On January 11, the Supreme Court surprised us. It issued a sweeping ruling ordering the State of Israel and the rabbinic administrator of the Western Wall to justify why women’s full rights to religious expression at the Western Wall should be denied.
The court found that the case, brought by activists of Original Women of the Wall (OWOW) and argued by maverick women’s and human rights attorney Dr. Susan Weiss of the Center for Women’s Justice, has merit and that its claims must be addressed. It gave the defendants, who have used every delaying tactic possible for over a year to prevent the case being heard, 30 days to respond.
In its ruling, the court put the onus on the defendants to justify withholding Jewish women’s rights to full religious expression, rather than asking us to defend that we have them.
It is a momentous ruling.
We of OWOW brought our suit 14 months ago asking the court to void a directive, issued by the rabbinic administrator of the Western Wall, barring anyone whose practice he disapproves from bringing a Torah scroll to the Wall. The directive specifically targeted women like us, who wish to exercise the same options for religious expression at the Western Wall that Jewish men have enjoyed since 1967. Three of those options – group prayer, donning tallit, laying tefillin – are practiced at the Wall regularly, most times completely uneventfully. We even read Torah, using a scroll we smuggle in, also with little or no reaction. When the other side is not able to prepare a violent, “spontaneous” demonstration against women’s prayer services – none occurs.
But we should not have to spirit in a Torah scroll, as if this were contraband.
The directive against women bringing in a Torah scroll violates Israeli law against discrimination in access to or use of public property: the Western Wall is not a synagogue, but “a national holy site,” that is, a public space. The rabbinic administrator does not allow women access to the dozens of Torah scrolls held at the Western Wall, and this too violates Israeli law against discrimination.
Under this directive, women have been harassed, searched, for even bringing tallit or tefillin or, during Hanukka, menorahs for lighting at the Wall – none of which is legally barred; on the contrary, all we seek to do is protected by prior Supreme Court and District Court rulings (2003 and 2013, respectively).
In its new ruling, the court also ordered the authorities at the Western Wall to subject women to the standard security search and nothing else – another momentous pronouncement.
Further, the court approved the motion of Kolech, the organization which represents Modern Orthodox women, to join our case as plaintiffs. Our group is diverse by design and conscious practice.
We affiliate with nor accept control by any movement; rather, we welcome Jewish women as such, in all our diversity. We respect those who differ from us; they are free of course, not to join us, to ignore us. Opposing us – as is or should be the case with any legal position one holds – does not bestow the right to silence or ban, never mind imprison. That norm protects everyone, including those who oppose us.
We of OWOW who brought this case pursue it now as much against the deal to turn the Western Wall into a ultra-Orthodox synagogue, from which women’s group prayer, including Torah reading, would be barred on pain of fine and arrest, as against the arbitrary and misogynistic authorities running the Western Wall. Our group has maintained steadfast, consistent commitment to the goal of women’s full religious expression at the Western Wall; we have resisted and rejected all deals to appropriate the rights and cause of Jewish women and trade them for a different cause or a different site, to subsume women’s rights in any other cause, or to compromise our independence and autonomy. We have pursued this case against tremendous forces and resources arrayed against us.
We are delighted with our achievement for Jewish women.
It’s not over. We know that. Proponents of the deal for Robinson’s Arch are still pushing that deal. The Supreme Court’s ruling may lead them to push for it harder, before we win our case altogether. The haredi world will try to fight this through legislation the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party introduced weeks ago, which would criminalize all non-ultra-Orthodox prayer anywhere in the Western Wall precincts, including Robinson’s Arch, where egalitarian prayer has been conducted for years.
Those elements also use violence and harassment, which shamefully the state and Western Wall authorities tolerate and rationalize and thereby excuse and encourage.
So no, it’s not over. We are assailed by groups that should be with us as well as by the immense and varied ultra-Orthodox rabbinical and political establishment, and the state. But we have been at this for nearly 30 years; our core members include the founders of all this, all the way back to 1988. Our commitment to the group’s founding goals has not and will not change. We will persist and we will prevail. We substitute no other cause and no other site – let this be clear – for this cause and this place.
Aside from position on behalf of women, our case has far-reaching implications for everyone in this society, and yes, for Diaspora Jews who care about Israel, too. One of the reasons our attorney took our case and pursues it with passion is her longstanding opposition, on grounds of civil liberties, to the ceaseless push of rabbinic authorities to expand their reach beyond the bounds of law into our lives and liberties. About this, she said yesterday, “The Center for Women’s Justice will continue to contest every attempt of rabbinic authorities to expand their jurisdiction and to enact regulations that are beyond the scope of laws of the state from which they derive their authority and which defines their jurisdiction.”
And we say: the Supreme Court of Israel asked on what grounds Jews should be denied full religious expression at the Western Wall.
Because that’s who we are.
L’chaim. This is 1967 for Jewish women.The author is a professor of Jewish history, a founder of Women of the Wall and lead plaintiff in the current Supreme Court case to enforce the rights of Jewish women to full religious expression at the Western Wall.