Last November, Israeli authorities arrested medical student and Women of the Wall (WOW) member Nofrat Frenkel for wearing a prayer shawl and holding a Torah at the Western Wall (Kotel), Judaism's most holy site. The first time a female worshiper has been arrested there, the event has prompted protests from many sides in an already tense debate in the Jewish community.
Founded in 1988, WOW believes devout Jewish women have the right to gather at the Kotel to pray, read the Torah, and wear religious clothing such as prayer shawls. Torah requires certain practices for men but does not prohibit women from those practices. Despite WOW's appeals to the Israeli government over the past two decades, its laws call for fining or jailing women who partake in these activities at the Kotel, which is segregated by sex.
WOW meets every month for Rosh Hodesh at the Kotel, as well as for other select holidays. Rosh Hodesh is a celebration of the new moon and is traditionally viewed as a women's holiday. At WOW's December meeting, leader Anat Hoffman said the women wore scarf-like prayer shawls under their coats rather than traditional prayer shawls so that the garments wouldn't upset other worshipers. The New York Times, meanwhile, reported that the women went wearing prayer shawls and carrying scrolls in protest of Frenkel's arrest, but that rain caused them to cover both items.
WOW members have met strong opposition, particularly from Orthodox Jews, for their activities. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, also known as Haredi, which means "those who fear God," believe the women are trying to disrupt Jewish traditions and meddle in rituals meant for men, and that they disturb others' worship when they meet as a group.
WOW has faced verbal and physical attacks from men and women who are offended. Hoffman has filed complaints following such assaults, but she claims that police do not press charges.
The Women's Rabbinic Network held a solidarity day last month in the U.S. where Jewish women met to pray and read the Torah. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, a North American group of 1,800 Reform Jewish leaders, released a statement December 30 condemning Frenkel's arrest and vowed to take a stand against the injustice facing WOW, as well as other groups facing what they perceive as a lack of religious freedom due to Orthodox control.
But others resent Americans' involvement in the matter. Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a U.S.-based Haredi organization, told JTA, Israel "is a country that has functioned with a certain understanding among its religious and not religious Jews. If the activists don't want to alienate Jews, they shouldn't thumb their noses at the traditional Jews in Israel."
Other debates center on the intentions of Frenkel and other WOW members. Are the women wearing prayer shawls in order to grow in their faith? As females are exempt from following certain holy laws, does their willingness to obey encourage men to be more faithful in what they are required to do?
Or, instead of an issue of faith, is it one of gender? In Christianity, we've seen challenges and divisions stem from the question of scriptural authority and gender equality. It is understandable why Orthodox Jews are unwavering, even fearful, about making certain allowances. Consenting to one change, though it may seem harmless, could open up other more central challenges to the faith. Are the issues of faith and gender equality separable? What implications does this have for us Christians?