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Women Fight to Pray

The conflict between Israel’s Ministry of Religion and the women praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem took a dramatic turn recently when Israel’s Supreme Court agreed to make a decision on the legality of the women’s service and to guarantee the women worshippers protection, as long as they refrain from praying at the Wall with tallis and Torah.

Although the court will not take up the question until December, the “Women of the Wall” expressed relief that the decision will be made by the secular body rather than the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which they say reflects right-wing Orthodox opinion.

Since December, 1988, when the first group of women gathered at the Wall for an Orthodox prayer service as part of the international “Empowerment of Jewish Women” conference in Jerusalem, they have been met with insults and violence by right-wing Orthodox men and women.

Men have hurled chairs over the divider into the women’s section, and women have kicked, bitten and scratched members of the prayer group on several occasions. Charges of harassment and law suits have been filed against both the “Women of the Wall” and the ultra-Orthodox, as well as against the police, who have been accused of failing to protect the women.

The Supreme Court ruling cleared the path for the women to pray at the Wall under the protection of the religious authority that governs the Wall, and permitted them to conclude their service with a Torah reading at a synagogue located in the nearby Jewish Quarter of the Old City. It also encouraged both the Ministry of Religion and the “Women of the Wall” to sit down and “work out their differences” as soon as possible.

So far the group has met with Zevulun Hammer, Minister of Religious Affairs, but both parties have refused to comment on that meeting. “We went in an effort to fulfill the mandate of the court to reach an understanding^’ said Bonna Haberman, one of the organizers of the group. She says that the group will meet in the future with as many of the involved parties as possible.

The “Women of the Wall” is a group of Jewish women living in Israel who are attempting to convene monthly women-led morning prayer services at the Wall, which include reading from the Torah. Most members hail from North America and have brought their concepts of religious pluralism with them, much to the chagrin of Israeli religious authorities. The group represents all streams of Judaism, but members have chosen to hold Orthodox services so as not to exclude observant women from their ranks.

“Maybe this is the special gift North American women are giving Israel” says Anat Hoffman, a Jerusalem city councillor and one of the few native Israelis in the group. “This is a marvelous group with an open circle of leadership. You’ll never see a group of religious men from all branches working together like this.”

According to the “Women of the WalK’ opposition to them is not based on halacha (Jewish law). No religious authority has dared declare that halacha forbids women from doing what they’re doing. Opposition is based instead on minhag (custom). Simply, the women have been told that praying at the Wall with a Torah and wearing prayer shawls has never been done in Israel and therefore is not acceptable.

“This is part of a larger picture of Jewish women who have been learning and praying together in private places for at least fifteen years;’ explained Haberman. “We decided it’s time to go public.” And there was hardly a more symbolic place to go public than the Wall.

“We didn’t expect that the (regular worshippers) would welcome us!’ says Haberman, a Canadian-Israeli who holds a doctorate in philosophy. “But we didn’t expect the level of violence and brutality we have encountered.”

In addition to being attacked by ultra-Orthodox men and women, the group has been “left unprotected by the police and labeled provocateurs by the mayor of Jerusalem” says Haberman. “They have been written off as agents of the Reform movement by the Hebrew press.”

“This whole thing has to do with claims to tradition and power, and the jurisdiction of civil vs. religious authority. They (the ultra-Orthodox) have an intense fear of anything unfamiliar’,’ says member Shulamit Magnes, a teacher of modern Jewish history at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, who is in Jerusalem on a one-year fellowship. “What we’re doing is perceived as a threat to Judaism.”

While change may be unfamiliar and threatening to the ultra-Orthodox, the visionaries in the women’s group dream of the day any woman living in or visiting Israel will be able to pray at the Wall, and of their daughters growing up in a Jewish state that respects their right to pray in public.

While there are those in the group who believe this can only be accomplished by vigorously challenging authority, others prefer avoiding confrontation. But members do agree that the struggle is worth pursuing, whatever the court’s decision will be.

In the meantime, the cause continues to draw support in America, both from women’s prayer groups there and from major organizations such as Hadassah and American Jewish Congress.

“This could become a mini ‘Who is a Jew’ issue!’ Magnes says. “Women getting beaten up at the Wall doesn’t play well in America.”