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Furor over Frishman’s fringes

On Rosh Chodesh, the rabbi went to jail — and she’s proud of it

 
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From the left, Women of the Wall chair Anat Hoffman; British teenagers Rhiannon Humphreys and Emily Wolfson, who are spending their gap year in Israel; Elyse Frishman, and Women of the Wall activist Rachel Cohen Yeshurun stand together outside the police station, just after Humphreys, Wolfson, Frishman, and Yeshurun were released. Courtesy Rabbi Elyse Frishman

Elyse Frishman was detained at the Kotel two weeks ago, charged with the crime of wearing a tallit.

Frishman, the rabbi of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, is a luminary in the Reform movement — she was the chief editor of the new Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah, and was named by the Forward in 2007 not merely among its top 50 Jews, but one of the top five. (Her husband, too, is an influential Reform rabbi. Daniel Freelander, a vice president at the Union for Reform Judaism, is also a well-known Jewish musician and composer.)

So how can we make sense of the fact that Frishman was arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit? By starting at the beginning, with the Wall.

The Western Wall — the Kotel, the place the outside world prefers to call the Wailing Wall — is ancient.

And as old as the wall is — it’s been there, in part, for more than 2,000 years — it stands on a place that is older still. The Kotel is a retaining wall around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Temple is said to have been built on the slope above, which is believed to be the biblical Mount Moriah, where Abraham sought to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved, Isaac, but in the end slaughtered a ram in his place.

Much of the wall is below ground although it towers overhead, stark and uneven and massive, built by hand out of hand-hewn stones. Some of it is more than two millennia old, and many of the cultures that have passed through Jerusalem on their way to destruction have added to it. It is arguably not only the most holy Jewish site in the world, but also the most evocative.

It is not surprising, then, that the Kotel provokes strong emotion. It attracts rush-hour-size crowds, draws tears, and shelters the notes whose messages people think have a direct path toward God.

Some of the emotion it elicits is ecstasy. Some is rage.

Pilgrims have made their often perilous way to Jerusalem, and to the Kotel at its heart, for centuries. Between 1948, though, when the modern state of Israel was born, and June 1967’s Six-Day War, Jews could not get to the Kotel. One of the iconic images of the war’s aftermath was the unabashed reverence radiating from the faces of three young Israeli soldiers as they stood before it for the first time.

Jerusalem is a place where many needs collide. Over the years, the Kotel was declared officially to be an open-air Orthodox synagogue, and observance there has become ever more stringent. There is a m’chitzah dividing the men’s section, which is large, from the much smaller area enclosure reserved for women. There are many minyanim in the men’s section, and the sounds of loud competing prayer fill the air. As the Orthodox understanding of halachah dictates, women are not allowed to make up a minyan on their side of the divider, and they are not allowed to pray together on their own in public.

The Kotel symbolizes many things. One of them is the growing divide between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. In Israel, people’s default Judaism — the shul they never go to — is Orthodox. In the rest of the world, that is not true.

Although it is unusual for women to daven wearing tallitot in Orthodox shuls, and in the classical Reform tradition neither men nor women wear them, it is not only unusual but actively illegal for women to daven wearing tallitot at the Kotel. Women are allowed to wear the prayer shawls as if they were scarves, however, wound around their necks.

It is also illegal for women to read Torah at the Kotel. Women are not allowed to carry sifrei Torah into the women’s section (or for that matter to carry them at all).

All of these forbidden acts are legal at Robinson’s Arch, a section of stonework directly to the Kotel’s south. That area, ironically, has a more legitimate claim to being a part of Herod’s Temple than does the Kotel, because Herod built it as part of his massive renovation in the first century B.C.E.

Since 1988, a group called Women of the Wall has met in the women’s section each month to daven together. The group’s members come from all the main streams — Orthodox, Conservative (or Masorti, as the Conservative movement is called outside North America; the name means “traditional”), Reform, and Reconstructionist. The women gather on the first day of each month —Rosh Chodesh — on what traditionally was a women’s holiday, and together they race to finish the liturgy, retain some joy, and evade the police before they are evicted.

For the last few months, the police have arrested women for wearing tallitot or reading from the Torah.

In October, on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall, was arrested for saying the Shema out loud. When she was taken to the police station, she alleged, the police manhandled her. This seems to have raised the stakes, as Jews outside Israel have begun to pay more attention.

This brings us to Frishman’s arrest two weeks ago, on Rosh Chodesh Tevet.

In a telephone call from Israel, Frishman said that beyond the emotional issues, the question of who governs the Kotel is a live one. “The Kotel is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is also an Orthodox synagogue,” she said. “The question is whether this really is a national monument or a synagogue.

“You also have the plaza area, and suddenly now there are random decrees about what we can and can’t bring in.

“The Supreme Court has said that Women of the Wall are permitted to come in to the Kotel and do certain things on Rosh Chodesh. Now Rabbi Rabinowitz” — Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Kotel, who makes the rules there — “is making random decrees. On one day, you cannot bring in siddurim, but you can bring in a tallit that looks like a scarf.” But other days, other rules rule. “On Rosh Chodesh, the random decree was no talleisim at all, not even as scarves.”

Frishman told the story of her arrest in an email to her congregation. As the day began, a group, originally of mixed gender, gathered, and then separated as the men went to their side. “We began to move through security. Contrary to rumor, prayerbooks were permitted — but for the first time, not a tallit. A decree had been issued — illegally, randomly — that no woman could bring her tallit today. Security began to confiscate them. Some of the men walked in with their friends’ tallesim. But most women had theirs removed. Some of us wore them beneath our jackets, obscured by collars. Some were seen and taken. Mine was not.”

The group stood at the back of the enclosure, closest to the wide plaza through which visitors of the Kotel must pass.

When she was standing there, she reported, “One woman came over to me and asked quietly, ‘May I stand with you and pray? I wanted to wear my tallit, but I’m afraid.’

Then it happened. “Two policeman who were watching walked over,” she wrote. “One said in Hebrew ‘You are not allowed to wear the tallit.’”

“When they said I couldn’t wear it, I said, ‘I don’t see why not,’” Frishman reported later. Moreover, to be told she couldn’t wear it — “that’s harassment. They told me that I was detained on suspicion that I was going to disturb the public order. So I said, ‘who’s the public? What do you mean you’re going to detain me? I’m the public. These 138 people standing here’ — the group with whom she had planned to celebrate Rosh Chodesh — ‘they’re the public.’

“I was very much struck by how I was less than a human being when I was taken away,” she continued. “Who I was meant nothing. I was defined completely by my gender, in the most debasing way.”

(There is a short video of Frishman’s arrest posted on YouTube. One way to find it is to google “elyse frishman rosh chodesh tevet arrest.”)

When she and three other women were taken to the police station and then interrogated separately, they followed the instructions the Women of the Wall’s attorney had given them earlier in the day. “I was to sign nothing and to agree to nothing,” Frishman said. She was asked to sign documents that she did not sign; she was asked but refused to acknowledge that if she were to return to the Kotel in the next 15 days she could be arrested and fined several hundred dollars. Finally, she was released.

Frishman made clear that although she is an egalitarian Jew — she does not differentiate between men and women in davening or ritual practices — Women of the Wall’s issue is not the right to pray with men, but simply the right to pray publicly at the Kotel with other women. “They have been working on this issue for decades, and something is starting to happen now,” she said. “My own personal issues” — like egalitarianism — “let’s do them next, after these issues are resolved. They deserve our support first.”

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has many board members and supporters in northern New Jersey. In fact, its president, Judy Heicklen, lives in Teaneck. Heicklen was traveling in Israel and unavailable for comment, but the organization’s executive director, Elana Maryles Sztokman, talked about JOFA’s support for Women of the Wall.

JOFA’ basic position is that it promotes women’s religious freedom within the bounds of halachah. That makes its support of Women of the Wall logical. “We fully believe in women’s right to wear tallit and t’fillin,” Sztokman said. “Rashi’s daughter did; in 13th century Germany the rabbis said that women should wear tzitzit, and there is a midrash about how Shaul’s daughters wore t’fillin.

“I’m not a halachist, and JOFA doesn’t want to come out with a halachic statement. We’re not saying what is correct or incorrect. What we are saying is that as long as there is halachic support for what women can do, we want to maximize it.

“The rabbis’ job used to be to make chicken kosher.” That is, to be lenient whenever leniency was possible, because real life can be so hard that unnecessary harshness can become cruelty. “We want the rabbis to adopt that approach, because we’re talking about women’s real lives.”

Some women’s desire to pray wearing tallit is not meant as provocation; instead, “it is a basic human desire for basic expression,” Sztokman continued. “We want rabbis to understand that repressing women’s spirituality causes real suffering, and sometimes it pushes women away from Judaism.

“We support Women of the Wall because they are trying to maximize their religious expression,” she said. “They are embracing the Kotel. They are embracing t’fillah. We believe that the rabbis and the State of Israel must find way to encourage this, to say that it is a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing. It is a basic human need.

“I’m not talking about rights, I’m talking about needs. Women need connection and spirituality.

“I don’t understand what it means to take offense because someone else is signing out to God. How can one person’s spiritual expression through song and prayer and prayer shawls possibly be offensive?”

Shmuel Goldin, rabbi of Congregation of Ahavath Torah in Englewood and president of the centrist Orthodox organization called the Rabbinical Council of America, was careful in his response to the situation at the Kotel. “There are so many pieces to this very complex issue,” he said. “From what I understand, with everything else going on in Israel, it’s not really on the radar screen there.” (Frishman would agree with him on that. “Israelis by and large don’t understand religious pluralism issues per se,” she said.)

“You have to ask if we are importing our differences there, particularly at a time when Israel doesn’t need additional crises,” Goldin said.

“On the other hand, I resonate to the feeling that Israel should be a place that speaks to all Jews,” he continued. “And that I can understand how people who feel this deeply would say ‘I want my homeland to represent my religious point of the view.’ The question is how do we go about it.

“We in the RCA have thought about it,” Goldin added. “Is there a way that we can reach out to these groups. There’s nothing official — just thinking — because from our perspective we think it would be useful. Maybe we could sit down and reach out in that way. Nothing has happened yet, but there have been a lot of issues that have been swirling around.

“While we may not agree with the religious posture of women who are agitating for this kind of religious expression, we understand it,” Goldin continued. “I would not want these things in my shul, although I know that people outside my community want them. There are real differences.”

But he has an overarching concern, he said.

“If American Jews don’t see the Israelis as expressing their point of view, that will affect their continued support for Israel. It would be tragic if these issues became the reason for distancing themselves.

“It is far from me to say that the religious establishment is Israel is perfect. There are issues. But how do we go about affecting change?”

 
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