A human rights issue at the Western Wall

A human rights issue at the Western Wall

Photo courtesy Original Women of the Wall
Photo courtesy Original Women of the Wall

group of Original Women of the Wall went to the Kotel to pray this week in celebration of Hanukka and the first time women prayed as a group together at the Western Wall 27 years ago. Reports Cheryl Birkner Mack: 

…three of us went to the men’s side. I asked two employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation if we could have a sefer Torah. They smiled and said “no.” I explained to them that we had come to pray in honor of Hanukka and would like to read Torah. “Ah, in honor of Hanukka….no. We don’t have permission to give one to you.” I asked how many scrolls they had. “About 160 and you only want one.” I nodded, “only one.” They said “you should have snuck one in a bag.” 

Imagine U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan going together, along with other Jewish women, to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Say they wished to pray, as women, to mark a special event: a bat mitzva or upcoming wedding of a family member; say they wanted to mark the new moon, Rosh Hodesh. Thanks to landmark legislation that Jewish feminists have fought for, while our justices might be harassed, there would be no legal impediment to their singing prayers aloud together from their prayer books or chanting from a printed Bible. Were they to wear prayer shawls, even the plain white ones that not long ago led to arrests, they could do so. 

But if Justices Ginsburg and Kagan wanted to read from a Torah scroll, they would be forbidden. If they were desperate to engage fully as Jews at what many consider to be Judaism’s holiest site, they would have only one degrading solution: smuggle in a Torah scroll. Women who successfully smuggle in a Torah are allowed to use it.

Why are the full spiritual rights of women as Jews still denied? The Protection of Holy Places Law of 1967 states that it is forbidden to “violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them…” But that right can apparently be ignored when the “member” is a Jewish woman.

The State of Israel has delegated the administration of the Wall to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz of the ultra-Orthodox Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Not long ago Rabinowitz issued a directive prohibiting visitors to the Wall from bringing their own Torah scrolls. (As Prof. Norma Baumel Joseph of the Original Women of the Wall clarifies, Rabinowitz is not the “rabbi” of the site, but only its manager [memuneh al hakotel]. “The Kotel is not a synagogue, certainly not a haredi synagogue, and he is not the mara de’atra, the halachic decisor.”)

In theory, if the Chief Rabbi of England brought along a Torah scroll saved from the Holocaust, it would be banned by security agents unless he smuggled it in. According to the directive, only the Western Wall Foundation can hand out the Torah scrolls they keep there. Any Jewish man who wishes to “borrow” a Torah can do so. 

But no woman can borrow one of the many Torah scrolls. Remember: there is no Jewish law prohibiting women from holding, touching, or reading from a Torah. The Israeli Supreme Court clarified this years ago. This is not a reading just of the liberal communities: Around the world, Orthodox women are reading from the Torah and are teaching their daughters to do so with the full support of their rabbis. 

But Rabinowitz’s directive makes it impossible for any woman to have access to a Torah scroll at the Wall. Not any of the Orthodox women who have been ordained as clergy nor the women who have been deans, presidents, or professors of sacred texts or Jewish law in rabbinical seminaries worldwide, and certainly not young Jewish women marking their maturity. 

This is a human rights issue. To that end, a lawsuit against Rabbi Rabinowitz and his organization was filed last week by Susan Weiss, director of The Center for Women’s Justice, on behalf of four Israeli-Jewish women activists. They pray with a group known as Original Women of the Wall: Tefilat Nashim Bakotel (O-WOW). This group, including women in Israel and North America of diverse backgrounds, distinguishes itself from those women, led by Anat Hoffman, an employee of the Reform movement, who were willing to relocate their women’s prayers to a newly created egalitarian site at Robinson’s Arch that would be called Ezrat Yisrael. O-WOW, praying at the Wall for 27 years, wish these women well, but have no intention of relocating anywhere. 

O-WOW has challenged Rabinowitz’s right to withhold Torah scrolls from women. As Prof. Shulamit Magnus, one of the named plaintiffs, explained, “We bring this action because not to act would be to allow the denial of women’s right to Torah reading at the Kotel to become enshrined; legal rights are actual rights only when enforced and lived out, on the ground.” 

I become distressed anticipating how the legal proceedings and responses to them will play out. I am confident the Israel Supreme Court will resolve that the rights of Jewish women have been violated, and for some brief moments, the plaintiffs and their supporters will celebrate justice being done in the State of Israel. 

Then politics will kick in and the government, which needs the good will of the ultra-Orthodox in its coalitions, will find some justification to stall or shelve the policy. Jewish women who have resolved to stay at the Wall will be told once again that a “very nice space” has been set up for them elsewhere. 

It is my hope, however, that the Court will find ways for the rights of women in Israel to be upheld, not in legal theory, but in actual practice. The resolution of this matter has far-reaching implications beyond the Western Wall. Here, Magnus references Susan Weiss: “[T]he larger context is the ever-expanding, illicit reach of the official rabbinical establishment in Israel into civil life and civil space.”

So here is the best-case scenario, and the one for which I, an activist in this cause since the get-go, pray: I want to be able to look out onto the Wall and witness many circles of Jewish women in their prayers, many Torah scrolls being read from. I want to be among those who can say proudly, “Pains have been taken by the State of Israel to assure that the rights of all people to their sacred spaces are secure.”

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