Court: Gov't needs to explain why women can't read Torah at Western Wall

Tension had already been growing inside the government over the plan to create a pluralist prayer section at the Western Wall.

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March 17, 2016 05:02
3 minute read.
A Jewish female activist (C) from the Women of the Wall prayer rights group

A Jewish female activist (C) from the Women of the Wall prayer rights group wears a prayer shawl and tefillin during a monthly prayer session near the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The High Court of Justice demanded on Wednesday to receive the state’s response to a petition demanding that women be given the right to read Torah in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza.

Tension had already been growing inside the government over the plan to create a pluralist prayer section at the Western Wall.

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In a decision given on Monday but released on Wednesday, the High Court demanded that the state give its response to the petition against the plan within 12 days.

The petition, filed on behalf of leaders of the Original Women of the Wall organization, requests that the court declare void a directive written by administrator of the Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz in 2010 which prohibits anyone from bringing a private Torah scroll into the Western Wall plaza.

Although the administrator of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites is able to lay out directives relating to the Law for the Holy Places, such measures must be approved the chief rabbis and the religious services minister, which Rabinowitz did not receive.

OWoW, a splinter group from Women of the Wall, argues that such directives may also not harm a person’s basic rights.

Rabinowitz does not allow women to use Torah scrolls available at the site for men; OWoW says that his directive discriminates against women by denying them the ability to read from the Torah at their prayer services at the Western Wall, unlike men who are freely able to do so.



Concern over OWoW’s petition, filed on January 12 this year, may have spurred the government to expedite the finalization of the agreement it made with the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations and Women of the Wall to create a pluralist prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall.

In April 2013, Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court ruled that worshipers in WoW’s prayer service wearing prayer shawls and tefillin were not disturbing the peace and did conform to the traditions of the site, since they had been praying there once a month for more than two decades.

This overturned the legal situation in which the police had arrested participants in WoW’s services for donning prayer shawls or tefillin on the grounds of disturbing the peace and for not praying in accordance to the customs of the site.

Women have been praying with such prayer items at the Western Wall ever since the ruling was issued, which prompted the haredi-controlled religious establishment to finally agree to negotiations for a compromise so as to formalize the status of Orthodox worship at the main Western Wall plaza.

OWoW rejects the recently proposed solution, approved by the government on January 31, to create a pluralist prayer space at the southern end of the wall, in return for declaring the main Western Wall prayer area as dedicated to Orthodox worship alone.

With the Sobel ruling in hand, the only missing element for OWoW is reading from the Torah in the women’s section of the main prayer area, something that the High Court might grant if it rules Rabinowitz’s directive to be unlawful.

This would give total victory to pluralist Jewish groups and the non-Orthodox denominations, and would almost obviate the need for a new pluralist prayer space.

Indeed, in a letter written this week by Rabinowitz to the haredi political leadership, he called on it to pass legislation banning anything other than Orthodox prayer at the site, “in light of the terrible danger hanging over the Western Wall,” perhaps an allusion to OWoW’s petition.

Justice Yoram Danziger presiding over the case said in his one-line ruling on Monday that the defendants, Rabinowitz, the Religious Services Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, have until March 28 to issue their response as to whether the recent government decision to create a pluralist prayer space “also gives a solution under discussion in this petition as well.”

Attorney Nitzan Caspi Shiloni, representing OWoW through the Center for Women’s Justice, argued that the Western Wall site, specifically the current prayer space used today for prayer services, is the site recognized by, and holy to, the Jewish people, and that this is why the organization was insisting on its rights at this particular spot.

“This is a call not to capitulate to extortionist elements in the haredi establishment whose goals is to harm religious freedom and the value of equality of the State of Israel and to perpetuate discriminatory treatment at the holiest site for Jews,” said Prof. Shulamit Magnus, one of the OWoW leaders.


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