JERUSALEM (Aug. 21)
A group of women that has been trying to conduct prayer services at the Western Wall suffered a legal setback Monday.
Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that the group, known as Women of the Wall, cannot chant prayers aloud at the holy site until the court holds a final hearing on the case on Dec. 27.
In the ruling, the court rejected the women’s application for an order instructing the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the rabbi in charge of the Wall to allow the women to pray together undisturbed.
Instead, the court ordered that they pray “according to the customs of the site” as determined by Rabbi Yehuda Getz, the rabbi in charge there.
Getz strongly opposes the women’s activities and had petitioned the court, contending that the women’s chanting of prayers was disruptive to worship at the site.
Following Orthodox religious tradition, the plaza in front of the Wall is divided into separate men’s and women’s sections. While men conduct group prayer services in their section, prayer in the women’s section customarily is private and silent.
The women’s prayer group was formed last December. It began holding monthly prayer sessions on Rosh Hodesh, complete with Torah readings and vocal chantings of the Hallel and other musical sections of the service.
The prayer sessions triggered vociferous and violent opposition from the ultra-Orthodox, both male and female. On more than one occasion, the women were bodily removed from the site by female ushers hired by the Religious Affairs Ministry.
COURT BARS EVIDENCE
In May, the High Court ruled that the women could pray at the Wall and should be protected from harassment, as long as they did not wear tallitot (prayer shawls) and did not carry the Torah.
However, when the women attempted to pray abiding by the court’s restrictions, they continued to be harassed.
Nilli Arad, an attorney for the state, argued in court that the women caused a breach of the peace at the Wall, even without the Torah or tallitot. Arad noted that according to halachah, or Orthodox religious law, women’s voices are considered sexually alluring and therefore not to be sounded in synagogue.
In New York, Rivka Haut, a member of a support group for the Women of the Wall, said the women attempted to argue in court that they had not been praying loud enough to disturb those in the men’s section.
She said that the women have made a concerted effort to pray in low voices and that they tried to prove this in court with videotapes of their prayer and testimony from witnesses.
The court, however, refused to allow them to introduce this material into evidence.
The court also rejected the women’s request that their case be heard earlier than December.
Presiding Judge Aharon Barak said that the issues raised in the case “are by no means simple” and accepted the state’s contention that the Religious Affairs Ministry and Rabbi Getz needed time to prepare their position.
ULTRA-ORTHODOX PARTIES TO TESTIFY
In another ruling favorable to the state’s case, the court agreed to allow representatives from two ultra-Orthodox parties, Degel HaTorah and Shas, to testify at the hearing in December as interested parties.
Haut said the women “are definitely” planning to carry on their fight and continue their prayer. Haut, who is Orthodox, said that nowhere in Jewish law is it expressly forbidden for women to pray in a group.
“It’s not a halachic problem,” said Haut. “It’s really an issue of women asserting their rights to pray.”
Haut’s group, the International Committee for Women of the Kotel, will continue to organize support for the women’s case. Kotel is the Hebrew term for the Western Wall.
“We are going to search for rabbinic opinions to help them,” Haut said, “and we are also trying to contact major American Jewish organizations to support them.”
At least one organization has come out in support of the women. The Governing Council of the American Jewish Congress adopted a resolution June 25 calling on the Israeli government to prevent and condemn acts of violence against the women and to take whatever actions are necessary to allow them to worship in peace.
Haut also said that Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Moshe Arad, has agreed to meet with her organization, though a date for the meeting has not yet been scheduled.
She said her group was raising money to buy a Torah for the group, which it will present to the women in December as demonstration of support.
(JTA staff writer Allison Kaplan in New York contributed to this report.)