JERUSALEM (Jul. 5)
A group of women fighting for the right to conduct organized prayers at the Western Wall got help from a Knesset member this week as their seven-month-old struggle encountered new difficulties.
Avrum Burg, a Labor member of Knesset and Orthodox Jew, wrote Monday to Religious Affairs Minister Zevulun Hammer on behalf of the group, which calls itself Women of the Wall.
He urged the minister to curb the ultra Orthodox Jews who have harassed and physically assaulted women trying to pray collectively at the holy site.
Burg is the son of Yosef Burg, the retired leader of the National Religious Party who served in virtually every Israeli Cabinet since the state was founded, frequently as interior minister.
His letter was prompted by complaints from Women of the Wall that women security guards hired to protect them were hostile and had ordered them on Monday to “stop praying and get out of here.”
Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz, the rabbi in charge of the Wall, hired a private security company, Hashmira, which provided the women guards.
They were necessary, apparently because the regular guards and ushers, themselves ultra-Orthodox, shunned the women worshipers.
Charges are pending against Getz himself for alleged failure to abide by a protective order, issued by the High Court of Justice in May, to allow the women to pray as a group without harassment.
WEARING KIPPOT AND TALLITOT
According to Barbara Gingold, a well-known Jerusalem photographer and one of the Women of the Wall, the Hashmira guards, wearing immodestly tight jeans, sought to remove the women worshipers, who were discreetly attired.
The battle for the right of women to hold regular prayer services at the Western Wall, just as men do, began in December 1988.
Women of the Wall was organized following the First International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem the previous month.
A group of women, mostly tourists who had attended the conference, took a Torah scroll to the Wall for early morning prayers. Some wore kippot and tallitot (skullcaps and prayer shawls traditionally worn only by men).
They were reviled by ultra-Orthodox men and women at the Wall, which has partitions separating male and female worshipers.
Women are allowed to pray at the site. But they must do so individually and alone. Men, on the other hand, organize minyanim for prayer as they would in a synagogue, wear prayer shawls and carry the Torah.
Women at the Wall contend there is no halachic ban on their doing the same.
They say their prayer sessions, usually on Friday morning and Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of a new month), are conducted according to halachic guidelines and have “been authorized” in writing, on a Chief Rabbinate letterhead, by the former Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren.
They are not satisfied with “the option of being alone,” as opposed to the male “option of joining with others in prayer and song, in a community of worship and celebration at virtually every hour.”
Women of the Wall describe themselves as a “new generation of Jewish women,” well-educated and professional. They include academics, doctors, lawyers, judges, scientists, politicians, artists and innovators. Many of them are religious.
RULING EXPECTED IN DECEMBER
The Israeli women who worship together at the Wall are supported by an international network of women who pray with them in sympathy abroad and join them in Israel when they visit.
Some Orthodox Jews may not like the demonstrative nature of the women praying collectively. But neither the Chief Rabbinate nor the Religious Affairs Ministry has acted to enjoin them.
The High Court of Justice decided on May 25 that it would hear the cases of women who have been attacked several times at the Wall by ultra-Orthodox men and by women allegedly incited by the men.
It issued an interim order allowing the women to continue to pray at the Wall as a group, but for the time being without wearing tallitot or reading from the Torah. However, they may do so at nearby sites, the court order said.
The order will expire on Dec. 27, when the High Court is to decide whether the women may pray with the Torah and wearing tallitot.
The women brought charges against Rabbi Getz last month for failing to implement the High Court’s order, when 35 women gathered for Rosh Hodesh morning prayers. They said their prayers were interrupted as soon as they began and that they showed the court order to Getz.
(JTA staff writer Susan Birnbaum in New York contributed to this report.)