Is the Western Wall rabbi above the law?

While men at the Western Wall lifted up Torah scrolls, read from the sacred text and rejoiced in their festival, women were unable to share in the joyful celebrations.

Priestly blessing prayer service at Western Wall, september 30, 2015 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Priestly blessing prayer service at Western Wall, september 30, 2015
The High Holy Days are a period when Jews seek to come closer to their Creator through prayer and revival. During this period many Jews come to pray at the Western Wall – a moving sight that creates an impression of fellowship and cooperation among all sections of the population. Sadly, this impression belies the reality: for over two decades, the Women of the Wall (WoW), a group that includes women from the Orthodox stream among others, has been struggling to realize their right to pray at the Western Wall according to their beliefs. Significant progress was achieved in this area in 2013 following a ruling granted by Jerusalem District Judge Moshe Sobel, who himself wears a kippa. The ruling permitted Women of the Wall to wear talitot and to read from the Torah without being considered offenders who, Heaven forfend, are disturbing the public order.
This week the Jewish people celebrated Simhat Torah. However, while the men at the Western Wall lifted up Torah scrolls, read from the sacred text and rejoiced in their festival, women were unable to share in the joyful celebrations. Jewish women face consistent discrimination and exclusion from the prayers at the Western Wall, including reading from the Torah, despite the fact that there is no halachic reason why they should not participate in such acts of worship.
Throughout Israel, and throughout the wider Jewish world, Orthodox prayer groups include women as equal participants in prayer and in reading from the Torah. Given this reality, the prohibition against bringing Torah scrolls into the Women’s Section at the Western Wall is particularly painful.
What is the basis for this refusal to permit women to engage in equal prayer at the Western Wall? The current arrangement at the site centers around a civil servant known as the “rabbi of the Western Wall.” This individual receives a salary from the State of Israel, but chooses to impose a system of one-man rule at the Western Wall that prevents women from using the Torah scrolls available at the site.
The rabbi also prohibits the bringing in of Torah scrolls from outside, on the basis of a procedure he introduced himself in 2010 lest anyone dare to use a Torah scroll to hold a religious ceremony otherwise than in accordance with “local custom.”
Between 2010 and 2013, some 200 Women of the Wall were detained for holding religious ceremonies not in accordance with local custom. It hardly needs to be added that the detentions and interrogations have not yielded a single indictment, and for good reason. None of the law enforcement bodies had any desire to bring the issue to court. The detentions and interrogations were nothing more than a palliative and a cheap means for ensuring quiet and for maintaining the hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox stream that has expropriated the Western Wall.
As noted, the turning point came in 2013. Judge Moshe Sobel’s ruling clarified unequivocally that the term “local custom,” which had appeared in the relevant rulings of the Supreme Court, was to be interpreted in an extensive manner, and that the court had never prohibited WoW from praying in the Women’s Section in accordance with its approach. The police did not appeal to the Supreme Court and Judge Sobel’s ruling remains binding to this day.
However, a right is of little use if it cannot be exercised. Judge Sobel’s groundbreaking ruling should have led to the nullification of the procedure introduced in 2010. Yet although this procedure is now unlawful, the Western Wall rabbi continues to apply its provisions, thereby effectively circumventing the court ruling that WoW forms part of “local custom.”
The rabbi also undermines the court ruling that women are permitted to read from the Torah in the Women’s Section. In short – the rabbi acts as if he were above the law.
What is even stranger is that the Israel Police, whose job should be to impose law and order, is also acting unlawfully by acquiescing to the authority of the rabbi. The police observe the above-mentioned procedure despite the fact that they are well aware that this is contrary to the court ruling.
It is important to be absolutely clear about what is going on. WoW is not asking to read from the Koran at the Western Wall; neither is it demanding the right to read from the New Testament or even from the Bhagavad Gita.
Just from the Torah – the Torah of Israel. The rabbi of the Western Wall is abusing his authority by imposing procedures that gravely violate equality and the basic right to hold a religious ceremony – a right that has been recognized and reinforced by the court. If such a procedure were to be imposed in any other country, the Jewish people would cry out to the heavens. Yet in the State of Israel there are those who show excessive tolerance and solidarity with this disgraceful situation.
Ironically, it is the stubborn determination of WoW to pray at the site on Rosh Hodesh for the past 26 years that has made their prayer part of “local custom.” Even more ironically, the rabbi of the Western Wall is clinging to an unlawful procedure from 2010 in order to ensure that women do not read from the Torah. And perhaps most ironic of all is the fact that there are those who continue well into the 21st century to sanctify the unfortunate association between religion and state. We can only hope that the current season of revival will lead those in power to change their approach and reroute their course. Their new destination should be a reality in which every Jewish man and woman can pray at the Western Wall without anyone excluding his or her fellow.
The author is an attorney who specializes in criminal law and has represented the Women of the Wall in interrogation and detention proceedings.