Police hold Women of the Wall leader for ‘smuggling Torah’
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Police hold Women of the Wall leader for ‘smuggling Torah’

Amid impasse over deal for mixed-gender section at Western Wall, group says executive director detained for bringing scroll into prayer plaza

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Women of the Wall Executive Director Leslie Sachs carrying a Torah scroll as she is escorted away from the Western Wall plaza by police, June 7, 2016. (Michal Fattal)
Women of the Wall Executive Director Leslie Sachs carrying a Torah scroll as she is escorted away from the Western Wall plaza by police, June 7, 2016. (Michal Fattal)

A leader of a group campaigning for equal prayer rights for women at the Western Wall was detained by police Tuesday morning for smuggling a Torah scroll into the prayer plaza, in contravention of Orthodox regulations imposed at the site.

Women of the Wall Executive Director Leslie Sachs was “detained by police while exiting the Western Wall,” the group said Tuesday.

Sachs was held along with a Torah scroll that had been loaned to the group from a congregation in the US, following a monthly Rosh Hodesh service marking the beginning of the Jewish month.

The incident came as a deal to create a new egalitarian space at the Western Wall seemed to stall in the face of ultra-Orthodox pressure within the government.

“Sachs was detained for ‘disturbing the public order’ despite a relatively quiet and uneventful prayer service with 80 Women of the Wall,” a statement released by Women of the Wall read. “The reason given for the police action was: smuggling a Torah scroll into the women’s section.”

The scroll, donated by Sacramento’s Congregation B’nai Israel, was in police custody with Lesley Sachs, the group said.

A police spokesperson said Sachs was detained for questioning and not arrested.

Police have largely stopped arresting Women of the Wall members for their monthly services at the Western Wall, as a High Court petition on the use of Torah scrolls by women waits to be decided.

In Orthodox Judaism, only men traditionally carry Torah scrolls. Women of the Wall runs gender egalitarian services at the Western Wall in defiance of the state-imposed regulations.

“Though we believe that the Torah was handed down to women and men equally at Mt. Sinai, and though women and men both sacrificed their lives and loved ones for the reunification of Jerusalem, in 2016 Women of the Wall struggle for access to Torah scrolls at the Kotel,” the group said in a statement Monday.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the chief rabbi of the Western Wall and an outspoken opponent of the Women of the Wall said the incident desecrated the holy site.

“Being responsible for the holiness of the Western Wall, I plan to fast to atone for the disgrace caused to the Torah,” he said.

A January deal to designate a section of the site for non-Orthodox prayer services has been stalled by ultra-Orthodox leaders who oppose the proposal. A high-level meeting last week between Diaspora leaders and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials failed to produce a breakthrough, with some warning that failure to resolve the issue could put a strain on Diaspora ties with the Jewish state.

Women of the Wall Executive Director Leslie Sachs carrying a Torah scroll as she is escorted away from the Western Wall plaza by police, June 7, 2016. (Michal Fattal)
Women of the Wall Executive Director Leslie Sachs carrying a Torah scroll as she is escorted away from the Western Wall plaza by police, June 7, 2016. (Michal Fattal)

The Western Wall compromise, passed in a January 31 cabinet decision that reflected the work of years of negotiations, called for a permanent prayer platform to be built along the southern end of the Western Wall in an area of the Davidson Archaeological park, otherwise known as Robinson’s Arch. There is currently a temporary prayer platform set up there in two distinct areas of the park.

The plan was heralded as a symbol of Jewish unity throughout much of the Jewish Diaspora. But within days of its jubilant announcement — a headline which splashed across international media — the cabinet decision drew the ire of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenuous coalition who view the Western Wall pavilion as an open-air Orthodox synagogue. Its implementation has been stymied for the past four months.

Last week, at the end of the latest 60-day extension for the beginning of the implementation of the plan, American Jewish religious leaders met with Netanyahu to try and find a way to resolve the impasse.

Netanyahu’s office issued a statement after the meeting saying that he continues to work on the issue and is committed to resolving the matter. Netanyahu attended about a third of the 90-minute meeting.

However, some warned a crisis could be in the offing.

“There’s is no parallel to the level of crisis with the Jewish Diaspora if a quick and respectable solution to this crisis is not found,” said Yizhar Hess, head of the Conservative Movement in Israel.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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