Arrested for Wearing a Tallit?

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

I was outraged and shocked to read of the recent arrest of Nofrat Frenkel, a woman who was arrested at the Kotel, the Western Wall, for wearing a talit and carrying a Torah.  Now, I know that the issue of women praying publicly at the kotel is complex.  Yet, I was outraged at the thought that religious fundamentalists have cornered the right of religious and spiritual expression at one of the holiest sites in the world. And I was shocked that after all these years, we are still fighting the same battles for women to have equal access to all the gifts that Jewish ritual offers.  There are days when I think that the Orthodox movement has made tremendous strides towards greater inclusion, finding ways for both men and women to express their religious selves.  And then there are days, like last Wednesday, where I find myself disappointed and distraught at what the future holds.  Those of us who embrace an Open Orthodoxy, let’s help each other continue to strive for greater inclusion for men and women to express their religious selves, both here and in Israel.   

I asked Rivka Haut, one of the co-founders of Women of the Wall, and a beloved congregant at my synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, to respond to last Wednesdays’ incident.  Rivka writes: 

On Dec. 1, 1988, I had the privilege of organizing a halakhic women’s tefillah at the Kotel. Now, almost exactly  21 years later, after countless legal proceedings, resulting in  three Israel Supreme Court Decisions, two films, an anthology, and many other public and private events,  Women of the Wall are still embattled, struggling for the right to pray as a halakhic group at the Kotel, to wear tallitot and to read from a sefer Torah.

On Rosh Chodesh Kislev, Nofrat  Frenkel, while praying with WOW, was detained by the police, interrogated for more than an hour, because her donning of a tallit at the Kotel constituted a criminal act. We do not know what further consequences she may yet be subject to.

The Reform and Masorti Movements in Israel are struggling to secure the religious rights of non-haredi Jews to pray at the Kotel according to their custom. They are stepping forward to defend the right of Nofrat, and of all Jewish women, to wear a tallit, openly, while praying at the Kotel, without being physically abused by extremists or arrested by the police.

I ask that the leaders of Open Orthodoxy join in this struggle. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld has written a sharp and eloquent piece, a letter to Israel’s ambassador to the US, which was published in the Washington Post, defending the rights of women to don tallitot at the Kotel.

Let his courageous voice  not be the only one emanating from the Orthodox world.

6 Responses to Arrested for Wearing a Tallit?

  1. David Scholem says:

    I’m a stranger in these parts. And I have something to say. But because this is not my turf, I will refrain, it would be rude and coarse to be an oberchochum. You would feel offended. and rightly so. It is just common decency to respect the ways of others in their own place, keep one’s peace, know what is respectful.

    In similar mode, there are traditional ways at the Kotel. And inflammatory acts, even some portraying themselves as totally innocent and being done in the name of some more important other values, are simply not respectful. Flagrant defiance of custom can never bring a harmonious outcome. That an architect of such actions portays herself as “outraged”, and even more huffily as “shocked” at the reactions they trigger stretches credulity.

    • Jona Bass says:

      We cannot ignore that normative Halacha does not permit women to wear tallitot. While it is important to voice opposition to extremism, in this instant, it is not appropriate for us to take action. Such a defense is most definitely against Halacha, as well as, intellectualy dishonest.

      • Amitai says:

        {I concede that this is only part of one side of an argument; but I think it demonstrates that such a defense is not “most definitely against Halacha”}

         Menachot 43a: “Rav Yehudah attached tzitzit to the aprons of women in his household, and would make the blessing every morning.”
         Rambam (Hil. Tzitzit 3:9): “Women and slaves who want to wrap themselves in tzitzit may do so without a berakha.”
         Rashba (Teshuva §123): “I agree with those who say that if they desire they can do all such mitzvot and recite the blessings, on the basis of Mikhal bat Shaul who used to wear tefillin and they did not protest; indeed she did so with the approval of the sages, and by the nature of the matter since she puts on tefillin she blesses”.
         Shulchan Aruch (Orah Hayyim 17:2): women and slaves are exempt from tzitzit;
         Rema: nevertheless, if they wish to wrap themselves and say the blessing, it is permissible as with all positive time-bound commandments (based on Tosafot, Rosh, Ran)
         R. Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:49 s.v. ibra d’ika): “women are permitted to perform even mitzvot from which they are exempt by the Torah, and they get a mitzvah and a reward upon performing them…. and if so, also regarding tzitzit it is appropriate for a woman who wants to wear a garment that is different from a man’s clothing but has four corners, that she put on tzitzit and fulfill this mitzvah.”
         R. Yehuda Herzl Henkin: to a women’s prayer group, Shirat Sara: a woman who wishes to wear a tallit during services should wear one that appears “distinct from the current style of men’s tallitot.” (

  2. David Sher says:

    From one DS to another, you must understand that inflammatory acts are in the eyes of the beholder. We decry all of the nothings that are claimed to be inflammatory acts by the Palestinians (such as rebuilding a broken bridge near the temple mount) and yet it is somehow acceptable to riot at the drop of a hat if Intel chooses to run its plant on Shabbat or if a women wears a tallit. The essence of the inflammatory act argument is that it is undemocratic. Since the majority of the citizens of Israel do not view those acts as inflammatory, their will should prevail in any public setting. The Hardim don’t accept this. They are wrong not to.

    • David Scholem says:

      Context. Perspective. These are important elements in evaluating something. Whether the majority population of Israel does or doesn’t view an act as inflammatory–and you should check if you are right on this particular one–the CONTEXT of this particular action is the area of the Kotel. The people at this spot are not the median voting demographic; it is a place of sanctity and the majority there are not at ease with what they feel are flagrant acts of disrespect. And in-your-face confrontation that is passed off as something innocent and “justified” by referring to some ancient text is plain dishonest. It is as hurtful as the use of some ancient text to oppress others today– you don’t fight fire with fire, you fight it with water. I repeat, it is just plain disrespectful of the custom of the place, and however objectionable someone may find a particular custom, spitting on it is sure to inflame the situation, not ameliorate it.

  3. Dov says:

    “We cannot ignore that normative Halacha does not permit women to wear tallitot.”

    And where exactly do we see that prohibition spelled out?

    Also, I was unaware that Israeli police are charged with inforcing halacha.

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