A celebratory Western Wall women’s prayer and Torah reading held by the Original Women of the Wall group on Monday morning tested a recent interim order by the High Court, with mixed results.
In contravention of a January 11 interim High Court order which directed the immediate halt of “body searches” of women beyond normal security measures, several OWOW members were searched for “contraband” Torah scrolls.
Shulamit Magnus, a founder of Women of the Wall and its splinter group Original Women of the Wall, attempted to pass through the security checkpoint at the entrance of the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem’s Old City while openly carrying a full-size Torah scroll on loan from a “prominent private individual.” Magnus later told The Times of Israel she based her decision upon sections of the vaguely worded decision, which addressed several issues pertaining to women’s prayer at the Western Wall and could be read to indicate the court’s willingness to allow the women to pray “in their custom,” — i.e., with a Torah scroll.
Although she brandished the recent court order, Magnus was told by a security supervisor there was a “different regulation” in place from the head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, forbidding her to bring in the Torah scroll.
Some 14 months ago, OWOW petitioned the High Court through Dr. Susan Weiss and the Center of Women’s Justice to overturn a 2010 directive issued by Rabinowitz barring visitors to the Western Wall from bringing in a Torah scroll.
The recent court response set aside 30 days during which Rabinowitz and the state attorney’s office can either provide “good cause” for why women may not pray with a Torah at the Western Wall — or allow it. The January 11 decision also highlighted Rabinowitz’s stated acceptance of women carrying in phylacteries and prayer shawls, which was based on an earlier High Court case brought by women prayer groups.
However, on Monday morning, as documented on the group’s Facebook page, several OWOW members were asked by uniformed security to open their coats and sweaters in what Magnus called “harassment” and an “explicit violation of the court order.” Magnus was barred from bringing in the scroll.
The 40 women who met at the women’s section of the Western Wall eventually read from a smuggled “smaller” Torah scroll. Magnus said that while she “felt we were on good grounds to go in openly” with the full-sized Torah scroll, she had “anticipated” the guards’ objections.
During the group’s prayer in the women’s section, a handful of ultra-Orthodox women protested through loud whistling, banging on tables, and wrapping themselves up in banners stating their intentions to remain at the Western Wall.
OWOW intends to continue its roughly tri-weekly prayer meetings at the Western Wall.
“We go regularly, but rights are only real when you use them,” said Magnus.
The Original Women of the Wall broke off from the more-known Women of the Wall group over the negotiations for the Western Wall compromise, a government decision to build a pluralistic prayer pavilion in the archaeological park known as Robinson’s Arch.
“OWOW rejects the deal for Robinson’s Arch because it would change the status of the Kotel from ‘national holy site,’ that is, not a synagogue, to synagogue under official and legally binding haredi control. Women’s tefilla with all we seek to do, the right to all of which Jewish women have won and which right we exercise there now regularly, would be banned on pain of arrest and fine. Obviously, none of that happens today; we read Torah openly and no police say a word to us,” wrote Magnus in a follow-up email.
“Denominationalizing the Kotel — taking it from the Jewish people and awarding it to the same haredi establishment that anathematizes and persecutes all whose custom differs from theirs — is the price, under the deal, for denominationalizing Robinson’s Arch, long a site of egalitarian prayer but which, under the deal, would be officially under Reform and Conservative auspices,” Magnus wrote.
While made up of members from all Jewish denominations, OWOW’s stance is that the compromise does not permit full religious expression of every Jew, who should all be allowed to pray at the accepted, long-used Western Wall prayer plaza according to their custom. Women’s prayer groups are one of the many existing customs at the site, they maintain.
“We want this to be a regular normal option,” said Magnus. “There are many customs at the Kotel and this is one. We women should have the option, in the same way men have since 1967.”
Alden Solovy, one of the few active male members of the group, was beaten in the past when handing over a Torah scroll with fellow supporter Charlie Kalech from the men’s section to the women. Today’s prayer, he said, went off basically without incident and “was beautiful to see, with much kavana (intention) and joy.”
Solovy said his motivation in attending the OWOW prayer meetings “is to support the right of women to pray at the Kotel as a group of committed Jews, regardless of their affiliation.”
“I have daughters,” he said, pausing, “but no one should be able to tell another Jew where and how they should pray.”