Letter from Rabbi Elyse Frishman to her congregation
Dec. 14, 2012

Friday, December 14
Late afternoon in Jerusalem

Dear Friends,

I’m going to miss you tonight; this Friday evening in Chanukah is a favorite time with you. I love bringing our menorahs into the sanctuary and then kindling them with joy. We sing, we bless, we remember: the Maccabees fought for our religious freedom! And for every memory of our past, we reaffirm our present and future.

Religious freedom. This morning, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I felt like a Maccabee.

Today is not only the seventh day of Chanukah, it is also Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month of Tevet. At 7am this morning in Jerusalem, 50 men and 88 women came together to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall. As always, Jews lined up to enter through security to the plaza. All of us carried or wore our tallesim and prayerbooks. There were rumors: no women permitted to bring prayerbooks in today! No women allowed with tallit today!

Among the 138 of us were Israelis and tourists, including a group of young Jews from Netzer, the Reform movement’s international youth movement; these 18 year olds were on a year’s study program. As we stood on line, the singing of this Psalm began, “Let all our voices be raised in song to praise God!”

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.

There is no law in Judaism against a woman wearing a tallit. If anything, the law from Torah (Numbers 15:38) is: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations…”

Ironically, I was so jet-lagged this morning at 6am that I couldn’t locate my African tallit. I borrowed one from Anat Hoffman– a Woman of the Wall tallit celebrating our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Thus I carried their wisdom on my shoulders as I moved towards the Wall.

We gathered quietly at the rear of the Kotel to pray, and then to sing Hallel, joyous psalms. 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.”

Remember: I came this morning prepared to be spiritually provocative. I believe deeply that prayer and song are God’s gifts for every man and woman, and that on Rosh Chodesh, the holiday designated for women, women’s voices especially matter. This is why Women of the Wall celebrate on Rosh Chodesh. So in theory, if God indeed cares about these things as the ultra-orthodox believe, then the presence and voices of women should matter most. My spiritual provocation was to test this.

Two policemen who were watching walked over. One said in Hebrew, “You are not allowed to wear the tallit.” Pretending, I said politely in English, “Excuse me, I do not understand.” (I did this because I am not Israeli, and wanted to be clear throughout my actions that I am a Jew. The Western Wall is the universal site of prayer for all Jews. If anything was to happen, I wanted the police to have something to think about, to take home and mull over at night – all of us are Jews; all of us in that holy site are equally religious before God in our prayers).

The policeman ushered over another who spoke English. “You are not allowed to wear this.” “Why?” I asked. “It’s against the law.” “It is not against the law.” You cannot wear it.” The policeman took my elbow and steered me away. “You’ll have to come with me.” I moved with her. “I don’t understand,” I said. “What am I doing wrong?” “You are wearing a tallit.” “Why is that illegal? It is not wrong in Jewish law,” “Because you might disturb the public peace.” “I don’t understand. Am I not part of the public?” The police officer did not respond. I realized three other women were being taken, too. The police ushered us out of the plaza. An attorney materialized, hired by Women of the Wall to protect women accused unjustly. “Do not worry,” he assured us.

We were taken to a police station courtyard. We were told not to talk with one another. I had taken off my tallit as soon as we left the Kotel, since I was no longer praying. I put it on again and opened my prayerbook, thinking, “This is a good time to communicate with Torah and prayer!” I began to sing prayers quietly. The other three women joined in. We reached the Shema, and I taught them to sing it in harmony. Our voices echoed and the police watched. We sang a melody of Mi Chamocha that we all knew – one of us from New Jersey, one from Scotland, one from Britain, one from Jerusalem. The police listened. Then I shared a teaching from the Talmud, from Berachot. As I began, the policeman said, “There is no talking.” I said, “I am not talking; I am teaching.” And I taught, “When a Jew prays from the north, she faces south towards HaMakom, the Holy Place. When in the south, she faces north. When in the east, she faces west; and when in east, west. Always, from each direction, the Jew prays facing HaMakom. What is HaMakom? God. So when we face HaMakom, who are we facing? God-- and who else? Yes -- one another. We pray and we see one another.” We smiled. The police were quiet.

They brought us inside the police station. We sat quietly, until one by one, we were brought in “for investigation.” I understood from the attorney earlier that I was to sign nothing, and to agree to nothing. The “interrogator” asked if I knew why I was there. I said, “No.” She said, “You are not being arrested; you are being detained. You have broken a law; do you know that?” I asked, “What law have I broken?” “Wearing a tallit.” I said, “That is not against the law, Jewish or Israeli.” She said, “Sign this paper that says you know why you are detained.” I said I could not sign. She took my fingerprint and asked me to sign another document. I declined. She told me that if I did not sign, I could be arrested. I knew this was not true, so I said nothing. She asked if I wanted an attorney. I said yes. She told me that I had the right, but the court could say they were not going to provide one. I said nothing. She made a phone call. We waited. After some time, the attorney from the Women of the Wall came. I think the police officer was relieved. The attorney assured me that I was doing exactly right: I had broken no law, I should sign nothing, and I should be fairly certain that I would be released. “Fairly certain?” I asked. He shrugged.

I returned to the “investigation.” The officer asked me, “Do you know why you are here?” “No,” I said. “You are being detained on suspicion of going to cause a public disturbance. Do you understand?” I replied, “I understand your words, but I do not understand the charge.” “Will you sign that you understand?” “No.”

The officer continued. “Do you come to the Kotel often?” “Whenever I am here.” “How often is that?” “When I visit every year, every couple of years.” “Do you wear a tallit at the Kotel?” “Yes, when I pray here.” “Do you wear a tallit only at the Kotel?” “No, I wear a tallit whenever I pray.” “Not only at the Kotel?” “No, whenever I pray.” Again she asked me this, and again, I said, “I wear a tallit whenever I pray.”

The questions continued a bit. She concluded and asked me to sign. I declined. She told me that I was not allowed to come to the Kotel for 15 days. I knew this is also against the law since I had done nothing wrong. She asked if I understood. I said yes. She asked if I agreed. I said, “I decline to answer.” She frowned. She warned me that if I came to the Kotel and was recognized, I could be arrested and fined several hundred dollars. Did I understand? I said, “I decline to answer.” She frowned again. She said, “You are free to go.”

I walked out of the police station, and was immediately embraced by about 20 men and women who had heard of our detention and came to support us. Anat was there and embraced me with a blessing, “Baruch Atah Adonai, HaMatir asurim! Blessed are You, God, who frees captives!” Cell phones were ringing; the media had been alerted: Was she released? What happened?

And so, it seems, this was an important morning. A Maccabee morning. The fight of the Women of the Wall is a fight by men and women to gain full religious equality for all Jews.

There are those who say, “But if the orthodox men are not able to pray with women present, and are distracted, and believe that men have the greater obligation to pray than women, it is incumbent on the women to give way.” For them, we can reply: “But on Rosh Chodesh, the holiday for women? Men do not have to be present at the same time that the women always come. They can choose to let women celebrate with joy on their special holiday. Instead, it is the provocation of men that creates this public disturbance on the holiday of women.”

The Maccabees fought against religious persecution. So do we. Consider these wonderful lyrics from Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle,” which you’ll sing tonight at Temple:

“Light one candle, for the Maccabee children,
give thanks that their lights didn’t die.
Light one candle for the pain they endured
when their right to exist was denied;
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
justice and freedom demand;
And light one candle for the wisdom to know
that the peacemaker's time is at hand!”

Indeed: Chanukah restores our memory of what happened long ago so that we might act justly and righteously today:
“What is the memory that's valued so highly
that we keep it alive in that flame?
What’s the commitment to those who have died?
We cry out, ‘They have not died in vain!’
We have come this far, always believing
that justice will somehow prevail;
this is the burden, this is the promise,
and this is why we will not fail!”

Today is dedicated to the young woman who came to my side and asked quietly, “I am afraid to wear my tallit here. May I stand and pray next to you?”

I miss you all, and send you my hug for this important Chanukah in Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Elyse Frishman


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