Emma Morehart | Staff Writer
For 23 years, Anat Hoffman has been encouraging Jewish women to be “off the wall” about their religious rights.
In 1988, Hoffman became a founding member of Women of the Wall, an organization dedicated to achieving equality for Jewish women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel. The wall, known as the Kotel, is one of the holiest places in Jewish tradition but represents gender inequalities that prohibit women from doing things like reading from the Torah or praying out loud.
At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Hoffman will give a lecture called “Women Off the Wall” to highlight the reasons gender equality at the Western Wall symbolizes progress for all of Israel. Hoffman is the director of the Israeli Religious Action Committee and Women of the Wall.
As a Reform Jew, Hoffman’s faith has set her apart in both subtle and rebellious ways. She was raised a secular Jew and then studied in the U.S., where she was exposed to Reform Judaism. Now, she is one of the most well-known female advocates of the Reform movement.
“Reform Judaism sees feminism as a religious act,” Hoffman said. “We believe in equality of women as one of the first demands.”
She added that this tradition even encourages women who read out loud in the synagogue.
The rules at the Western Wall, however, are much more restrictive, Hoffman said. In July 2010, she was arrested for holding a Torah at the Western Wall. Although a Supreme Court decision gave women the right to hold the Torah, as long as they did not read from it, Hoffman said she is still facing charges of one year in prison or an equivalent fine.
The arrest, though, did not change her life or her actions. Her faith and advocacy for Jewish women’s rights began long ago.
“My arrest didn’t change my life,” she said. “I’m the chairperson of Women of the Wall, which (has been) going on (for) 23 years, so it hasn’t changed my life. It just brought to a halt the issue of who decides which type of prayer is (available to) Jewish people (at the wall). Is it the most extreme, or is it going to be a place of prayer for all people? Is pluralism a value of the Jewish faith, or is religious extremism?”
Without the help and bravery of many Orthodox Jewish women, Women of the Wall and IRAC would not have seen such success, Hoffman said. In January 2011, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that buses could not force gender segregation. This ruling came after IRAC filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Transportation and two bus companies.
Hoffman’s struggle for social justice extends beyond the Western Wall, and the possible solutions do not lie solely in Jerusalem.
“The challenge is that many people believe that life in Israel means standing by whatever the policies are … and I want to liberate a diaspora of Jews to say that it’s okay to have criticism of our current policies and still love Israel. It’s possible,” Hoffman said. “It’s like your family. You love all of your relatives, but you have some criticisms of them, right? … We’re all relatives, and I think Israel is strong enough to accept some criticism.”
One big step toward progress is learning, something Chautauquans are very good at, Hoffman said.
“Learning is a big deal. … And Chautauqua is a place where Americans opt to learn as a preferred pastime. It’s one of the major values,” Hoffman said. “Learning is a process. It takes some humility; it takes some courage, but if learning takes place, I will be extremely delighted.”
UPDATE: The story has been changed to correct all mentions of Reform Judaism.