An agreement being worked out between the Women of the Wall prayer rights group and the government for the creation of a pluralist prayer area is likely to include a clause annulling the regulation that has been used to prevent non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
However, the same agreement may also include a stipulation that gives the administrator of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the power to determine “local custom” at the site.
Women of the Wall (WOW) is in advanced negotiations with cabinet secretary Avihai Mendelblit to reach a solution for the establishment of a pluralist prayer area at the southern section of the Western Wall.
However, opposition has been voiced by elements within WOW to any deal that would abandon the right of women to pray at the women’s section of the main Western Wall Plaza in a non-Orthodox manner.
Earlier this month, two senior members of the organization, Bonna Devora Haberman, who founded the group, and Cheryl Birkner Mack wrote Rabinowitz saying they would not agree to pray in any new location.
According to the regulations of the Law of the Holy Places, religious ceremonies not conducted in accordance with local custom – interpreted until recently to mean Orthodox practice – and that offend the sensibilities of others are forbidden at the Western Wall. These regulations have been used as a basis to arrest anyone contravening them, even though the legal basis for this is disputed.
Women in WOW prayer services who donned prayer shawls and tefillin, which is not traditional Orthodox practice, were routinely arrested by police in the months leading up to April 2013, and given restraining orders barring them from the Western Wall.
In a landmark ruling in April that year, however, Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court ruled that “local custom” could not be narrowly defined as Orthodox practice, and that as long as there is no other appropriate area for pluralistic prayer, women should be allowed to pray according to non-Orthodox customs at the Western Wall.
Some members of WOW, including Haberman, have in recent weeks expressed concern that the negotiations between the NGO and the government might include a clause that would abrogate this right once the new prayer area is fully operational.
WOW insists that its deal with the government include a clause stipulating that the regulations of the Law of the Holy Places that were used until April 2013 to criminalize non-Orthodox practices at the site be removed.
The Post has learned that the final agreement between the two sides will most likely include this clause.
Under the terms of the agreement, it will not be possible for women to be arrested or for any criminal proceedings to be initiated against a woman engaging in non-Orthodox practices at the site.
But it is possible that officials at the Western Wall will be able to ask anyone conducting non-Orthodox ceremonies to go to the new pluralist prayer area, though whether there will be any method of enforcement is unclear.
WOW has previously said that if its demands for the pluralist prayer area are met, then it would agree to permanently relocate its monthly prayer services to the new site.
But the dissenting members of WOW who wrote to Rabinowitz – Haberman and Birkner-Mack – claim that a board decision taken by WOW to enter into negotiations with the government contradicts the stated charter of the NGO, and demand that a general assembly of the organization be held in order to decide on the issue.
WOW said that the organization made a legal decision several years ago that decisions made by the board would be considered the decisions of a general assembly, since at the time, membership of the NGO outside the board was low.
Speaking to the Post, Haberman contested the notion that the regulations of the Law of the Holy Places provide any legal basis for arresting someone who performs non-Orthodox ceremonies at the Western Wall, and said that giving Rabinowitz the ability to determine local custom would be a mistake.
“Such a step would be an innovation, would contradict Israeli law and would constitute a setback to freedom of religious practice in Israel and to pluralism in civil society by more than 25 years,” Haberman said.
She also voiced concern that enforcement of “local custom” could include a prohibition on women bringing prayer items like prayer shawls and tefillin into the main Western Wall prayer area.