Sobel + three: back to square one

It’s hard to believe that it’s been three years since the Sobel decision that said that the custom of the Kotel is not necessarily Orthodox and that women should be able to pray with tallit, tefillin and Torah at the Kotel without getting arrested. The Haredi response was immediate. There was rioting for several months on Rosh Hodesh.  The police protected us from the rioters but they still did not allow us our full rights.

After we agreed to enter into negotiation with the government to construct a third Kotel section, the riots stopped, but the police still did not stop the monthly harassment from both sides of the mehitza.

For three years we have been asked to voluntarily not pray with tallit, or not pray with tefillin or not pray with a sefer Torah to allow the Haredim to adjust to the new conditions. But all of our concessions over these past three years has not resulted in any acceptance, or concessions on the part of the Kotel administrator Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz or his ability to manipulate the Jerusalem police into doing his bidding.

While Women of the Wall is known primarily for our multi-denominational women’s Rosh Hodesh Tefilla, we also pray at the Kotel on other holidays and on other occasions. We hold Selichot services, light Chanuka candles, read the Megillat Esther on Purim, and we have prayed during the intermediate days of Sukkot and during the year to commemorate yahrzeits and other life cycle events of our members. This year we wanted to include a women’s led Birkat Kohanot that would allow the daughters of priests to bless the people.

We use a traditional service so that all women feel comfortable praying with us and we carefully research the Halacha of any changes or additions we make. A Birkat Kohanim service is conduced twice a year at the Kotel, since 1970 (a relatively new invention considering the age of the ancient stones). We never expected that our wish to include bat kohanim, the daughters of priests to also bless the people of Israel, to induce a frenzy of panic in the Haredi community.

After threats of massive riots to shut us down and drive us out of the Kotel, a place the Haredim still view as their exclusive male dominated domain, did not frighten us off, they tried to get the Supreme Court to rule against us. When that was unsuccessful, Rabinowitz asked the Attorney General Mandelblit to legally bar WoW from holding the service. Mandelblit ruled that the Sobel ruling did not include “new ritual” and that we could not hold the Birkat kohanot ceremony.

We reluctantly agreed to hold a Passover service without the ceremony. We received a grant to provide transportation for women to come from the entire country. Many were women who have never prayed at the Kotel because they felt so discriminated against in an ultra-Orthodox setting.

But shutting down our service was not good enough for Rabinowitz. He wanted to prevent us from coming to the Kotel and he was willing to use the Jerusalem Police to do so.  The police refused to allow our transportation to come to the Kotel unless we agreed not to bring in a Torah scroll or read from one, not bless the people of Israel, and not even to put our hands up or put our tallit on our heads because it may look like we are blessing the people!

The police wanted us to rush through the service at break-neck speed so that it would only take 60 minutes; something we successfully argued against. All of this goes way beyond the attorney general’s restriction and cross the line that separates enforcing the law and harassing and intimidating the public. But the police already crossed that line when they arrested women for praying. We seem to be back to square one, to the bad old times just after the Sobel ruling.

Against all odds, hundreds of women still came to the Kotel yesterday to participate in Women of the Wall’s Passover service. Then came from the North, the South, and all points in-between. The police corralled us into a small cordoned off area in the sun, with no shade or chairs even though the women’s section was almost empty. The police videotaped the entire service to make sure no women raised her arms or said the forbidden blessings.

After the service, WoW board member Rachel Cohen Yeshurun said, He [Rabinowitz] might have won the battle. But he won't win the war, because one thing he can’t take away and that's our spirit. After the service a woman came up to me and said ‘For the first time in my life, I felt spiritually uplifted at the Kotel. Only you, Women of the Wall, make this place feel holy.’”