In landmark decision, High Court rules for women’s Western Wall prayer
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In landmark decision, High Court rules for women’s Western Wall prayer

Government given 30 days to show 'good cause' why women can't read from Torah scrolls at the holy site

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall, holds a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, November 2, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall, holds a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, November 2, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

In a landmark High Court decision Wednesday, the state was given 30 days to find “good cause” why a woman may not read aloud from a Torah scroll as part of prayer services at the Western Wall.

The sweeping decision, jointly addressing three petitions on related topics, ruled that assuming the government cannot find “good cause,” not only may women read from the Torah at the Western Wall, but also that the government may no longer argue that the Robinson’s Arch area of the plaza constitutes “access to the Western Wall.” The court did not address a January 2016 government decision to build a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion in the Robinson’s Arch area, which is currently also an archaeological park.

Further, contrary to current practice under the plaza’s administration by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, women will no longer be subjected to body searches for “contraband” Jewish ritual objects by foundation staff.

If the state fails to find “good cause” for not permitting women to read from the Torah, it is yet to be determined whether they will be granted access to the hundreds of scrolls now located in the men’s section of the Western Wall plaza.

“The Center for Women’s Justice is overjoyed by our landmark decision today in the Supreme Court. It’s a major victory not only for our clients, Original Women of the Wall, but for all citizens of Israel. Today’s ruling is a significant game-changer because it holds our democracy to a higher standard,” said Dr. Susan Weiss. Weiss is the director of the Center for Women’s Justice and the lawyer representing four members of the Original Women of the Wall, who brought the original High Court petition.

The decision was celebrated by activists and allies around the Jewish world.

“Just when it seemed the rabbinate’s power was overwhelming, the court’s verdict regarding our demand to read Torah at the women’s section of the Western Wall reflects both courage and wisdom,” said Anat Hoffman, head of the Women of the Wall activist group.

“Today, we have come much closer toward implementation of the Western Wall agreement on gender equality and religious freedom at the Wall. I am elated because when I was looking for justice, and then courage, they were missing, and now the highest court in the land has shown me both.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lights the Hanukia together with Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch, at the Western Wall on the second night of the Jewish holiday of Hannuka. November 28, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lights the Hanukia together with Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch, at the Western Wall on the second night of the Jewish holiday of Hannuka. November 28, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

According to a recent poll conducted by the group Hiddush: Freedom of Religion for Israel, 62 percent of the Israeli public supports female prayer quorums at the Western Wall. Among Israel’s religious population, however, 81% of modern Orthodox object to women’s prayer groups at the wall, along with a resounding 95% of ultra-Orthodox.

One of the three joined cases, the petition for women to read from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, was brought by a Women of the Wall splinter group, the “Original Women of the Wall” (OWOW). Some 14 months ago, the group asked the High Court to nullify a directive brought by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation head Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch barring Torah scrolls in the women’s section.

According to a statement from OWOW following the ruling, that regulation “flagrantly violates Israeli law against discrimination in access to or use of public property.” Further, the Western Wall “is not a synagogue,” the group said, “but ‘a national holy site,’ that is, a public space. The rabbinic administrator does not allow women access to the dozens of Torah scrolls held at the Kotel, and this too, violates Israeli law against discrimination.”

According to both Women of the Wall and OWOW, women have been habitually harassed and subjected to degrading body searches for Jewish ritual objects.

While still awaiting the final decision, attorney Weiss, who represents OWOW, said, “The Center for Women’s Justice will continue to contest every attempt of rabbinic authorities to expand their jurisdiction and to enact regulations that are beyond the scope of laws of the state from which they derive their authority and which defines their jurisdiction.”

What is in the court decision

In the ruling written by Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein on Wednesday, three petitions were joined.

Access to the Western Wall: The court decided in favor of the petition claiming that Robinson’s Arch is not “access” to the Western Wall. It wrote, “No full alternative solution has yet been found” in regards to women’s access to the Western Wall. According to the ruling, the government decision proposing the solution of Robinson’s Arch area, which lies to the south of the traditional prayer pavilions, was not realized, therefore the women currently do not have true access.

Body searches: The court ruled on Wednesday that employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation must immediately desist from body searches on the women visiting the holy site, aside from normative security checks.

Female Torah reading: In regards to allowing women to bring in a Torah scroll to the women’s section of the Western Wall, the court ruled there are currently conflicting regulations and prior court decisions on the matter.

According to the decision, the current practice of allowing women to wear prayer shawls and phylacteries is acceptable to Rabinovitch, but not Torah reading. Therefore, the court is giving the state an additional 30 days to argue “good cause” for forbidding women to read from the Torah at the Western Wall — or allow it.

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