Religious pluralism advocates hail ‘victories

NEW YORK, May 23 (JTA) —Advocates of religious pluralism in Israel are hailing what they are calling two major breakthroughs in efforts to enable all Jews to pray as they see fit at Judaism’s holiest site.

In a landmark ruling Monday that caps an 11-year legal battle, Israel’s High Court of Justice recognized the right of Women of the Wall to hold women’s prayer services — using the Torah and with women wearing prayer shawls — at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

The court gave the government six months to make the necessary arrangements for the services and awarded the women — who are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, but use Orthodox liturgy — $4,800 in damages.

In a separate development, the Conservative movement reached an understanding with the Israeli government allowing it to hold mixed-gender prayer services at Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the wall.

While officially part of the Kotel, as the Western Wall is known, the arch has not traditionally been a site of prayer and is separated from the main part of the wall by a ramp leading to the Dome of the Rock.

For over a decade, Reform and Conservative Jews and women from a variety of Jewish streams have fought for the right to hold services at the wall.

The Kotel has separate sections for men and women, and efforts to hold non-Orthodox services or ones led by women, have often led to ejection by Israeli police and harassment — sometimes violent — by fervently Orthodox worshipers.

“This is a great day for the advancement of the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel,” the president of Israel’s Conservative movement, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, said in a statement Monday.

It’s a day, he said, when both the Israeli government and the High Court “accept the principle that all Jews have the right to pray at the holiest place of the Jewish people, according to their traditions.”

Activists for the Women of the Wall in Israel and the United States welcomed today’s ruling, which noted that nothing in the group’s prayer services — in which women pray separately from men, use Orthodox liturgy and do not say any prayers that would require the presence of a minyan of 10 men — violates Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

Some Orthodox Jews object to the fact that the women raise their voices in prayer, contravening the prohibition against men hearing a woman’s voice, lest he be distracted from his worship.

“Eleven years of struggle have reached a conclusion,” one of the Women of the Wall petitioners, Anat Hoffman of Jerusalem, said in response to the court ruling.

“We’ve come out of the Middle Ages, and we will soon hold the first Bat Mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel,” she said.

But fervently Orthodox legislators denounced the decision and vowed to initiate legislation that would circumvent the ruling.

Indeed, Shas legislators Tuesday said they would introduce a bill to the Knesset next week that would prohibit any action at the Western Wall that could disturb worshipers or any kind of prayer that does not adhere to the current manner of worship.

Commentators observed that Prime Minister Ehud Barak, already struggling to keep his coalition intact amid deep political and secular-religious disputes, would find it next to impossible to implement the High Court ruling and keep his government together.

And in the United States, Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, said, “It is particularly sad that at a time like this, when our Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holy Land are suffering violence and threats from sworn enemies of our people and are in such special need of divine protection, that the Jewish state’s High Court would arrogate to itself the mission of undermining the Jewish religious tradition.”

In Jerusalem, Cabinet Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, who is spearheading government efforts to resolve religious pluralism conflicts, said he disagreed with it.

Calling the decision a “mistake of the court,” Melchior said, “We cannot resolve the central problems of our society through forcing one side on another.

“I think we can resolve the problems only through joint dialogue to reach understanding,” Melchior told Israel Radio. “It will lead to a terrible and violent disagreement instead of trying to find a compromise on the matter.”

While most celebrated the ruling, some Women of the Wall activists questioned whether the ruling would be enforced and suggested that it did not make any significant advances over a 1994 ruling in their favor, which was not enforced.

“This does not mean we can go tomorrow with Torah and tallit [prayer shawls] and have service in the women’s section,” said Miriam Benson, a board member of the International Committee for Women of the Wall, who lives in New Haven, Conn., and has been with the group since its founding in 1989.

Benson said the ruling throws implementation into the hands of the Israeli government. “There’s a strict deadline of six months, but there have been strict deadlines in the past that were ignored,” she said.

While her group felt “an initial euphoria” when the ruling was first announced, on closer examination she decided it’s “just in line” with the 1994 ruling and “doesn’t impose a remedy,” said Benson.

But another member of the group, Rivka Haut of Riverdale, N.Y., said the ruling is a step forward in that it requires the government to protect the group when they pray at the wall.

“We have a major lobbying job. Already there is a movement in the political arena to throw monkey wrenches in, and we’re beginning to strategize about how to deal with that,” she said. “We made it to the top of Everest. We may slip. But we’re going to try to get back up there or stay there, depending on what they do to us.”

Under the Conservative agreement reached Monday, meanwhile, the Israeli government will protect the right of Conservative Jews to hold services at Robinson’s Arch and will provide the movement with space to store prayerbooks and prayer shawls.

The two sides agreed to a 12-month trial period during which time the Conservative movement will be able to hold morning services at the site once a week, during Tisha B’Av, and other special times with prior coordination.

Services will start on Shavuot, at the beginning of next month, a holiday where mixed gender services in recent years have resulted in violence.

Conservative leaders described the agreement, under which they will pray in an area they were already officially permitted to pray in, as a “first step” and a “compromise,” rather than a victory.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, also in New York, said, “We got less than we wanted but more than they were prepared to give a few years ago. It’s a short step forward in the struggle for a pluralistic Israel.”

But Reform leaders in America, while supportive of Women of the Wall’s victory, were less impressed with the Conservative arrangement, saying they are still determined to gain access to the main part of the Wall.

“We don’t see this as a victory,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

“Our principles on this are clearly stated and remain the same. This is a sacred site, the most sacred site to the Jewish people and it belongs to all Jewish people.”

“If the southern part of the wall is really the wall, let the Orthodox groups pray there,” said Yoffie. “In terms of our struggle, this really doesn’t change anything.”

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA World Union, agreed, but sounded a more optimistic note.

“Slowly, slowly progress is sure and noticeable,” he said. “There is a general breaking down of the ultra-Orthodox notion that the wall belongs to them as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.”

(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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