Women worshipers score legal victory
JERUSALEM—Women praying at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall, need not fear police threats of arrest if seen wearing traditional ceremonial attire associated with the religion’s males following a Jerusalem District Court ruling handed down April 25. The order, which says women may pray with prayer shawls and phylacteries, is seen as a major victory for a group called Women of the Wall, which has been struggling for almost 25 years against police and Orthodox Jewish authorities in charge of the site, for the right to defy traditional restrictions.
The case again brings to the fore the issue of religion’s role—and the authority wielded by religious authorities associated with religious practice—in the modern state of Israel. In addition to being portrayed as the epicenter of Jewish prayer, the Western Wall is simultaneously a holy site and a site used for ceremonies such as soldiers’ swearing-in ceremonies and other national activities.
“It’s a holiday of liberation,” Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, told The Media Line in response to the court decision. “And unless the police appeal, it means that we won’t get arrested anymore for wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries [leather boxes containing Biblical scripture worn on the arm and head].”
Hoffman has been attending a prayer service at the start of every month for the past 24 years, except when a police injunction kept her away from the site. Last October, she was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl, dragged by her hair and kept in jail for 24 hours: an experience she describes as “traumatic.”
Although Hoffman believes it is unlikely that the police will appeal, what still remains unclear is whether the women will be allowed to publicly read from a Torah scroll at the Wall. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, has previously forbidden the women from doing so at the site.
In a statement, Rabbi Rabinowitz said he will investigate the ruling and what it means for the Supreme Court decision. He also called on all parties to behave responsibly.
“The Western Wall is the last place that unites us,” the rabbi said. “It is easy to burn the Wall up in the fire of disagreement. It is much harder to find the middle way that will allow everyone to feel connected to the site. I beg the silent majority not to allow the Wall to become a focus of controversy.”
Until now, the site has been run in the manner of an Orthodox synagogue, with a high partition separating men’s and women’s prayer areas. Women coming to attend a bar mitzvah have had to climb up on chairs to peek over the partition in order to be part of the festivities.
The ban on women wearing prayer shawls has extended to doing so even while remaining within the area designated for women. While both the wearing of prayer shawls and reading the Torah are activities traditionally performed by men, many rabbis suggest they are not prohibited for women by Jewish law. Others cite a Biblical verse that says women should not wear men’s clothing, extending it to include traditional male prayer accessories.
In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the women could begin their prayer service at the Western Wall, but partway through must move to a nearby site called Robinson’s Arch to read the Torah. In March, five women were briefly detained for wearing prayer shawls at the site. A police official later wrote a letter that listed forbidden acts, although other officials, including Rabinowitz, promised there would be no arrests.
What is significant about the ruling is that the court said that the wearing by women of traditional male prayer accessories is not a violation of “local custom” or a “provocation,” the legal reasoning that allows police to act. The ruling also said that women are not obligated to pray at the alternative Robinson’s Arch site.
“This is a legal precedent; now we can pray as we have been doing,” Shira Pruce, director of public relations for Women of the Wall told The Media Line. “But it’s going to take a lot of legal consulting since the decision doesn’t mention a Torah.”
For many of the women in the organization, the ruling is a vindication of their belief that the Western Wall should belong to everyone. “It’s just amazing—justice and common sense prevailed,” Cheryl Birkner Mack, a board member of the organization, told The Media Line. “I was in court and the judge seemed like he really understood that we want to participate in prayer at the kotel,” she said using the Hebrew term for the site.
The women, many of whom are English-speaking immigrants to Israel like Birkner Mack, have been praying monthly at the site on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of each Hebrew month, which tradition deems to be a special holiday for women. They say they are not trying to be provocative, only to have a religious experience. But they have been cursed and had chairs thrown at them by both ultra-Orthodox men and women at the site, who claim they are violating Jewish law by praying aloud and wearing prayer shawls.
“We believe that the Divine Presence never left the Wall and sometimes when we are all praying and singing there, I really feel that,” Birkner Mack said. “Other times, when the police were harassing us, it was hard to concentrate on prayer.”
While the image of the group has been that of Reform Jews, it actually includes women from all denominations including Orthodox women—the most rigorously observant of Jewish denominations. Until recently the group was small, with between 15 and 50 participants braving the elements and the 7 a.m. start time.
The women’s struggle has received prominence in recent months as several newly elected women members of parliament have joined the monthly prayer service. For the first time, the issue seems to be reverberating among Israeli women as well.
“We have 12,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook,” Pruce said. “And everyone is welcome to join us on May 10 at 7 a.m.”