- The Law
- The First Petition
- Second Petition
- The battle continues 2009-2013
Rosh Hodesh, the first day of every Jewish month, has been considered a holiday for women since the days of the Talmud. According to traditions, women are exempted from all worksince they have been rewarded by God for not having taken part with the men in the sinful worship of the golden calf.
Women of the Wall’s struggle started in December 1988, at the end of the first International Jewish Feminist Convention in which dozens of women from all over the world participated. As a part of the convention, the women planned to join in a prayer of thanks for the peace of the state, on the women’s side of the Western Wall, with a Torah. When they arrived and started reading from the Torah, it sparked a violent reaction from the men on the other side of the mehitza(, partition. )The men spat at the women praying, spared no verbal abuse, and grabbed their siddurim right out of their hands. All of this for the fact that these women dared to pray out loud, wearing tallitot, and holding a Torah.
In response to these events, Rabbi Meir Getz – then Rabbi in charge of holy sites and the Western Wall, was interviewed in the radio station “Kol Israel” and said that “…what the Women of the Wall did was purely provocative, and it’s the same as bringing a pig to the Western Wall plaza. Women at the Wall are like a pig at the Wall”. Later, in the High Court of Justice, he said that “… I was trying to calm the angry spirits by explaining that it is not forbidden according to the Jewish law and Halacha but it is against the tradition and not acceptable within the people of Israel and by so calmed the anger of the protestors.”
The Israeli women turned the prayer at the Wall into a tradition, and met at the Kotel every Rosh Hodesh. The next violent event occurred at the prayer for Rosh Hodesh Adar. The women notified the police of their prayer and despite this, the police would not defend them when the radicals verbally and physically abused the group.
Due to these difficult events, the women decided to negotiate with Rabbi Getz and the police, a negotiation which bore no fruit. As a part of the negotiation, the women agreed to come pray at Ta’anit Esther without their tallitot or Torah, hoping to avoid violence and unnecessary confrontations. Rabbi Getz committed to guarantee the “well being of the women and their prayer,”,but to no avail. March 20th, 1989, the day of Ta’anit Esther, Women of the Wall came to pray without their tallitot and without a Torah, just as they promised; however, when they entered the women’s section, they were met with an uproar – men broke into the women’s section, started yelling, cursing, throwing chairs, rocks and shattered bottles towards the group of women. At the same time, a group of ultra-Orthodox women joined in on the men’s violence, cursed the praying women and hit them. Eventually, the police were forced to intervene and distance the rioters by using tear gas. The Women of the Wall left the women’s section hurt and offended.
The very next day, March 21, 1989, the Women of the Wall sent their first petition to the High Court of Justice against the authorities of the Western Wall, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Head Rabbis of Israel, and the police – in attempt to make the authorities establish legal permission for women to pray at the Western Wall by their own customs and to fulfill freedom of religion and right to equality as they see fit.
Over the next few months, with each prayer the violence against the Women of the Wall grew worse. Ultra-Orthodox men and women physically attacked the praying women, threw objects at them, pushed and hit them. When the crowd started the uproar during the prayers, the Women of the Wall were taken out of the women’s section, under command of the authorities of the Western Wall. They were claimed to have “disturbed the public order”.
Several months after the first petition was sent by the Women of the Wall in 1990, the Ministry of Religious Affairs intervened and put up a new decree (2(A1)) to the regulations of the Western Wall – “Within the holy places there will be no religious ceremony that is not in accordance to the traditions of the place, which hurts the feelings of the praying public towards the plac.e” The regulation is signed by two ministers: Minister of Justice Dan Meridor and Minister of Religions Zvulun Hamer. The punishment for transgression is 5-12 months of imprisonment and a 500 NIS fine.
In 2000, the Ultra-Orthodox Knesset parties tried to pass legislation banning women from holding ceremonies in the women’s section of the Western Wall, including their putting on tefillin, reading from the Torah and wearing tallitot. The punishment in the law was set to 7 years imprisonment. The law passed first call and was then cancelled.
What are women forbidden to do in the women’s section of the Wall, and why?
- Women participating in public prayer: Stems from the notion that according to the Halacha, women are not committed to “deeds caused by time.” The woman is exempted from these deeds, but generally is allowed to fulfill them. It seems that the large opposition against women performing these deeds are the fear that they will neglect their traditional roles in the family and in raising the children.
- Women reading from the Torah in public: Is forbidden because men are not allowed to hear women singing. A woman’s voice is said to have an element of temptation and therefore, fearing that the man would not be able to withstand temptation and won’t concentrate on his prayer, the woman has to keep modest by refraining from raising her voice in public.
- Wearing a tallit: Women are not committed to wear a tallit because it is also a deed caused by time (since it is only worn during the day). In addition, wearing a tallit is considered a symbol of purity and outright religious practice men do during their prayer.
The First Petition
The first verdict was given in 1994, and in it the three judges wrote three different evaluations, demonstrating the complexity of the issue. The verdict was decided by two separate matters: one, the majority (Judges Levin and Shemgar) thought that the Women of the Wall have gained the right to pray by their custom next to the Western Wall and their freedom of religion must be protected. However, by a majority of Shemgar and Alon, the petition was dismissed. The judges claimed that court is not the proper place to decide such a matter, and a government committee must give a solution that will allow the freedom of access to the Western Wall on one hand, and take the feelings of the ultra orthodox community into account on the other hand.
Putting together a committee is the normal reaction to religion -and-state issues, in attempt to avoid a judicial decision forcing one opinion or another and to try and encourage dialogue and agreement.
After the verdict, three committees were established. None of these committees included women. After the Women of the Wall protested this issue and involved organizations from abroad, one Member of Knesset, Sarah Doron, was permitted to sit in one of the committees as an observer without a right of vote or speech. The main committee was led by Ya’akov Ne’eman, and they ruled against allowing the women’s prayer at the plaza.
The Women of the Wall opposed the conclusions of the committee and expressed their frustration in another petition in which they repeated their demand to allow them a certain time slot next to the Western Wall: one hour on the first of every Jewish month, except for Tishrei, and all together eleven hours a year.
The Women of the Wall handed their second petition, its purpose was to force the government to act according to the court’s orders in the first petition.
The end was in sight for our long strenuous battle when Justices Eliyahu Matza, Tova Strasberg-Cohen and Dorit Beinish instructed the government unanimously to “set the appropriate arrangements and conditions for the Women of the Wall to fulfill their right to pray according to their custom within the Western Wall, while not overly hurting the feelings of other praying people in the area and making sure the proper security is given”. All this within six months.
This verdict sharpened the first verdict, but the public debate was still heated and a week later the Knesset authorized a law bypassing the court verdict, by which women praying with a tallit or read aloud from a Torah, wear tefillin or blow the shofar, could be punished by up to seven years in prison. It should be noted that several secular members of Knesset also supported this law but it was later annulled.
The Last Discussion of the Second Petition
Pressured by the Knesset, the High Court of Justice agreed to have another discussion on the issue with more judges (it should be noted that this agreement is unusual seeing as the verdict was unanimous).
The final discussion on the issue which seemingly closed the curtain on our cause, took place in 2003 and in a majority of five against four judges, the High Court of Justice cancelled its previous verdict and decided to endorse the state’s solution to accept the “Robinson’s Arch” as a suitable alternative.
Since the verdict of 2003, the Women of the Wall pray Shacharit at the women’s section of the Western Wall every Rosh Hodesh, and then make their way to the Robinson’s Arch to read from the Torah.
The battle continues 2009-2013
In November 2009, Rosh Hodesh to the month Kislev, Nofrat Frankel was arrested. Nofrat was holding a Torah, but she was arrested for wearing a tallit. She was released and the charges were cancelled.
Several months later, July 2010, Anat Hoffman was arrested while carrying the Torah from the Western Wall towards the Robinson’s Arch. Anat was charged with obstruction of a police officer. Her fingerprints were taken, but no suit followed.
Immediately afterwards Rabbi Rabinowitz, added a new regulation that bans anyone from entering with a Torah to the Western Wall. The explanation was that there are already about 300 Torah books in the men’s section so there is no need of any more.
In May 2012, Rosh Hodesh Tamuz, one of the women in the group was arrested for wearing a tallit and released after several hours. In August 2012, Rosh Hodesh Elul, four women were arrested, this time accused with two transgressions: public disorder and behavior against the customs of the place. They were restrained from entering the Western Wall area for 50 days.
Arrests and detentions continued throughout 2012 and 2013.
In April 2013 five women were arrested at the Kotel, mid-prayer, while wearing tallitot . After being held for questioning, the women were taken to the HaShalom Court to receive judgment. Police accused the women of disturbing the public order and requested that the judge ban them from the Western Wall for the following three Rosh Hodesh prayer dates. After seeing all evidence, Judge Sharon Larry Bavly stated that there was no cause for arresting the women. In a groundbreaking decision, the judge declared that Women of the Wall are not disturbing the public order with their prayers. She said that the disturbance is created by those publicly opposing the women’s prayer, and Women of the Wall should not be blamed for others’ behavior. The women were released immediately, with no conditions.
The police appealed the Magistrates’ Court Decision andon April 25, 2013 the Jerusalem District Court handed down its decision in The State of Israel, Israel Police vs. Lesley Sachs, Bonnie Riva Ras, Sylvie Rozenbaum, Rabbi Valerie Stessin and Sharona Kramer, the five women who were arrested on April 11, 2013 while praying at the Western Wall. Judge Moshe Sobel decided against the police appeal, supporting fully the Magistrates Court decision by Judge Sharon Lary-Bavly, which stated that there was no cause for arrest and that the women did not disturb the public order. The women were released with no conditions and the police’s request for a restraining order from the holy site was once again rejected in no uncertain terms.
Sobel continued to further interpret the various legal roadblocks that have been used against Women of the Wall throughout years of struggle to pray freely at the Western Wall.
The Judge declared that the Supreme Court decision of 2003 never intended to serve as an injunction which would apply criminal violations to women. Likewise this decision did not ban Women of the Wall from praying at the Kotel. He added that there is no reasonable suspicion in which the women are violating the Supreme Court decisions. In reference to the Supreme Court recommendation that the women pray in Robinson’s Arch, Sobell declared that this does not prohibit the women from praying at the Western Wall in the women’s section, and certainly it does not imply a criminal violation for this act.
Regarding the restriction within the Law of Holy Places in which visitors at the Western Wall are to pray and hold religious celebrations according to the “local custom,” the judge declared that the women are not violating this law. He stated that the legal proceedings of Women of the Wall establish that the “local custom” is to be interpreted with National and pluralistic implications, not necessarily Orthodox Jewish customs. Thus, the accused women did not violate this law.
In reference to the accusation of endangering or disturbing the public peace, the judge ruled that even if the women had behaved in a way that disturbed the public order, they were never a danger to the public peace. The women were in no way suspect of violent or verbal behaviors that would endanger the public.
Judge Sobel ruled that there are to be no limitations imposed on the accused women.
In November 2013 Women of the Wall’s board voted to engage the Israeli government, Government Secretary Avichai Mendelblit in negotiations over the possibility of the creation of a third prayer section of the Western Wall. Forming a coalition representing million of Jews including the Conservative and Masorti Movements, the Reform Movement, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federations of North America. After 2+ years and hundreds of hours of negotiations, a plan was proposed to the Prime Minister and passed by government on January 31, 2016.
Achievements of the plan include:
- A strong coalition between Women of the Wall, the Reform Movement, the Conservative/Masorti Movement, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Jewish Agency headed by Natan Sharansky. This coalition has given voice to those who have been silenced and ignored in Israel until now.
- There will be one main entrance, the Shoken entrance, is going to be transformed to allow full visibility of the third section and a point of choice for all prayer sections.
- The de-criminalization of women’s prayer at the Kotel, including the women’s section even after the finalization of the third section. Removing criminal sanctions for non-compliance with Kotel “local custom” as defined by ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authority.
- The liberation of the Western Wall upper plaza. The plaza of the Western Wall, the shared space above the three prayer sections, will be established as a national plaza for state ceremonies, free of discrimination based on gender and denomination.
- The allocation of holy space in Israel and state budget to women and non-Orthodox Jewish factions is groundbreaking. In this agreement the state and the office of the Administrator of the Western Wall and Holy places formally recognize and accept pluralist Jewish denominations and movements for the very first time. This achievement in and of itself will open the floodgates to Jewish pluralism in Israel.
- Women’s prayer groups, like Women of the Women, that wish to read Torah will have full access to Torah scrolls and a space set aside from mixed prayer to do so at the Kotel.
- The new section will be managed not by ultra-Orthodox hegemony but by a council of representatives who are committed to pluralism and inclusion in Jewish ritual life: the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Reform Movement, the Conservative/Masorti Movements and Women of the Wall. Once built, the new section will welcome school groups, birthright trips, ceremonies, mass prayers and visiting dignitaries regularly and with open arms.
Until Women of the Wall move to the new section of the Kotel, the women’s prayer group will continue to pray according to their traditions in the women’s section as part of the “local custom,” as defined in the 2013 District Court Decision by Judge Sobell.
Women of the Wall’s conditions for moving to the new section are specific to the agreement approved today and include:
- The transformation of the entrance to the Kotel plaza, including moving the “Shoken” security gate to create a majestic, ceremonious and visible path to the third section.
- The fully functional and operational third section including construction completed, infrastructure built and staff hired, prayer books, tallitot, Torah scrolls, etc. available in the prayer space.
- Removal of all obstacles of visibility of the new section.
- Certification for the legality and safety of all of the platforms of the plaza.
Until Women of the Wall’s executive board is satisfied with the full (not partial) implementation of this agreement, the group will continue to pray in the women’s section and to struggle for full rights there. Women of the Wall will not stop fighting for women’s free access to the Torah. Until a pluralist third section is available and suitable for such prayer, Women of the Wall’s place remains in the women’s section.