Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky’s recent proposal — to expand the Western Wall Plaza to include a permanent section where men and women can pray together — may be a first step in resolving recent discord among Jews of different denominations, and sexes, at the Wall.
But the announcement of his proposal was followed two days later by the arrest of five women wearing prayer shawls at the holy site.
While the women who were arrested — members of the group Women of the Wall — were released from detainment following a brief court appearance, the arrest itself is indicative of the growing struggle of women in Israel, and beyond, against the edicts of ultra-Orthodox “radicals.”
Elana Maryles Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, will speak about the alarming trend of religious radicals suppressing the rights of women, and secular society’s silent acquiescence to that trend, at Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha’s Sisterhood Shabbat, April 27. An extended kiddush and a study session will follow services.
While Sztokman is not a member of Women of the Wall, she is a supporter of its cause, she said.
“The Women of the Wall started as an Orthodox women’s prayer group,” she noted. “It has also been joined by a lot of non-Orthodox women. It is a very pluralistic group.”
Sztokman, who splits her time between the United States and Israel, is a doctor of sociology who has been writing about Jewish women’s issues for The Forward for the last several years.
“I cannot officially comment on Sharansky’s proposal,” said Sztokman, speaking from her office in New York. “But I strongly urge that proposal to include not only structures for egalitarian services, but for Orthodox women’s tefilla groups without getting arrested.
“We’re not just talking about the rights of Conservative and Reform Jews — they need to have spaces to pray at the Kotel,” she continued. “But we also need spaces for Orthodox women to have prayer groups at the Kotel.”
Sztokman has been a champion of Orthodox feminism since 1995, and has witnessed the rise of repression of women within ultra-Orthodox sects, and the ripple effect that repression has on society at large. Her book, “The War on Women in Israel,” an exposé of the religious and political backlash occurring against Israeli women, and how it affects women and Jews around the world, will be published by Sourcebooks and released in early 2014.
“The thesis of that book is that there has been a gradual growth of a radical extremist group over the last 20 or 25 years that has taken over because of the passive acquiescence of secular society,” she said. “Misogynistic religious radicals have taken over within Orthodoxy. We have seen increases in gender segregation in public places, and the stifling of women’s voices, and the covering up of women’s bodies. The argument is that it is civic passivity that allows it to come about.
“It is part of a global trend,” she continued. “There is a similar pattern in the Muslim world, in Egypt and Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Even in America, in the 2012 presidential elections, we had the same rhetoric, a religious radicalism built around the control of women’s bodies and women’s reproductive rights.”
The rules of Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, forbidding women to wear prayer shawls or read from the Torah at the Wall, are emblematic of a much deeper problem, Sztokman said.
“In order to understand why Rabbi Rabinowitz is doing this, we must understand the growth of radical religious activity, and the lack of opposition to it,” she said. “This is less about the Kotel, and more about understanding the religious struggle.”
Orthodox women’s prayer groups have been around since the 1970s, Sztokman said, and should be well past the point of debating their legitimacy.
Rabinowitz’s mandates are not mainstream, according to Sztokman.
“Rabbi Rabinowitz can interpret Jewish law however he wants, but [his interpretation] is radical,” she said.
“Halacha is a very variegated system, and it is open to many interpretations. His interpretation is only one.”
Sztokman, citing recent trends in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods, where ultra-Orthodox “modesty police” threaten shop owners who display store mannequins, or force women to walk on only one side of the street, said such behavior was, in fact, antithetical to Orthodoxy.
“I belong to the Modern Orthodox community,” she said. “This does not represent Orthodoxy. This is a radical interpretation of Torah. It is extreme. All of this stuff is not Torah.”
Want to go?
Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Sisterhood Shabbat April 27, 9:30 a.m., 5898 Wilkins Ave.
For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)