Sisterhood Blog

Orthodox Rabbi to Michael Oren: Arrest of Woman in Tallit 'Offensive and Dangerous'

By Gabrielle Birkner

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Following the recent arrest at the Western Wall of a woman wearing a Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit, a prominent American Modern Orthodox rabbi has requested that Israel’s U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren meet with “a rabbinic delegation of American Orthodox rabbis who strongly support the right of women to wear a tallit and tzitzit.”

In a letter to Oren, penned this morning, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the spiritual leader of Ohev Sholom National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., called the arrest Monday of Nofrat Frenkel “offensive and dangerous,” adding: “You are ceding the Temple Mount and its holiness to a group of fundamentalist and exclusionary Jews who increasingly do not share that prophetic vision.”

An adapted version of the letter — it can be read in full, below — was published on former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum’s Web site FrumForum.

“If a Jew had been arrested for wearing a prayer shawl in any other country in the world, there would be outrage,” Herzfeld told The Sisterhood. “Just because it’s the state of Israel doing it doesn’t make it acceptable. It’s not coming from antisemitism, but it’s still religious persecution.”

Herzfeld’s letter, in its entirety:

Dear Ambassador:

I very much enjoyed praying next to you on Rosh Hashanah. I hope you and your family are well.

I write to you with both hesitation and firm conviction.

Hesitation because I fear criticizing Israel publicly, since to do so might strengthen those critics of Israel who would rather Israel did not exist. God forbid that our world should ever see that!

Firm conviction because I want to express publicly and forcefully how deeply disturbed I am about a recent arrest in Israel.

News outlets have reported that a woman was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl (a tallit) at the Western Wall. This strikes me as deeply offensive and dangerous.

First, Jewish law expressly permits women to wear a tallit. The great Maimonides explicitly states: Women are permitted to wear tzitzit (Laws of Tzitzit 3:9). Thus, the actions of the Israeli government in arresting this woman are in effect denying her the right to expressly follow the teachings of the Torah.

Second, the prophets describe the Temple Mount as a place where the voice of God will go out to all the nations of the world. In arresting a woman while she attempts to pray in accordance with the laws of Maimonides, you are committing a desecration of God’s name and polluting the holiness of the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount which is supposed to be a source of the light of Judaism to the nations of the world, has become a source of ridicule and contempt. You are ceding the Temple Mount and its holiness to a group of fundamentalist and exclusionary Jews who increasingly do not share that prophetic vision. You are also ceding the moral high ground of the entire country by practicing religious discrimination. I urge you to do everything in your power to reverse this policy and to issue a formal state apology to those holy woman who desire to wear a tallit at the Western Wall.

I would like to organize a visit to you from a rabbinic delegation of American Orthodox rabbis who strongly support the right of women to wear a tallit and tzitzit. Please let me know when you can meet with us.

Shmuel Herzfeld
Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue

esthermiriam Fri. Nov 20, 2009

Kol HaKavod!

Misha Clebaner Fri. Nov 20, 2009

i second that. i think a change needs to be made, make it the forward 51. this rabbi needs to be added!

Racheli Sat. Nov 21, 2009

I'm not sure I agree that the arrest didn't "com[e] from antisemitism." It was this woman's expression of her Judaism that motivated the arrest.

I still visit the kotel, but I have not had a spiritual experience there in a very, very long time. Probably since areound the time I learned how the men's side--already the majority of the open space--has an additional covered area. The women's side is always overcrowded. We're shushed by the men. It's an embarassment that hordes of visitors come and see this very tangible symbol of the Jewish state divided in an uneven way. When I staffed a birthright trip last summer my participants picked up on this right away.

Thank you Rabbi Herzfeld for your letter and your leadership!

Lisa B Sat. Nov 21, 2009

Thank you Rabbi Herzfeld and to all Orthodox willing to stand for religion over the abuse of power.

Joe Feld Sat. Nov 21, 2009

I hope the leading Orthodox Rabbis in Israel will also speak up. Can you imagine any Orthodox shul anywhere in Israel or the Diaspora that would involve the police because a woman put on a tallis ? Can you imagine anywhere else that a mother accused of not feeding her child would be treated the way the 'Meah Shearim Mom' was treated ? The attitude of some Israeli police is a long standing problem

Elana Sun. Nov 22, 2009

Thank you for making sure that this issue gets the attention it demands.

Aliza Berger-Cooper Sun. Nov 22, 2009

Thank you, Rabbi Herzfeld!

-One of the Women of the Wall

Ben Packer Sun. Nov 22, 2009

"prominent" orthodox rabbi? how so? I'd say more "attention-seeking" than orthodox. are we to believe that the average orthodox or even modern orthodox person supports women wearing tallesim and tzitzis? hardly! very misleading to suggest any kind of prominence in this one, I hope the Forward satisfies his craving for attention!

Danny Sun. Nov 22, 2009

I agree with Racheli, current administration of the kotel is an embarrassment. It's great that the Rabbi will stand up for this woman, but I can't say I'm satisfied by this. He limits his stand to women praying "in accordance with the laws of Maimonides." Why should any other woman, praying in whatever way she pleases, not have a place at the wall?

And Packer, you might want to argue with the content of the Rabbi's argument before focusing on his motives. Even if his motives aren't to your liking, you have to deal with the facts he cites.

Ben Packer Mon. Nov 23, 2009

I strongly disagree with Danny on all three of his points.

1) The Kotel is currently run exceptionally well. Many wonderful renovations have been completed and the area is much more comfortable and impressive. A lovely indoor women's section was constructed (at great expense and under difficult conditions). The outdoor women's sections is undoubtedly logistically disappointing, but this is the result of intense international politics and way out of the hands of the administration of the Kotel. The Kotel is a very busy place (thank G-d) and the amount of work to administer it is endless, it would be absurd to judge the hardwork that is done over an incident that involved Israeli law and the Israeli police.

2) I think even Danny would agree that there should be limits on how people pray at the Wall and I think he would agree that in general everything is fine, until it BOTHERS other people. Well, the overwhelming majority of visitors to the Western Wall are bothered by feminist provocations! it might not bother you, but it does bother most other people (who are actually there!) in a serious way.

3)as to the facts of Hertzfeld's arguments: He is not a prominent rabbi by any definition. just being the rabbi of an old synagogue building where the actual congregation moved (and is very successful)in DC, does not make one a prominent rabbi. And certainly as a Halachic (jewish legal) authority, nobody outside of his congregation would take his opinion seriously. quoting a Rambam does not make something acceptable Jewish Practice. For example, Rambam holds a young lady should cover her hair even before marriage, (and of course certainly afterwards!) - what about that Rambam? and numerous other examples of Rambams that this prominent rabbi doesn't take as seriously!

A few final thoughts: -this is a matter of Israeli law, not the whims of individuals -why isn't the conservative movement suing this guy for taking all of their positions without permission and falsifying them as orthodoxy -I am not aware of any prominent Halachic authorities that allow women to wear a tallis or tzitzis publicly and I think its safe to say that they are aware of the Rambam that is cited -this letter written to the ambassador is pure chutzpa and arrogance, masked as some form of social "justice" -I would suggest that the amazing amout of distortions and overall ignorance displayed in this article and subsequent comments does not mesh with the reality on the ground, so either study up or enjoy la-la land!

Eliezer Mon. Nov 23, 2009


Why are you so opposed to letting people pray they way they see fit? why don't you just call for the destruction of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism if you don't think women should wear tallitot or wrap tefillin?

Ben Packer Mon. Nov 23, 2009

Eliezer, As a Jew that believes in traditional Judaism, I of course believe that Jewish prayer should conform with Halacha (Jewish law). But my personal belief is irrelevant in this discussion. they weren't just praying how they saw fit, they were creating a provocation by doing it at the Western Wall, where it is ILLEGAL to conduct oneself in that way. This law is undoubtedly the result in some measure to the fact that the overwhelming majority of regular visitors to the Western Wall are traditionally observant Jews and are offended by the open display of actions contrary to accepted Halacha. This may be the first time someone was detained, but its not a new issue at all and these provocateurs knew exactly what they were doing, however, proabably didn't realize to what extend the law would be enforced - a common mistake of lawbreakers. Judaism is no place for movements of any kind - how about a little unity around the only thing that will ever unite us - the Torah!

Eliezer Mon. Nov 23, 2009

So it's alright if women wear prayer shawls, just not around you or at the kotel?

Oh, by the way, a quick google search will reveal more sources than Maimonides who interpret Halacha in allowing women to wear tallitot. And, since there are only about 2 million "traditional" Jews worldwide, how do you consider disallowing women the option to wear tallitot to be "accepted Halacha"?

Grow up and recognize that this is a law that needs to be changed. "Judaism is no place for movements of any kind." You HAVE to be kidding. Do you even consider Reform and Conservative Jews to be real Jews? You probably don't.

Sephardiman Tue. Nov 24, 2009

Chazak U'Barukh to Rabbi Herzfeld!

Danny Tue. Nov 24, 2009

Thanks for picking up the slack, Eliezer.

To respond to Packer:

1. I'm not sure why you would consider the laws governing activity at the wall and the Israeli police who enforce that law immune from criticism. Also, you write that the outdoor women's section is "disappointing." Presumably, the men's section isn't. How about trading places once in a while?

2. I agree that there should be some limits on how people can pray at the wall. I don't think I should be able to pray at the wall by heckling you or strutting around in a speedo or whatever. But that doesn't mean that I think "the overwhelming majority of visitors to the Western Wall," who happen to be bothered by "feminist provocations" should get to choose what's offensive. How about letting the whole society decide what's socially acceptable?

3. Um, so you're saying that there is in fact strong precedent for allowing what the kotel administration prohibits. So why don't you think the Rambam matters? Right, you're more worried about the American Rabbi's reputation.

4. Since when is stating a policy position to a public servant chutzpah? What is up with your strange attachment to authority?

5. Do you actually believe that the only way to "unite" with me is for me to accept your version of Judaism?

Joe Feld Sat. Nov 28, 2009

Ben Packer. I can assure you that most Orthodox Jews are aware that the Gaon and posek Reb Moshe Feinstein said it is permitted for women to wear a 'womens'tallis [tzitzis] so long as they do so out of a genuine search for spirituality and not just to show they can do whatever men do. No Orthodox shul that I am aware of sends for the police to arrest women who choose to wear a tallis. Women can lein from a Sefer Torah at a women's service, although this is not ideal, but again no shul would call in the police to arrest such women. The Jerusalem secular police turn a minor difference into a catastrophe, especially when they get involved in religious matters.

Joe Ziv Tue. Dec 15, 2009

Let's stick to the facts before exaggerating this incident. THIS WOMAN WAS NOT ARRESTED BECAUSE OF WEARING A TALIT OR "TAKING A TORAH OUT OF A DUFFLE BAG IN ORDER "TO SHOW THE TORAH WHAT THE KOTEL LOOKS LIKE" .... BUT FOR HER RUDE BEHAVIOUR TO THE POLICE WHO CAME TO INVESTIGATE. IN her own words she told them to "BUTT OFF" (How would the USA or Canadian Police react?)

I have seen women wearing a Talit at the Kotel and no one seemed to pay much attention.

On the Other Hand I have seen women using the Kotel as a place to Demonstrate - often in a loud, conspicuous manner, with total disregard and for all those women and men who have come to pray , or even the many tourists who simply stand in awe-- or place a note in the Wall.

This incident based on partial or unnfounded facts has been blown out of all interest parties

All Rabbis, whether, Orthodox, Conservative. or Reform,should haved known known this and also what the Torah and Halacha say about "casting blame" without knowledge of the facts....

Happy Chanuka

Keep well

Keep smiling


Aliza Berger-Cooper Wed. Dec 16, 2009

To Joe: You write that Nofrat said "IN her own words she told them to "BUTT OFF"

This is totally inaccurate. The police asked her to show her identity card, and she did. The police report stated that she wore a tallit. Nothing else. She was carrying a Torah, but this was not mentioned in the report because it's not illegal for us to hold a Torah, only to read from it.

-One of the Women of the Wall

Rabbi Jacob Herber Thu. Dec 31, 2009

Kol hakavod to my colleague, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld!

Rachel Lawrence Sun. Jan 17, 2010

Are we certain that Nofrat was arrested because she wore a tallit or was it because the Women of the Wall were defying a court order not to hold services at the Kotel? I disagree totally with the court-ordered "compromise," and want to be able to join a group of women in communal prayer at the Kotel. Just want to get the facts straight. I think the tallit is a peripheral matter, but enough to antagonize the old guard. Why don't they just stick to their davening?

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