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The possibility of being imprisoned for how you dress at the Western Wall – defeated only for now

Jewish women pray in capsules at the Women's section of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, Nov. 13, 2020. (Photo: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Before we give a long sigh of relief over the outrageously offensive proposal of a bill to imprison women for immodest dress near the Western Wall (Kotel), it appears that it is not going to happen just yet.

Last week's text, which came from my Canadian friend, asking if it was true that women could actually be arrested for improper dress at the Wall, was not only unknown to me, but came as yet another shock in the daily avalanche of oppressive ideas by new governmental legislators on how to dramatically change the tone of the country.  

As I began to look into it a bit more, I discovered that a proposed Shas bill, suggested by the party’s head, Arye Deri, would place a “ban on wearing clothes that don’t honor the holy nature of the site.”

It further stated that “holding any religious ceremony, that is not according to ‘the local custom’ of the site and ‘hurt the feelings of the worshippers,’ violate Shabbat, play musical instruments play music or sing pieces not approved and which provide religious services that aren’t under the auspices of the ‘supervisor’ of the site, would be forbidden. Further forbidden at the Kotel will be mixed prayer services for men and women together, and, inside the women’s section, there will be a ban to conduct ceremonies that include taking out a Torah scroll and reading from it, blowing the shofar or wearing tefillin (prayer shawl).”

Of course, women who make visits to the Western Wall, whether tourists or locals, know, or are told in advance, that you must wear a head scarf and a drape over bare shoulders. Skirts, pants or dresses which cover the knees have also been required. So, given those already stringent standards, which were put into place, some 40 years ago, why did someone feel the necessity to threaten incarceration should those dress codes be violated? 

It's not because there has been a rash of mini-skirted, midriff clad women who have dared to break with the time-honored tradition of showing respect at a holy site during a visit. It is clearly a loud message which ultra-Orthodox, politically-motivated groups, such as Shas, want to send, saying, “This is OUR exclusive territory which, when you visit, you will be forced to comply with our personal beliefs, expression and adherence of how we view Judaism and its traditions. No others will be honored or respected.”

In other words, if they can’t win by converting the masses to only one brand of Judaism, they will make sure that, while you are privileged enough to be granted access to what should be a holy site for all, you are completely subject to their specific religious demands. In short, a visit is conditioned upon full obedience to a singular perspective. 

This could not have come as welcomed news to Women of the Wall, “a multi-denominational Jewish feminist organization, based in Israel, whose goal is to secure the rights of women to pray at the Western Wall, in a fashion that includes singing, reading aloud from the Torah and wearing religious garments (tallit, tefillin and kippah).”

But with gender segregation having already been enforced by the Kotel Rabbi, these women have always had to conduct monthly prayer services in accordance with those rules. Yet, in their attempts to don certain religious garb, sing or read Torah passages out loud, they have definitely upset the apple cart, which culminated in a Supreme Court decision in May 2013, stating that their acts should not be viewed as illegal.  Consequently, in January 2016, a separate designated space was made at the Western Wall in order to accommodate egalitarian prayer under which the Rabbinate would not be able to interfere.  

Nonetheless, the plan never was accepted by many ultra-Orthodox coalition members who did all they could to overthrow it, including threatening to resign from the government. This has been an ongoing bone of contention, which may be one of the reasons for the proposal of a bill which, not only sounds ridiculous on its face but also, in the year 2023, harkens back to a time when women had almost no rights at all. 

Needless to say, the proposed bill ended up causing a public outroar, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Israel since the equally absurd proposal of 2021, forcing the unvaccinated to wear a colored bracelet when entering a mall – a measure which was resoundingly defeated due to its offensive nature. 

Israel's former Prime Minister Yair Lapid in a press release commented by saying, “This legislation means one thing: The Western Wall is no longer everyone’s…they will not decide for us who is more Jewish and who is less Jewish.”

Oddly enough, one ultra-Orthodox news site came out strongly against the proposed bill in an editorial published on Thursday, “bashing the Shas party bill promoting six months in prison or a NIS $10,000 [$2,800 USD] fine for women who wear a prayer shawl, dress immodestly or read from the Torah at the Western Wall.”  

They further went on to say, “There are many religious or traditional Jews, in the country and in the Diaspora, for whom Judaism is very important…Those families want the country to be Jewish and preserve its Jewish identity at all costs, which is very important to them, but most ultra-orthodox Israel Jews don’t want their personal religious affiliation to be the only affiliation in the country.”

So, again, why is such an overbearing message being pushed, and for what reason? If such a bill would have become law, it would undoubtedly have been at the sole discretion of “those in charge” to detain, arrest and even imprison any women they deemed to be in violation, per their wide interpretation of the law. It would have been a stern warning to all women to not even consider making the slightest of waves, lest they end up behind bars. And if it begins there, where does it end?

When there is an unyielding desire to have others obey or suffer the consequences of severe punishment, that is the delicate line which separates a free society from one which is coerced. It is the hallmark of theocratic, state-controlled governments by those who believe they are divinely guided on behalf of God.  Such systems are doomed to fall, because they actually go against the allowance of free-will, the very plan chosen for mankind by the Almighty. It is that kind of faith which enables each individual to rightly determine what is expected of them, as they stand before the Righteous Judge, rather than forcing feigned allegiance.

Shas, and others like them, should have more faith in the ability of their Creator to reveal His truth, to all, because once they do, there won’t be any more need to conjure up bills which will strong arm everyone else to walk in lockstep with them in order to avoid facing the wrath of their power! 

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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