Chicago-area Jewish Women Hold Torah to Send a Message

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Chicago Tribune, September 19, 2010 8:36 PM

One by one (click here), the women walked onto the sanctuary's stage, took hold of the Torah and smiled as the photographer captured them cradling the sacred scripture.

The women, members of Congregation Solel, a Reform temple in Highland Park, intend to send the portraits to the Israeli government, protesting the recent arrest of an Israeli woman. Authorities reportedly detained her July 12 for the forbidden act of carrying a Torah at the Western Wall.

Their demonstration highlights a difference of practice between Orthodox and progressive Jews that more often plays out behind the closed doors of a synagogue. Because women don't touch or read the Torah in the most traditional Orthodox Jewish settings, they also are forbidden from doing so at the Western Wall, the remnant of the wall that surrounded the sacred Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Many progressive Jews interpret the restriction as a violation of their right to worship in the Holy Land.

"It speaks to the divisiveness of the chief rabbinate in Israel and the unfortunate lack of pluralism allowed in the country," said Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet a Conservative synagogue in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. The chief rabbinate of Israel is charged with overseeing religious laws and supervising the Western Wall.

In Israel, when Judaism is observed, it is often done in a more traditional way.

"The non-Orthodox religious movement is growing in Israel, but is not as extensive as it is here," said Rabbi Michael Balinsky, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

And Jewish Americans are beginning to feel the strain, reacting to events like the July arrest of activist Anat Hoffman. Shortly before her arrest, Hoffman held a series of events in Chicago synagogues to raise money for her organization, Israel Religious Action Center.

For Wendy Rhodes, president of Congregation Solel, Sunday's photo op was an important way to take a stand for religious plurality, she said.

"We hope it sends the message," Rhodes said of the two dozen photos she commissioned. Rhodes said the congregation seeks to make a dent in the much larger issue of religious equality.

"The challenge they face as members of a Reform congregation is wanting to assert a greater religious presence at a site like the Western Wall, (where) traditionally Orthodox exerts religious control," Balinsky said of efforts like Solel's.

For Modern Orthodox Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Lakeview's Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel, where women do touch the Torah, it's important to respect and honor rules set abroad.

"It's very tricky to get critical not living there," Lopatin said. "We have to give a lot of respect to those who are living there and those who are put in charge."

But it's not that simple for progressive Jews, who fear that the restrictive rules will push people away from the religion.

"This is a very serious issue that really threatens the unity of the people," Siegel said. "Throughout Jewish history, internal divisions ... have proven to be as dangerous as external threats."

As Reform advocate Marlene Dodinval summed it up, "There's more than one way to be Jewish."

-- Becky Schlikerman