JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that women should be allowed to read from the Torah in the women’s section at the Western Wall and that an egalitarian prayer area set aside at nearby Robinson’s Arch does not constitute access to the wall.
Egalitarian prayer and other forms religious plurality have become major issues to American Jews, particularly in Louisville, where Israeli leaders in the fight to liberalize organized religion have recently visited to make their cases at Jewish forums here.
In an interim injunction announced Wednesday, the court gave the wall’s Orthodox administrators and state agencies 30 days to show cause why women cannot pray “in accordance with their custom” or allow them to pray as they choose.
It also declared that women should not be subjected to body searches before entering the plaza. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run body that oversees activity at the site, has authorized such searches to prevent worshippers from entering the women’s side with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, tefillin and menorahs.
The court gave Western Wall administrator Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and state agencies — including the Prime Minister’s Office and the Religious Services Ministry — 30 days to submit their response to the injunction.
The parties “must explain why the petitioners should not be allowed to pray in accordance with their custom at the traditional plaza, or alternatively allow them to pray in accordance with their custom at a place which has access to the Western Wall similar to [the access] at the traditional site,” the court said.
The petitioners include the Original Women of the Wall, a break off of the Women of the Wall group, who want to pray in the women’s section and reject a compromise, still to be implemented, that would expand an alternative prayer space at Robinson’s Arch. The court combined the Original Women of the Wall petition with two others. The petition challenged a 2010 directive issued by Rabinowitz barring women from bringing to and using a Torah scroll on the women’s side.
The directive “flagrantly violates Israeli law against discrimination in access to or use of public property: the Kotel is not a synagogue, but ‘a national holy site,’ that is, public space,” the women argued.
The Original Women of the Wall in a statement posted on Facebook called the decision a “momentous ruling.”
“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,” the Original Women of the Wall statement declared.
Women of the Wall also responded to the ruling.
“Today, we have come much closer toward implementation of the Western Wall agreement on gender equality and religious freedom at the Wall,” Women of the Wall head Anat Hoffman said in a statement, also posted on Facebook.
Women of the Wall have brought hidden Torah scrolls into the women’s sections several times for their monthly prayer service in honor of the new month. They have held several bat mitzvahs with the Torah scrolls, as well as bat mitzvah services without Torah scrolls when they have been caught. The women have been denied access to the some 100 Torah scrolls stored on the men’s side of the Western Wall Plaza.
The agreement passed by the government last January for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall was negotiated by the Reform and Conservative movements, the Women of the Wall organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government.
Under the January agreement, which was approved by the Cabinet, the egalitarian section of the wall near Robinson’s Arch would be expanded and placed under the authority of a pluralist committee. The plan called for solidifying haredi Orthodox control over the site’s traditional Orthodox section.
Haredi Orthodox lawmakers and some from the Jewish Home and Likud parties in December submitted a bill to the Knesset to prevent non-Orthodox public prayer at the Western Wall.
The religious freedom debate in Israel has made its way to Louisville.
Recently, leading Israeli Conservative and Reform rabbis, including Uri Regev, president and CEO of the advocacy group Hiddush; Gilad Kariv, president and CEO for the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism; and Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, have all come to Louisville to speak out in support of religious freedom and diversity in the Jewish state.