Reform rabbi MK brings Torah scroll to women’s section of Western Wall, drawing ire

Labor lawmaker Kariv defends his move, which comes as ultra-Orthodox parties seek to outlaw female-led services at the Jerusalem holy site

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi, brought a Torah scroll into the women’s section of the Western Wall on Sunday morning, using his parliamentary immunity to stage a protest against ultra-Orthodox parties’ plans to ban female-led Torah readings at the site.

Inside the women’s section, Kariv uncovered the Torah scroll and opened it, holding it up to the crowd of women inside, drawing cheers from supporters and jeers from Orthodox protesters.

This was not the first time Kariv used his parliamentary immunity to bring a Torah scroll to the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel, though in the past he has stayed in the back of the women’s section. In this case, he entered deeper into the area and raised the Torah scroll before he was eventually escorted away.

As a member of Knesset, Kariv has near unlimited freedom of movement, save for private property, as well as freedom from searches, which the Knesset’s legal adviser has determined allows him to bring a Torah scroll into the Western Wall despite an official rule against it.

The incident occurred as part of monthly prayer services organized by the Women of the Wall organization, an activist group that advocates for women to be allowed to perform Torah readings at the Western Wall and, more broadly, for religious freedom in Israel.

The Women of the Wall, who hold their services at the start of every Hebrew month, or Rosh Hodesh, accused the private security guards hired by the Western Wall chief rabbi of violently accosting them.

“The disgrace and contempt shown to the Western Wall by the Western Wall chief rabbi and his guards goes on each month, and now this violence and desecration is getting support from parts of the Israeli government, including those who used to violently protest, denigrate and incite against the Women of the Wall,” the organization said.

“We will continue to come to the Western Wall each month and to pray there in our fashion, which is the local custom as determined by the court and as we have been doing for 34 years,” the group said.

Kariv was fiercely denounced by Orthodox lawmakers, who accused him of being provocative and abusing his parliamentary immunity.

“Kariv’s cynical use of a Torah scroll is infuriating, as he is using the holiest item for a pointless provocation,” said MK Amihai Eliyahu of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

The head of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party, Yitzhak Goldknopf, called for the Knesset’s legal adviser to investigate Kariv for illegally taking advantage of his parliamentary immunity.

“The Western Wall belongs to every Jew, but on the condition that they respect the site’s tradition and the law,” Goldknopf said.

National Unity party Matan Kahana, a moderate religious lawmaker, also condemned Kariv, comparing him to Orthodox extremist politicians.

“How are you different from [Noam party leader] Avi Maoz and [Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel] Smotrich? The three of you are pushing the discourse to extremes. You are all responsible for radicalizing the debate in Israeli society,” Kahana said.

Kariv defended the move, saying it was necessary in light of an “illegal protocol” issued by the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch after the High Court of Justice ruled that the Women of the Wall were permitted to hold services at the holy site.

In response to that ruling, which would have allowed female-led Torah readings, Rabinovitch issued a new rule that forbade bringing private Torah scrolls to the Western Wall so that only the site’s own scrolls may be used, which Rabinovitch does not allow into the women’s section.

Kariv began using his parliamentary immunity to bring a private Torah scroll into women’s section earlier this year.

In a statement, Kariv tied the move to a larger battle currently being waged over the Western Wall and the longstanding failure to implement the so-called Western Wall Compromise, which would have given official standing to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in the management of the site — though likely still would not have permitted female-led Torah readings in the main plaza.

As part of the coalition deal brokered between incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and United Torah Judaism, the two parties agreed to maintain the “status quo” at the Western Wall of gender segregation at the site, adding that legislation could be passed in order to preserve this state of affairs.

“The Western Wall belongs to all of us, not just to Netanyahu, the Western Wall chief rabbi, and the Haredi parties that blew up the historic compromise,” Kariv said.

He also connected the progressive struggle over the Western Wall to the broader debate happening in Israel surrounding freedom of and from religion. “There is a line connecting the struggle for the Western Wall with the struggle against the segregation of women everywhere, and other struggles against discrimination and religious coercion,” he said.

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