Dozens of women joined in prayer Monday at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and took part in a first-of-its-kind reading of Torah portions from a full-sized scroll in the women’s section, a practice which is officially banned by the rabbinic authority at the site.
The women were handed a Torah scroll by supporters of their cause in the men’s section, even as other worshipers at the site attempted to block the transfer. Security forces detained one of the men who passed the scroll to the women’s section, and likewise prevented male worshipers from entering the women’s section to disrupt the Torah reading.
In April 2013, an Israeli court ruling formally acknowledged women’s right to pray according to their beliefs at the Western Wall, claiming that this does not violate “local custom,” which hitherto had been cited as the foundation of banning some prayer rites women wished to engage in as a group. However, the rabbinic authority at the site nevertheless dictates that Torah scrolls must not enter the women’s section, citing concerns of possible theft.
There are over 100 Torah scrolls designated for public use at the Western Wall.
The Women of the Wall organization, which meets at the Western Wall once a month for prayers, has in the past managed to smuggle a miniature Torah scroll into the site. The feminist group advocates greater equality for women to engage in ritual observances at the Western Wall, including permission to read from and dance with Torah scrolls at the holy site.
“This is the first time that Women of the Wall can stand up and be counted as a part of the public,” Women of the Wall chair Anat Hoffman said Monday. “Nothing you could say could tear me away from my Torah, nothing you could do, because I’m stuck like glue to my Torah.”
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the head of the rabbinic authority of the Western Wall, criticized the participants at Monday’s prayer and accused the Women of the Wall of attempting to fuel tensions at the site.
“The Torah scroll was transferred in degradation, as if it were a random object, across the partition barrier separating the men’s section and the women’s,” Rabinovitch said.
“This is a provocative step intended to ignite the Western Wall, and indeed, the women of the organization manage to provoke the anger of worshipers, and the Israel Police and employees of the Western Wall had to work hard in order to avoid bloodshed.”
The government is currently negotiating with the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements, along with Women of the Wall, to expand the southern complex of the Western Wall, which is currently used by non-Orthodox groups as a prayer space in place of the site’s main complex, which is officially designated as an Orthodox prayer space.