Women of Wall might not use new egalitarian section

Group will continue to pray at current women’s section of the site “for the foreseeable future” after landmark court ruling.

Women of the Wall 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women of the Wall 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The Women of the Wall activist group clarified on Wednesday that while it supports the plan drawn up by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to create an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall, it will not neccesarily use the new section for its prayer services.
In a landmark ruling last week that upheld an earlier decision of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, Judge Moshe Sobel ruled in the Jerusalem District Court that women who wear prayer shawls – tallitot in Hebrew – at the Western Wall Plaza do not contravene “local custom” or disturb public order, and should not be arrested.
Because of this decision, Women of the Wall, which has been waging a longterm campaign for equal prayer rights for its group and for non-Orthodox denominations at the Western Wall, has stated that its members will continue to pray at the existing women’s section at the site “for the foreseeable future.”
Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the group, stated on Wednesday that the group believes Sharansky’s proposal to be a very important step for religious pluralism in Israel, but added that until the plan was fully implemented, the group would continue to conduct its monthly prayer services at the women’s section.
Hoffman would not be drawn on what the group would decide once an egalitarian section is finally in place, but stressed that under no circumstances would the women abrogate the rights granted in last week’s court decision to pray in the current women’s section according to their customs.
“The full implementation of Sharansky’s plan is at the moment still an imaginary scenario – we’re focusing only on May 10 [the date of the next Jewish New Month and WoW prayer service],” Hoffman said.
“We’re not sure what will happen once the egalitarian section is completed.”
A spokeswoman for the group reiterated that the egalitarian section would need to have a women’sonly space for the group to even consider holding its services there.
“Orthodox women have been a very important component of Women of the Wall, and it would be wrong for us to assume something now that would hurt Orthodox women in the future,” she said.
Until now, the police have enforced a 2003 Supreme Court ruling and directives from the Justice Ministry which upheld the 1981 Regulations for the Protection of Holy Places to the Jews. Under those regulations, performing religious ceremonies at the site that are “not according to local custom” or that “may hurt the feelings of the worshipers” are forbidden.
Local custom is interpreted to mean Orthodox practice.
These regulations and their interpretation have been the legal basis for the regular arrests of women for performing at the Western Wall Jewish customs usually practiced only by men under Orthodox norms.
But last week’s ruling means that, at least in theory, participants in Women of the Wall prayer groups who wish to wear tallitot or tefillin or perform any other Jewish custom not usually conducted in Orthodox practice by women, may legally do so without fearing arrest.
The Attorney-General’s Office is expected to issue an updated directive on what will be accepted practice at the Western Wall some time before the group’s planned May 10 prayer service.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, Women of the Wall said that “[Judge] Sobel declared, as the group has maintained for the past 10 years, that women’s prayer, with Torah, tefillin and tallit, is not a disturbance of the peace or a crime, but a valid, civil right which women should be afforded.”
With respect to the plan being drawn up by Sharansky, the group stated “Women of the Wall share great respect and appreciation for Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky and for his thoughtful, good-faith effort to find a resolution to the conflict at the Kotel.”
“We recognize the significance of this plan for an egalitarian section at the Kotel and commend all those who worked tirelessly together to reach an agreement that respects the great diversity of Jews in Israel and abroad,” the group added.
The group’s spokeswoman said that the group intended to read from the Torah at the upcoming service, noting that the group was looking into ways to be able to read from a Torah scroll.
It is not permitted to bring a private Torah scroll into the Western Wall plaza, and rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz has refused to permit the activist group access to any of the scrolls donated to the site on the grounds that those scrolls were donated in the understanding that they would be for traditional Orthodox use only.
Until recently, the group would conduct Torah readings at the Robinson’s Arch prayer area adjacent to the Western Wall Plaza.
The area, which was designated for non-Orthodox prayer in the 2003 Supreme Court ruling, did not satisfy the demands of group for equal prayer rights at the site, claiming that it was not part of the main plaza and lacked the proper amenities for prayer services.