Orthodox synagogues refuse to let women dance with a Torah scroll on Simchat Torah.

Hoffman: It’s never Kavod HaTorah. It’s Kavod HaTzibur (honor for the community). If the tzibur is so weak, the tzibur of men, that women can’t hold the Torah, it’s an [embarrassment] for the men. I think the biggest pigiah, the biggest injury, to the Kavod HaTorah in Israel is the fact that women can’t read Torah. That is a major pigiah. I know, “If it fell!” I know, “What would happen if it touches the ground?!” … The fact that you deny 50 percent of the Jewish people, the 50 percent that defines the religion of the child [a reference to matrilineal descent, the official position of both the Orthodox and Conservative movements], from touching it, you’ve got something wrong going on.

NJJN: You often quote from scripture, even obscure references, and cite Jewish law in your arguments. Does that lend you credibility with the Rabbinate, that you can say, “Look, I know the halacha, I know the Torah”?

Hoffman: Can you recall when was the last time you changed your mind about anything?

NJJN: Um…

Hoffman: It’s so rare. Does it matter? We change our minds rarely, under crisis, and it usually has an emotional component. If I knew the Bible and Talmud by heart it wouldn’t matter at all. I’m the enemy and the people who are opponents are not ready to even begin to hear. It would crumble their whole world view.

Hoffman related a story about how on a recent rosh chodesh, the start of a new Hebrew month, when WoW traditionally holds a service at the Kotel, an ultra-Orthodox woman spat at her. Later Hoffman asked the woman why she was so upset with them.

Hoffman: She said, “I like to bring my daughters to the Kotel on rosh chodesh. Last time I came, you did your circus and my daughter asks me, Why not? And I don’t have an answer. Because basically, there’s nothing halachically wrong with what you guys do. I don’t want my daughters to ask Why not? I want to come to the Wall and bring my daughters and have a moment of kedusha (holiness) without your circus there. That’s why I went wild today.”

“I don’t want them to challenge our way of life.” That’s what she was saying.

Doesn’t she have a point? When she says, “I want the women’s section, I want my moment with my daughters, free from any Why nots?” Isn’t that something we should hear [that she should be able to pray her way, without having to be distracted by those, like WoW, who practice differently]? And it’s been 30 years. And if we thought in the beginning that they’ll get used to us, they’ll enjoy us, that they’ll join us … OK, after 30 years I can tell you they’re not. We are a disturbance to them.

NJJN: It’s interesting that not only are the Conservative and Reform movements supportive of WoW, but there are also many Orthodox people involved in your organization.

Hoffman: Reform are the minority of WoW. What is wrong with our Reform women? We are a minority in the group. The majority are Conservative and Orthodox — Modern, of course.

NJJN: Why?

Hoffman: They’re drawn to a community that is motivated by Yirat Shamayim (Fear of Heaven), and that is the driving principle of WoW. We ask of every one of our actions: Is it motivated by Yirat Shamayim? Is it centered on our religious beliefs? Every meeting of the WoW begins with a dvar Torah. We are a learned group, we take our Judaism very seriously, and I don’t think in 30 years I’ve heard one theological argument against us. I’ve heard a zillion arguments; none of them have to do with the Jewish religion in any permutation. This is all political.

I feel very awkward when I say we are going to be 30 in 2018, and I have people clap. What are you clapping about? This should have ended in three hours. The first time the women came, it should have immediately stopped. Oy vavoy to all of us that this is not finished in 30 years.

NJJN: At the session you said if WoW got what it wanted, an expanded space for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, you would close up shop. Is that true? Would you have disbanded if that compromise had gone through?

Hoffman: We were asked throughout the years, “Would you fight against breast cancer? Would you fight for lots of [other] good causes? We always said no. We would come [to the Kotel]. We would have our prayer, we would enjoy young people coming and asking, “What, it wasn’t always like this?”

Our strength is that we have been focusing on this like a mosquito that is biting again and again at the same place. And anyone that says that a small group like ours can’t make a difference, or that anything small can’t make a difference, has not spent a night with a mosquito in a room.

NJJN: There was a group that split from WoW because they thought you conceded too much in your negotiations with the Rabbinate. You said they were “too pure.”

Hoffman: Every group needs people like that. It’s important to have the voice that talks about the purest vision that we have. And the purest vision was to liberate the women’s section. [But the compromise was about] “What are the terms under which WoW will move out of the women’s section?” This is why the [Chief Rabbi] played ball. He wants us out. That was his motivation. He doesn’t want peace with the Reform and Conservative [movements]. He wanted us to leave. We are the thorn in his side, and my friends [the purists] have a point. And now that the agreement has been discarded, they have a double point. And still, if I believe in negotiation with our worst enemies, I can’t not believe in negotiation with my own prime minister.

It’s very small [minority]. In fact, in 10 years, maybe 20 years, people will look at that split and say it was one of the most smart, strategic moves of WoW, because the split made us look less radical. And that’s an excellent place for us to be. Then I come to the [negotiating] table and I say, “Look at the price I paid [by compromising], and now you’re reneging on your agreement?”

NJJN: What was the decision you came to about the dress code at the Kotel had the compromise been implemented?

Hoffman: We thought we would adopt the one from the Knesset. We thought if it’s good enough to go to with the Knesset, it’s good enough to go to at the Wall. You can’t go to the Knesset with flip flops, you can’t go to the Knesset with shorts, you can’t go to the Knesset with spaghetti straps or with no sleeves at all. Same will be at the Wall. But no more than that. You can go to the Knesset with short sleeves. You can go with an open neckline. A woman can come with pants. And children have no dress code in the Knesset.

NJJN: What struck me is that unlike almost every Jewish organization I’ve ever seen that’s made their case to a large audience, you never asked for money. Why not?

Hoffman: [Pausing] Maybe I should have? [Another pause] The truth is, we’re doing very well. WoW [is] such a solid group because we are not dependent on any one huge donor. We really have hundreds of small gifts, and they are very loyal. I answer personally every donation we get. Check and see. Send a $50 donation and you’ll see. You’ll get a handwritten note from me. Maybe it’s refreshing, that the WoW [is] not there with our hand outstretched to ask for money.

NJJN: Do you get any satisfaction that you, the mosquito organization, have come so close to making this happen, to the point that the government actually has this agreement in hand, even if they’re too scared to implement it?

Hoffman: Tremendous. I think that it empowers lots of groups of women, lots of groups that are fighting for rights. I read just three or four weeks ago someone said, “We have to fight the electric company like WoW.” It’s like a statement meaning persistence. The fact that we exist, the fact that we were able to hold it together, almost the whole time, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox together. You tell me of another group that prays together from all denominations. How do you solve these problems? We did.

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