Several weeks ago, Israeli police arrested and imprisoned Anat Hoffman, a founder and organizer of Women of the Wall, and director of the Israel Religious Action Center. What was Hoffman’s crime? Simply wearing a tallit and praying the “Shema” with hundreds of women participating in the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
Hoffman’s arrest is an affront to religious freedom and tolerance. The Western Wall, called the Kotel in Hebrew, belongs to all Jews, not just those who interpret Talmudic passages most narrowly. The Kotel is a symbol of Jewish peoplehood and sovereignty, and a religious site that must be open to all people who seek to pray there. Yizhar Hess, executive director of Israel’s Conservative movement, eloquently captured the loss for all Jews: “What could have been a national symbol to connect Jews from all over the world is now only an Orthodox synagogue,” he said.
In 2003, the Israeli Supreme Court decided that “local custom” at the Wall did not allow for practices involving women wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, or tefillin, or reading aloud from the Torah. Police routinely remove women from prayer services, bring them to local police stations, detain them, and fingerprint them. As Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network said, “These actions are deplorable anywhere, especially in the State of Israel.”
If we delve into the textual basis of these shameful acts, we find that those who seek to deny the equality of all Jews base their argument on the concept of “kol ishah,” the prohibition against women praying aloud. There is only one statement in all of rabbinic literature that considers a man’s potential distractions while reciting the Shema: “If one gazes at the little finger of a woman, is it as if he gazed at her secret place? No, it means at one’s own wife, and when he recites the Shema” (Berachot 24a).
This passage elicits merely three responses in all of Talmudic literature. The first is from Rav Hisda (Berachot 24a): A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers” (Isaiah 47:2) and it says afterward, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, your shame shall be exposed” (Isaiah 47:3).
The second is from Shmuel (Kiddushin 70a): A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, “For sweet is your voice and your countenance is comely” (Song of Songs 2:14).
The third comes from Rav Sheshet (Y. Hallah 2:1): A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Your hair is as a flock of goats” (Song of Songs 4:1).
Rabbi Judith Abrams clarifies that this passage discusses things that might distract a man while reciting the Shema. Most would agree that any man would be distracted by seeing his partner naked before him while attempting to pray. But what follows in the Talmud is a list of what different sages find most enticing about women, ancillary to the main conversation. Since Shmuel’s statement is included in this sidebar, later generations took it to mean that hearing a woman’s voice is as distracting as having one’s wife sit naked before him. Thus, the prohibition against Kol Ishah is based on a flimsy pretext, which, in context, does not ban women from praying aloud at all.
The Tanach and rabbinic literature assume that women sing publicly. Miriam and the women sing at the shores of the sea (Exodus 15:20-21). Women are public musicians (Psalm 68:26) and take part in loud public rejoicing (Nehemiah 12:43).
Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic sources testify that women sing publicly and liturgically. Only one groundless statement from a sage is used to justify the prohibition against women praying or singing publically. But in context, the Talmud does not ban women’s voices at all! Rabbi Abrams aptly concludes that there are far more textual sources affirming women’s right to sing in public and at services than there are for banning it. “May the sounds of joy and salvation be heard in the tents of the righteous!” (Psalms 118:15).
Moreover, as Jews committed to equality and kavod — respect for all — we are called to challenge a principle that conceives of women as sexual predators who need to be contained and isolated because of our seductive power. What does it mean to respect versus fear women? And what of casting men as unable to exercise self control?
Our Jewish homeland must embody freedom, justice, and peace, valuing the democratic participation and religious commitment of all Jews. May the Israeli government and right-wing groups who ground their discrimination and injustice in “local custom” realize the true message of our sources — that the Kotel, no less than the Shema, is a blessing and a privilege for every Jew.