Jail time for women worshipers?

NEW YORK, May 31 (JTA) – A week after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that women are entitled to read from the Torah and wear prayer shawls at the Western Wall, fervently Orthodox lawmakers have initiated legislation that would send to prison for seven years any women who do just that.

Last week’s ruling is also under attack from the Israeli government, with the state attorney preparing a request that the decision be reconsidered on grounds that alternative sites are available and a change could lead to friction.

The case concerns Women of the Wall, a group of women that has been fighting for over a decade for the right to gather for prayer services at Judaism’s holiest site.

Although the group includes Conservative and Reform women, its services follow Orthodox liturgy and do not recite prayers requiring a minyan, defined by Orthodoxy as 10 men.

Under the May 22 ruling, the government was given six months to arrange for police protection for the women to pray at the wall, also known as the Kotel.

Currently, the group is not protected and — according to a 1989 law — women worshipers who read from the Torah there are subjected to a six-month prison sentence.

The opposition to the decision, especially from the government of Ehud Barak who needs his Orthodox coalition partners to push his peace efforts through, is raising questions about whether the rules for the women will actually change.

The group plans to hold services on Sunday at the wall to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, although it will not use a Torah. In recent years, they have moved their monthly services to a nearby site.

While the ruling applies specifically to Women of the Wall, it also could have implications for the Reform and Conservative movements, both of which have petitioned unsuccessfully in the past for the right to hold egalitarian services at the Kotel.

The Conservative movement recently agreed to a compromise, whereby it will hold services at Robinson’s Arch, a site at the southern end of the Western Wall.

In the Knesset on Wednesday, two bills responding to the May 22 ruling passed preliminary hearings.

One, introduced by the United Torah Judaism Party and passed by a 29-17 vote, imposes a seven-year prison sentence and monetary fine for women who wear prayer shawls, read from the Torah, blow a shofar or lay tefillin at the Western Wall.

The other, introduced by Shas and passed by 29-25, declares that one must behave at the Kotel and surrounding plaza as if in a synagogue. It prohibits various activities, such as holding public gatherings without prior permission, wearing immodest clothing, eating, drinking, smoking, sleeping, violating Shabbat or festivals, photographing for a fee and slaughtering animals.

Legislation in the Knesset must pass three readings before it becomes law.

Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of United Torah Judaism said that in introducing the bill, the fervently Orthodox legislators were trying to convey the deep injury they felt the high court ruling had inflicted.

He said the jail term was secondary.

“We wanted to point out that this issue is very important to us, and we feel that if the order of the Supreme Court goes, the situation there will be that every day, instead of praying there, there will be arguments,” Ravitz told Israel Radio, adding that the wall “is not the place for demonstrations.”

In response, Knesset member Naomi Hazan of the left-wing Meretz, introduced a counterbill to legislate free worship at the Western Wall.

Hazan accused the United Torah Jewish bill of equating Israel to fundamentalist Iran.

“The Western Wall belongs to all Jews, to men and women, to ultra- Orthodox, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and even secular Jews who come to the wall to pray there every once in a while when they feel the need,” Hazan told Israel Radio.

Reform and Conservative leaders and Women of the Wall activists in the United States joined Hazan in condemning the fervently Orthodox parties’ proposed legislation, although they were skeptical that it would actually become law.

Passage of such a law would “make the conversion crisis look like child’s play,” Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA World Union, said, referring to the controversy over whether non-Orthodox conversions should be legally recognized in Israel.

“To codify through the highest sovereign body of the Jewish people— the parliament of Israel — that this is an ultra-Orthodox synagogue and all others need not come is to violate the fundamental unity of the Jewish people,” Hirsch said.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he finds the proposed legislation “outrageous and abhorrent,” but is not surprised by it.

“They’re going to do everything they possibly can to block the decision of the court,” he said of the fervently Orthodox parties.

Phyllis Chesler, a New York-based scholar and psychotherapist who was one of the plaintiffs in the Women of the Wall suit, agreed that the proposed legislation is not surprising, but said it imposes far more extreme penalties than have ever been suggested in the past.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said it is important to legislate against the Supreme Court decision, which he said could spur groups such as humanistic Jews and Hebrew Christians to demand prayer space and thus “lead to the balkanization of the Kotel.”

It is unclear whether the government’s request for a review will be accepted by the court, and whether this might jeopardize the Reform and Conservative movement’s fairly warm relations with Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

So far, Reform and Conservative leaders are willing to give Barak the benefit of the doubt.

ARZA’s Hirsch said the government’s action is “disappointing,” but it is better than under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which supported the so-called conversion bill, which would have overturned Supreme Court decisions recognizing non-Orthodox conversions.

Of the Barak government’s request for a review, United Synagogue’s Epstein said, “I don’t regard it as a positive sign.”

“But he’s got to do what he’s got to do because the truth of the matter is that his agenda is not this,” he added, noting that the peace process and economy are higher priorities right now for Barak, and that he cannot risk upsetting the fervently Orthodox parties.

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