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Backers of Women’s Prayer at Wall Weighing Options After Court Ruling

April 10, 2003
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Faced with an Israeli Supreme Court decision banning a women’s group from reading the Torah at the Western Wall, feminists and advocates of religious pluralism are weighing their options.

“I’m angrier than I am demoralized,” said Phyllis Chesler, co-founder of Women of the Wall.

In a 5-4 ruling Sunday, Israel’s Supreme Court reversed an earlier decision that had recognized Women of the Wall’s right to pray at the holy site in the manner its participants chose.

The court also gave the Israeli government 12 months to prepare an alternate site for Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service, in which participants read from the Torah and wear prayer shawls.

But the court ruled that if preparations at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site at the southern end of the Western Wall, are not completed within a year, the group must be allowed to pray at the Western Wall.

The group, which draws women from all streams of Judaism, symbolized “pluralism in action,” said feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who said the verdict was a triumph for the alleged hegemony of Israel’s fervently Orthodox establishment.

In Orthodox Jewish tradition, only men have read from the Torah. Some fervently Orthodox Jews, outraged by the sight of women reading from the holy scroll, have physically intimidated Women of the Wall prayer sessions.

In one case, fervently Orthodox Jews charged after worshipers and hurled dirty diapers at them.

Chesler, in fact, accused the court of appeasing “terrorists.”

“A court that bows to the fear of violence,” she said, is “a court that has given in to terror.”

Not everyone agreed.

“We’re happy with any movement that helps preserve the traditional nature of prayer at the Western Wall,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox group.

“It goes to the concept of ‘tzniut,’ or Jewish modesty — a much maligned and much misunderstood concept — that women are not supposed to be placed in the spotlight,” Shafran said. “That doesn’t sit well with many people today, but it is part and parcel of the Jewish religious tradition that lies at the roots of all Jews.”

Shafran denounced any harassment of female Torah readers.

“The ultra-Orthodox religious leaders have always made that very clear, and no one’s going to defend the reported hotheads that have thrown things,” he said.

But, he insisted, “That’s not the issue here. The issue here is respect for a holy place and respect for the traditions that lie behind the worship that it’s associated with.”

Women of the Wall now is considering its options. Chesler rattled off several:

wait to see what happens in a year;

introduce Knesset legislation to override the verdict;

continue holding services with the Torah near, but not at, the wall, and holding prayer services at the wall without talitot and Torah;

flout the decision and pray with the Torah at the wall, an act of civil disobedience;

organize a worldwide campaign of solidarity services seeking “religious freedom for women.”

The struggle to pray at the Western Wall began on Dec. 1, 1988. At an international conference of Jewish women, Chesler and Rivka Haut took out a Torah and began reading from it in the women’s section of the wall.

For the next six months, women of all denominations continued to read from the Torah together, sometimes causing an uproar among other worshipers who considered it a sacrilege.

Israel’s Supreme Court accepted the group’s case in the summer of 1989 on condition that the group pray at the wall without the Torah.

Since then — with one spontaneous exception — the group has not used Torahs at the wall. Members either have held prayer sessions at the wall without the Torah or have read from the Torah at nearby sites.

Group members say women’s Torah reading is becoming increasingly accepted in Orthodox circles, but the Israeli government has argued that the group’s service at the wall could threaten public order.

In the current case, the court was ruling on an appeal filed by the state to a May 2000 decision recognizing the group’s right to hold prayer services at the wall, and instructing the government to make arrangements for it.

A lawyer for the group, Frances Raday, said the court had not backtracked on its recognition of the women’s right to pray at the wall.

But the court chose to protect the sensitivities of other worshipers over the right of the women to pray at the wall, she said.

National Religious Party legislator Shaul Yahalom welcomed the court ruling.

“The Supreme Court saw the need to preserve the rights of most of the worshipers in the world to not be hurt,” he said on Israel Radio.

Women of the Wall consistently has rejected proposals of alternate prayer sites.

Though Chesler is upset with the court’s decision, she said she is skeptical that the contingency plan will stick, since Robinson’s Arch is unlikely to be ready for use within a year. She cited the cost and work required to level and prepare the archaeological site for public prayer. In addition, she said, Israel’s archaeological authorities might oppose the arrangement.

Attorney Raday has said some lawyers and politicians believe the court ruling may be a delaying tactic.

Even so, supporters of the group aren’t taking it lightly.

The case is a “bellwether,” Pogrebin said. “It tells us a lot about ourselves if we can live with this injustice as a people.”

Chesler linked the act to the upcoming Passover holiday, which begins on the night of April 16.

“This year I may celebrate Passover, but surely I am not leaving Egypt,” Chesler said. “The Pharaoh who we face, who keeps us in Egypt, is the ultra-Orthodox view that women cannot pray with the Torah with a group out loud at the Kotel — and their chief defender now is Aharon Barak,” Israel’s Supreme Court chief justice.

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