Women of the Wall believe they are hitting a political wall

JERUSALEM — The Women of the Wall are angry.

Nearly seven years after first petitioning Israel's Supreme Court for an order that would allow women to pray aloud as a group at the Western Wall with a Torah and ritual garments, the group is still waiting for its dream to be realized.

Two years ago, Israel's Supreme Court vowed to resolve this politically explosive issue, which is opposed by the Orthodox religious establishment, but has yet to do so.

The court last month granted a government ministerial commission charged with resolving the issue an extension until July 29, two months after the elections.

On that date, the court will hear from both the commission and representatives of the women's group.

The government's position relies on the halachic prohibition against kol isha — the sound of a woman's voice — because it can sexually arouse male worshippers.

In response to the Women of the Wall's first petition in 1989, the Supreme Court wrote in a temporary order that the group may not pray out loud at the Wall because "the voice of the woman is lewd."

Phyllis Chesler, a director of the International Committee for Women of the Wall, said, "In their opposing brief, the government has compared us to prostitutes and said that we're doing the devil's work, that we have been painted by feminism and should instead be at home taking care of our husbands and children."

The group now meets at the Wall once a month, on Rosh Chodesh, as well as on holidays, and prays together silently, without donning prayer shawls.

Afterward the group, which includes Orthodox and non-Orthodox women and ranges in size from 10 to 30 women, walks to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, where they read from the Torah.

In January 1992, the Supreme Court asked that a Knesset commission be formed to resolve the issue. That commission sought, and was granted, extensions until April.

In a discussion paper the Knesset commission issued in February, it suggested alternative sites for the Women of the Wall, including a site known as Kotel HaKatan, or the Little Wall, which is a continuation of the Wall surrounding the Temple Mount in the Old City's Muslim Quarter.

Another suggestion was that the women pray at a site used by Christians, where Jesus presumably overthrew the moneylenders' tables.

"Those recommendations were filled with contempt," said Chesler, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Then, in April, the commission recommended that the Women of the Wall pray at a location outside the Old City of Jerusalem, in an area of Arab East Jerusalem.

The area is "unfit for prayer and probably unfit for Jews," Chesler said, adding, "They're not offering us any bulletproof tallises [prayer shawls], either."

Orit Sulitzeanu, spokeswoman for the Israel Women's Network, called the commission's recommendations "no solution at all."

"The commission was supposed to come up with a solution that would enable the women to pray at the Wall, but it has failed to fulfill its mandate," she said.

Shortly after the Knesset commission dissolved, the government appointed a ministerial commission made up of current Cabinet ministers to decide how, or whether, to implement the earlier group's recommendations.

Women of the Wall has proposed a time-sharing arrangement that would allow the women to pray together aloud in the women's section each morning when the Torah is read from 6 to 7 a.m., when few men are at the Wall.

In order to accommodate Orthodox women, the group would not constitute a minyan (prayer quorum) and would omit certain prayers that can only be said by the ritual quorum of 10 adults, Chesler said.

According to Anat Hoffman, a leader of Women of the Wall in Jerusalem, "Women are welcome to pray as long as their mouths are shut. Shut in holy places; shut in ritual.

"The daughters of Abraham want to have a voice, but we are told that Abraham had no daughters."

Women of the Wall representatives charge that entrusting the task of resolving the dispute to a ministerial commission will accomplish nothing because the very ministers who have been named to the commission will almost certainly be replaced once a new government is formed out of last week's elections.

And the new Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu will have to rely on such Orthodox parties as the Sephardic Shas Party, which is likely to oppose the Women of the Wall's requests.

"The issue is that the state has continually given into terror from ultraright-wing religious parties and individuals," Chesler said.

The outgoing Israeli government has defended the time it took to resolve the issue.

"We are talking about an issue that is 2,000 years old," said Nili Arad, deputy to the attorney general and the government's representative in the case.

"This is a serious issue and can't be decided like a regular case," she said. "Time is not being wasted. We need to deal with this issue as long as it needs to be dealt with."

Angered but not defeated by this latest bureaucratic hurdle, Hoffman and Chesler said a solution to the Women of the Wall's problem would not be reached anytime soon.

"Until and unless everyone demands in every way possible politically that women be counted as Jews, the state will continue to delay, and try and grind us into dust," Chesler said.

Hoffman believes her 9-year-old daughter will not be able to celebrate her bat mitzvah at the Wall. "I just hope that her daughter will have the opportunity," she said.