Women challenge Orthodox practice at Israel’s Western Wall

JERUSALEM — A long-running battle over worship at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest shrine , was rejoined Thursday as Israeli police arrested five Jewish women who wore prayer shawls at a morning service, contrary to Orthodox practice enforced at the site.

The arrests came two days after disclosure of a potentially groundbreaking plan that could allow for non-Orthodox services to be held in the area on an equal footing with those conducted according to Orthodox tradition.

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“The Wall belongs to all of us!” shouted Lesley Sachs, director of the activist group Women of the Wall, as she was led away by police officers, wrapped in a prayer shawl. An ultra-Orthodox heckler shouted: “Get out of here! Don’t desecrate this holy place. It isn’t yours!”

The women were released after a court hearing, where a judge said they had not caused a disturbance and there had been no grounds for their arrest.

Detentions of women wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall in recent months, in line with an Israeli Supreme Court decision upholding traditional religious practice, have created an uproar among American Jews and prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek a formula that could broaden the types of prayer permitted at the holy site.

The issue touches on a fundamental divide between American Jewry, in which the Reform and Conservative movements are dominant, and Israel, where those liberal denominations are relatively small and authority in Jewish religious matters rests with the Orthodox rabbinate.

In the decades since it came under Israeli control in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Western Wall has become a preserve of strictly Orthodox practice, with female worshipers kept behind a partition, dress codes mandating modest clothing for women and a head covering for men, and rituals at the site supervised by a specially appointed Orthodox rabbi.

Pushing against those restrictions, members of Women of the Wall have campaigned for more than two decades for the right to worship there while adopting practices traditionally reserved for men: wearing prayer shawls, leather straps and boxes containing parchment with Jewish scripture, as well as reading aloud from a Torah scroll as part of the morning service.

With a strong membership of English-­speaking immigrants backed by American Jewish supporters, the women’s group did not attract much interest among ordinary Israelis until the recent police crackdown. Scenes of arrests of female worshipers wearing prayer shawls, which brought expressions of outrage from American Jewish groups, helped thrust the question of authority over the Western Wall prayer area into the limelight in Israel.

Responding to protests from Jews abroad and growing media coverage of the controversy, Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, to come up with a plan for worship at the Western Wall that would accommodate the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism that are dominant overseas.

The move signaled an increasing awareness in the Israeli government that the confrontations over ritual at the Western Wall are driving a wedge between Israel and Jewish communities abroad.

This week, Sharansky briefed American Jewish religious leaders on a proposal that would provide for an area of non-Orthodox worship at an extension of the Western Wall south of the main prayer plaza; men and women could pray together there, and women could lead services.

The area is part of an archaeological park already used on a limited basis for non-Orthodox rituals, and it would be expanded, renovated with a platform on the same level as the rest of the Western Wall plaza, and made accessible at all hours, just like the current prayer area. The new arrangement would allow equal access to both the traditional and non-Orthodox prayer sections.

The ambitious plan, which has yet to be presented for government approval, would signal a new level of official acknowledgment of non-Orthodox forms of worship at the most sacred place where Jews can pray. But it faces obstacles, including possible objections from Israeli antiquities officials and from Muslim religious authorities who run the adjacent al-Aqsa mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and who consider the Western Wall to be part of that complex.

In a letter to Jewish Agency leaders, Sharansky, a former cabinet minister and Soviet dissident, wrote that “we have an historic opportunity to make the Wall a symbol of Jewish unity and diversity instead of a place of contention and strife.”

The Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has called Women of the Wall members provocateurs, declared that he would not oppose Sharansky’s plan.

“In the name of unity and the desire to leave the Wall outside any debate and dispute, I will not oppose the proposal,” Rabinowitz said in a statement, noting that the proposed new prayer area “is not part of the Western Wall synagogue.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform movement in Israel, said Women of the Wall had succeeded in making religious pluralism at the shrine a major issue of Jewish concern.

“The Wall has become an ultra-
Orthodox synagogue,” Kariv said, adding that Thursday’s arrests sent a signal that undermined Sharansky’s proposal. “You can’t make a serious attempt to reach a compromise while maintaining a situation where the rights of one side are seriously breached,” he said.

Still, Kariv predicted that if the proposal is implemented, the area set aside for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall “will become the main platform for the vast majority of Israelis and Jews.”

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