Women of the Wall founder defends pluralism in Israel

Concealed in a large canvas bag and placed gingerly in the backseat of a car, the Torah still absorbs every bump on the uneven road leading to the women’s side of the Western Wall.

Upon arrival, the women cautiously carry the scroll to their site of worship, a small wooden table just wide enough to allow for the Torah to be opened so they can read scripture while draped in tallits.

Both acts are viewed as taboo in Israel — at least by ultra-Orthodox authorities — thus inviting those outraged by the women’s rituals to disrupt their makeshift Shabbat service in any way possible.

Ironically, it’s often Orthodox women who are the first to do so.

“You assume the women would be in solidarity,” said Anat Hoffman, a founding member of Women of the Wall, a group of women who pray aloud and read Torah on the womens’ side of the Western Wall. “But we’re threatening the women more than the men. [Ultra-Orthodox women] were told a woman is not allowed to touch Torah or read Torah, and they accepted that.

“We’re challenging some of the biggest beliefs they have for women and religion. And we’re doing it in the holiest place.”

Hoffman recently spent time in San Francisco to discuss and promote “Praying in Her Own Voice,” a documentary featured at the S.F. Jewish Film Festival. The film details the ongoing struggle by the group of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox women, whose actions at the Wall are technically permitted by Jewish law, yet opposed by the ultra-Orthodox, who have unofficial jurisdiction over the Wall and its worshippers.

Hoffman doesn’t blame the Orthodox for the protests, the threats or the attempts to remove the Torah scroll while she reads it. The blame lies, she said, in secular Israelis who refuse to take a stand against those who control the Wall, a national symbol and legally a public space.

“I understand where the worry is coming from, and I respect the Orthodox men and women for protesting,” said Hoffman, who identifies as Reform. “What I don’t understand are the secular members of Knesset and the secular members of the court. Why are they putting up with it?

“I don’t want the Orthodox to stop being Orthodox, but they are a minority. Why are they dictating the choices for everybody else? Because they hold such political power.”

In addition to Women of the Wall, Hoffman is involved with the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s legal and political arm in Israel.

Hoffman was quick to point out that while Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish denomination in the world, it is not recognized in Israel. Conservative and Reform rabbis cannot officiate in a wedding, brit milah or other life event.

IRAC also represents other groups that are marginalized in Israeli society: Bedouins, Druze, Christians and Muslims all receive support from IRAC.

“Israeli society is in some way like a teenager, even though it is 60 years old,” Hoffman said. “It listens to its loudest voices and ignores the weak ones.”

Hoffman’s work with Woman of the Wall and IRAC is inspired by her belief that “there is more than one way to be Jewish,” she said. It’s a widely accepted idea in the United States, but considered by many in Israel to be radical.

Hoffman said the same could be said about her.

“I’m a diver. I dive in the Red Sea regularly, and I love to do current diving. You don’t work hard. You just lie down, go with the current and see beautiful things,” she said.

“[In the sea] is the only place where I am with the current. Other than that, I am always against the current. It’s made me strong and smart.”