Challenges mount even as Women of Wall hail victory

NEW YORK — Women of the Wall is hailing its victory in an 11-year legal battle to hold prayer services at Jerusalem's Western Wall that involve reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls.

"Eleven years of struggle have reached a conclusion," one of the Women of the Wall petitioners, Anat Hoffman of Jerusalem, said in response to Monday's Supreme Court ruling. "We've come out of the Middle Ages, and we will soon hold the first bat mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel."

However, some members of the women's group fear Israel's religious establishment will prevent Monday's ruling from being implemented.

Indeed, Shas legislators Tuesday said they would introduce a bill to the Knesset next week that would prohibit any action at the Wall that could disturb male worshippers or any kind of prayer that does not adhere to the current manner of worship.

In addition, Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein said earlier this week that he might ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision.

Some commentators observed that Prime Minister Ehud Barak, already struggling to keep his coalition intact, would find it next to impossible to implement the ruling and keep his government together.

The court gave the government six months to make the necessary arrangements for the services. and awarded the women — who are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform but use Orthodox liturgy — $4,800 in damages.

In a separate development, the Conservative movement reached an understanding with the Israeli government allowing it to hold mixed-gender prayer services at Robinson's Arch, at theWall's southern end.

While officially part of the Western Wall, the arch has not traditionally been a site of prayer.

For more than a decade, Reform and Conservative Jews and women from a variety of Jewish streams have fought for the right to hold services at the Wall.

The Kotel has separate sections for men and women, and efforts to hold non-Orthodox services or services led by women have often led to ejection by Israeli police and harassment — sometimes violent — by fervently religious worshippers.

"This is a great day for the advancement of the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel," the president of Israel's Conservative movement, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, said in a statement Monday.

It is a day, he said, when both the Israeli government and its Supreme Court "accept the principle that all Jews have the right to pray at the holiest place of the Jewish people, according to their traditions."

Activists for the Women of the Wall in Israel and the United States welcomed Monday's ruling, which noted that nothing in the group's prayer services violates Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. The women pray separately from men, use Orthodox liturgy and do not say any prayers that would require the presence of a minyan of 10 men.

"Now we will implement the three T's: tefillah [prayer], tallit and Torah, and throw in a fourth T as well — tefillin," said Hoffman shortly after the ruling was announced.

Meretz Knesset member Naomi Chazan, long a supporter of women's rights and pluralism, said the ruling finally establishes that the Western Wall does not belong to the Orthodox, but to the Jewish people, including women.

However, some Orthodox Jews object to the fact that the Women of the Wall raise their voices in prayer, contravening the prohibition against a man hearing a woman's voice while he is worshipping.

In the United States, Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, said, "It is particularly sad that at a time like this…that the Jewish state's High Court would arrogate to itself the mission of undermining the Jewish religious tradition."

In Jerusalem, Cabinet Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, who is spearheading efforts to resolve religious pluralism conflicts, called the decision a "mistake of the court."

"We cannot resolve the central problems of our society through forcing one side on another," he said.

While most celebrated the ruling, some Women of the Wall activists questioned whether the ruling would be enforced — and suggested that it did not make any significant advances over a 1994 ruling in their favor, which was not enforced.

"This does not mean we can go tomorrow with Torah and tallit and have service in the women's section," said Miriam Benson, a board member of the International Committee for Women of the Wall, who lives in New Haven, Conn.

Benson said the ruling throws implementation into the hands of the Israeli government. "There's a strict deadline of six months, but there have been strict deadlines in the past that were ignored."

Under the Conservative agreement reached Monday, meanwhile, the Israeli government will provide the movement with space to store prayerbooks and prayer shawls used during services at Robinson's Arch. The two sides agreed to a 12-month trial period during which time the Conservatives will be able to hold morning services at the site once a week, during Tisha B'Av, and other special times.

Services will start on Shavuot, at the beginning of next month, a holiday during which mixed gender services in recent years have resulted in violence.

But Reform leaders in America, while supportive of Women of the Wall's victory, were less impressed with the Conservative arrangement, saying they are determined to gain access to the main part of the Wall.

"We don't see this as a victory," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "Our principles on this are clearly stated and remain the same. This is a sacred site, the most sacred site to the Jewish people and it belongs to all Jewish people."