With a flourish, Anat Hoffman donned her tallit on the bima at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, and then announced that were she to do the same thing and begin praying in Israel, she would be guilty of a felony punishable by up to a year in jail.
The issue is not hypothetical for Hoffman. On Oct. 16, she was arrested for wearing a tallit and leading a group of women in prayer at the Western Wall.
A leader of Women of the Wall — a group whose mission is to work for the social and legal acceptance of women wearing prayer shawls, publicly praying, and reading from the Torah at the Kotel — Hoffman was in New Jersey on Nov. 11 urging liberal Diaspora Jews to make plenty of noise around issues of pluralism in Israel.
“You have such marvelous nuisance value,” she said, suggesting the major reason efforts to change the law of return to reflect the ultra-Orthodox halachic perspective have been unsuccessful is the hue and cry raised by Diaspora Jews. “I am asking you to enlarge the menu” to include pluralism at the Kotel and in the rabbinate. “Israel is way too important to be left to Israelis,” she said with her characteristic incisive humor.
Hoffman’s talk focused on women’s issues in Israel and pluralism generally. She bemoaned the current absence of pluralism in the religious life of Israelis. “You go to a bris and [pluralism] is not there. There is no female mohelet. Bar mitzva and weddings are all Orthodox. You go to a funeral, it’s Orthodox. You deal with kashrut, it’s Orthodox.”
Using the metaphor of religion as a consumer product, she said, “There’s just Orthodoxy on the shelf. Other products — Reform, Conservative — do not exist.” She pointed out that the Israeli rabbinate does not recognize ordination from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary or the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, whose graduates make up a majority of American rabbis.
And she expressed her frustration that Judaism in Israel is hardly the world model it ought to be. “Israel should be the Disneyland of Judaism, a spa for the soul. Instead, people learn Judaism is fun only when they come here and meet a rabbi like yours.” She added, “Israelis are interested to hear there is more than one way to be Jewish.”
Hoffman, who leads the Israel Reform Action Committee — and in that role has filed many lawsuits and petitions before the Israeli Supreme Court — also discussed the issues facing women who want to pray at the Kotel. The thorn in her side is that, as she put it, “The Western Wall has become an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. Ultra-Orthodoxy is a respected faction of Jews, but it is a minority faction. Taking the keys to the holiest site and giving them to a minority group is a problem,” she said.
The rabbi, she added, “has police powers. He has the power of the state.” She said that IRAC is filing a petition to dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the site. In its place, she said, she hopes to see a time-sharing arrangement. “Jews have always created structures in time,” she said, pointing to Shabbat as the ultimate example.
Among the other cases of discrimination in Israel she cited was the recent brouhaha over women being forced to sit in the back of buses. “Segregation in the public sphere is a big problem now. And despite having won a lawsuit preventing buses from forcing women to the back,” many bus lines continue to do so, she said. Although as a result of the litigation every bus has a sign clearly stating that anyone can sit anywhere on the bus, she said, “It turns out Israelis are not so good at reading signs.”
In the wake of her recent “discovery” of the connection between money and legal entitlements, she has begun suing for civil damages. In addition, IRAC has been organizing “freedom rides” modeled on the American civil rights-era actions. Women organized by IRAC are assigned to travel on particular bus routes and sit in the front. “Very quickly ultra-Orthodox women will sit next to you. They just need a little push.”
Hoffman’s long-term solution to Israel’s pluralism problems? “Good, healthy competition,” she said. “May the best rabbi win. Here you have the ability to fire a rabbi if he is not good. I have never heard of a fired rabbi in Israel.”
Asked what action those sympathetic to her cause — which at this venue appeared to be the entire audience — might undertake, she suggested gathering outside the Israeli embassy to protest, and purchasing tallitot like hers, with the four matriarchs in the corners, the proceeds of which fund IRAC’s legal costs. In Israel, she suggested joining a freedom ride or the monthly Rosh Hodesh gathering of the Women of the Wall.
The talk was cosponsored by Shomrei Emunah and Bnai Keshet, also in Montclair.