Women of the Wall — A Victory

Rubinger-photo-web-fix-1 Liberating the WallIt’s a historic day in Israel for everyone who believes that pluralism and inclusion are good for the soul — and the body politic.  After nearly 25 years, Women of the Wall have been vindicated in court.

WOW-Logosmall1 Women of the Wall logo in rectangleWomen of the Wall have been holding monthly prayer services at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, since December 1998. You can read about the long and torturous history of these years.  What you will notice is that, over and over, the key issue has been whether ALL Jews, including women, can pray at Judaism’s holiest site in the manner to which they are accustomed.  The answer has repeatedly been: No; when you come to Judaism’s holiest site, you must act in a way that blends in with Ultra-Orthodox Jews.

For women, that means no prayer aloud, no wearing tallit or kippah or tefillin, no organized prayer services, no carrying a Torah scroll and heaven forfend you should try to read from one!

There is a law on the books called The Law of Holy Places which requires requires visitors at the Western Wall (and elsewhere) to pray and hold religious celebrations according to the “local custom.”  It has been interpreted for years to mean that Ultra-Orthodox custom should be considered local custom.  In 2003 Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Women of the Wall had a right to pray according to their own custom, but to minimize disruption and harm to the sensitivities of other worshippers, they should have their own separate space.  It’s not entirely clear to me, but it seems that from 2004-2009, Women of the Wall prayed in the Kotel Plaza, then moved for the Torah reading to the southern end of the Wall, outside the Kotel Plaza, in an area known as Robinson’s Arch.

In 2009, as part of the increasing pressure to impose Ultra-Orthodox observance in the public sphere, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation demanded that the police stop Women of the Wall’s prayer services.  Women have been verbally and physically harassed, spit upon and cursed, had things thrown at them, and beginning November 2009, arrested, detained, interrogated, fingerprinted, and sometimes charged with wearing a tallit at the Western Wall and other such crimes.  The Jerusalem police have consistently taken the stance that the women are disturbing the peace and are a threat to public order.    Here’s an account from 2010.  Rabbi Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and chair of the Women of the Wall, was treated disgracefully upon her arrest last October.

Rabbi Anat Hoffman reads from the Torah at Robinson's Arch near the Western Wall (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Rabbi Anat Hoffman and the Torah Scroll at Robinson’s Arch, southern end of the Western Wall                                                                  (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

When I was in Israel and the West Bank a few years ago with Rabbis for Human Rights, I had a day in Jerusalem before the program began so I visited the Kotel.  As I went through security I had to stop and take my camera out of my purse, and while I was fiddling with that I heard the security guards (young soldiers, both male) talking to each other in Hebrew about my head covering.  “Is that a kippah?” one asked.  The other considered my head and replied, “No, it’s a woman’s head-covering.”  I showed them my camera and was waved through.

The offending kippah

The offending kippah

I hadn’t been following the history of Women at the Wall very closely at that time, but I knew that if they had decided the other way I would have had a problem on my hands:  Either take it off, try to convince them that it was not a man’s kippah (it has small pink rosebuds embroidered on it), or refuse and cause a commotion.  I realized it was a pretty close call.

A couple weeks ago, on Rosh Chodesh Iyyar (April 11), 5 members of Women of the Wall were arrested and questioned for several hours.  As in the past, the police asked that they be barred from returning to the Kotel for 90 days.  Jerusalem Magistrate Court Judge Sharon Larry-Bavly ordered their release and refused to impose the ban.  She specifically stated that the women attempting to pray peacefully were not inciting violence; the incitement came from those who were heckling them.

That was news!

The police appealed the ruling.  And now, Judge Moshe Sobel has declared that Women of the Wall’s prayer in the women’s section of the Western Wall does not violate the “local custom.”  Judge Sobel stated that the legal proceedings of Women of the Wall establish that the “local custom” is to be interpreted with National and pluralistic implications, not necessarily Orthodox Jewish customs.

He said very specifically that while Robinson’s Arch can be an egalitarian prayer site, that does not preclude women praying in the Women’s Section, in the Kotel Plaza, according to their own custom; the women are not a danger to the public and their prayer does not disturb the public order.

This is a victory for all who cherish Jewish pluralism: The ability for Jews with widely differing interpretations of what’s real and what’s right, Jewishly, to respect each other’s commitment to Jewish tradition and the Jewish people, even if they don’t like or approve of the way it’s carried out.  It is a Shehecheyanu moment: Offering gratitude to the One who gave us life for sustaining us and bringing us to this very day.

  !שהחינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה


Women of the Wall’s Press Release

Ha’aretz newspaper: “Court: Women Should Not Have Been Arrested

The Jewish Week:  “Court: Women Should Not Have Been Arrested

The Forward: “Women Win Landmark Court Decision on Western Wall Prayer