Woman Assaulted for Wearing Tefillin

JTA reported this incident before Shabbat:

May 13, 2010

JERUSALEM (JTA) — A Jewish woman was attacked in Beersheba reportedly for having the imprints of tefillin lines visible on her arms. Noa Raz was physically assaulted Tuesday morning by an ultra-Orthodox man in Beersheba’s Central Bus Station, where she was waiting for a bus to her job in Tel Aviv, according to a news release issued Wednesday by the Israel Religious Action Center.

According to the release, the man asked Raz twice if the imprints were from tefillin. When she told him they were, he began to kick and strangle her while screaming “women are an abomination.” Raz, who practices Conservative Judaism, reportedly broke free from the man and boarded her bus.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about this incident is that it is not surprising. Parts of Israel’s haredi population have been so polarized against liberal Judaism – and particularly against women who would take on traditionally male roles such as tefillin and tallit – that it has now become OK to attack defenseless women at bus stops. We have progressed from rocks thrown at cars on Shabbat, to attacks on Reform synagogues, to assaults on women reading Torah in public places, and now to this. Noa Raz’s sin was to practice Judaism in the privacy of her own home.

As a Reform Jew, I know that Orthodoxy is uncomfortable with some of the changes we make. Egalitarianism and personal autonomy over ritual are ideas that go against centuries of “the way it has always been.” (Actually, there were women in history who wore tefillin, read Torah, and were viewed as scholars. Legend has it that Rashi’s daughters wore tefillin. And Rabbeinu Tam ruled in the Tosafot that women should recite a blessing when performing rituals for which they are not obligated – evidence that he was aware of and tacitly approved of women performing such rituals. But these examples are by no means the norm.)  We liberal Jews have to recognize that we are the ones who have changed the rules of the game, and therefore we cannot necessarily ask for the Orthodox to accept our practices as authoritative and normative.  What we can expect, however, is respect for human life and dignity. It is OK to argue over whether certain practices are acceptable; it is not OK to burn synagogues or throw chairs at women. The Orthodox and Haredi rabbinate should immediately and unequivocally condemn this incident and all others like it, and the perpetrator should be prosecuted and punished.

Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center (who spoke in Charlotte last year), said that this incident:

“should not be seen as an isolated incident but as taking place within an atmosphere of growing violence toward and intimidation of women who seek to pray freely and equally. Too often these acts of violence are tolerated. The fact that this man thought it acceptable to attack a woman for performing a religious act in private is an example of the escalation of violence targeted against women and against religious pluralists in Israel.”

Hoffman is right that there is a growing climate of hate in the Israeli Haredi community, which asserts that anyone who practices Judaism differently is deserving of physical punishment. Would-be criminals such as this man are only emboldened when leaders fail to speak out. It is up to the rabbis to stem the tide. If they do not, they are also guilty.

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4 thoughts on “Woman Assaulted for Wearing Tefillin

  1. A fine blog post, but I’d like to bring up two points: first, if the woman fought off her attacker — who tried to strangle her! — and was able to board her bus thereafter then she hardly qualifies as “defenseless.” Second, we liberal Jews aren’t the only ones who have changed things; this kind of misogynistic piety such as demonstrated by her attacker is also a radical departure from tradition.

  2. Good point, Kari. I think I meant defenseless as in “not carrying a weapon or posing any threat.” The point is, she wasn’t even doing anything provocative at the moment – she had put in tefillin entirely in private. And your second point is right on.

  3. The story itself doesnt make any sense. If she’s so religious that she put on tefillin wouldn’t she be covering her arms, thus not showing the tefillin lines?

    1. MM, not necessarily. We tend to (erroneously) define “religious” to mean “Orthodox,” especially in Israel. But it doesn’t mean that. This woman is religious, but in a progressive Jewish way, which means that she doesn’t necessarily have to dress according to Ultra-Orthodox standards of women’s modesty.

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