April 12th, 2013
04:03 PM ET
Battle of the sexes at Western Wall
By Sara Sidner, CNN
Jerusalem (CNN) - A group of women in Israel is again expressing outrage after police detained some of its members for doing two things they say should be perfectly normal and legal: praying out loud and wearing a prayer shawl at the holiest site for prayer in Judaism.
The women who were detained on Thursday are part of a group that calls itself Women of the Wall. For more than two decades, its members have been defying traditionalists and the Israeli government.
The women say they should be able to pray as they wish at the Western Wall and be given the same rights as the men who pray there. The idea - and trying to make it true by just doing it - has outraged some of the ultra-Orthodox who pray at the wall, where a partition separates men and women.
As custom has it, only Jewish men can wear a tallit (prayer shawl) and recite the kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) at the wall. Israeli courts have essentially agreed, letting custom dictate the rules there.
One of the ultra-Orthodox men who was at the wall when the women wearing prayer shawls showed up said he thought they were being disrespectful and just trying to stir up trouble. He didn’t want to give us his name.
The women say their critics couldn’t be more wrong about their motives.
This is the second time this year members of Women of the Wall have been detained for going against custom. In February, police detained 10 women and made news around the world because two of them were close relatives of comedian Sarah Silverman. Silverman’s sister Susan, who is a reform rabbi, and Silverman's niece were hauled into police custody for wearing the shawls.
At the time, Silverman used her wry and often raunchy humor to support her sister:
"So proud of my amazing sister and niece for their balls out civil disobedience. Ur the tits!" Silverman tweeted. Then she sent a more PC statement through her publicist:
"I don't care much for people who use religion as a cloak to justify hatred, injustice and fear. And I can't imagine God, should he or she or it exist, does either. I am so proud of my sister and niece for fighting for what they believe in - by having the nerve to pray at a wall of prayer while being female."
Israeli police say they are simply following orders passed down from an Israeli court and detaining the women for "performing a religious act contrary to the local customs."
In 2003, the Israeli High Court gave the women permission to pray as they wish on the premises but not at the Western Wall itself.
The issue trended on social media sites, and there has a big reaction from Jews abroad - especially those in the United States - when the detentions first made the news in February.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly taken notice of the controversy and asked the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, to look into finding solutions to alleviate tensions building at the Western Wall over the issue.
Anat Hoffman, who heads Women of the Wall and was a longtime Jerusalem city councilwoman, hopes to see a change in policy soon. Over the past two years, she said, 45 women have been detained and one woman, Hoffman herself, has been arrested in the fight over how they want to pray at the wall.
After being detained in February, Hoffman said:
"There are lots of forbidden acts at the Western Wall: Do not spit on the wall, do not pee on the wall, no slaughtering of animals at the wall - and among those, one cannot perform a religious act contrary to local customs at the wall, which pretty much only applies to women, because there are no local customs men are forbidden from taking part in."
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