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Posted in: Women of the Wall

Published on Mar 31, 2004 by Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut

Published by The Jewish Week

Showdown At The Wall

A few years ago we joined female prisoners in Bedford Hills, N.Y., for a pre-Passover seder. The female cantor who conducted the seder asked the assembled Jewish prisoners a poignant question: "What does celebrating freedom mean to you, considering that you are incarcerated?" Their responses were equally poignant. The women agreed that it is possible to feel psychologically and spiritually free even while incarcerated.

Conversely, Jewish women who wish to pray together in the women's section at the Kotel are not physically imprisoned—but they are not yet religiously free.

Women of the Wall, a group of women from all streams of Judaism who seek to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall, has been fighting for the legal right to pray together in halachic, women-only non-minyanim for nearly 15 years. Alas, Jewish women are still not free to worship God at the Kotel.

As Passover, and a new legal deadline approaches, we cannot remain silent. Moses requested religious freedom for daughters as well as sons. When Pharaoh offered to allow only the men to serve God, Moses refused his offer (Exodus 10:9). Israeli rabbis and judges have learned nothing from Moses in this regard.

On Dec.1, 1988, a group of women prayed aloud together at the Kotel and read from a Torah scroll. Since that date, WOW members have continued to pray there. They have been subjected to physical and verbal violence from some haredim. To appease them, the Israeli government has passed regulations that prohibit women from praying together aloud, wearing tallitot, reading from a Torah scroll and blowing a shofar in the women's section.

WOW turned to the Israeli Supreme Court, which has rendered three decisions. The 1994 decision recognized WOW's prayer as being halachic but sent WOW to the Knesset for a political resolution. None was forthcoming.

The 2000 Supreme Court decision agreed that WOW had the legal right to pray at the Kotel and gave the state six months to arrange our security. The state appealed this decision, and last April, nine judges recognized both WOW's legal and halachic rights but denied our request. In the 5 to 4 ruling, Chief Justice Aharon Barak cast the fifth and decisive vote. The court used the Masorti movement's decision to pray at Robinson's Arch—a historic site adjacent to the Kotel—against WOW, whom the court castigated as "inflexible" compared to our Conservative brethren. It is true: WOW will never accept or any alternative prayer site.

However, in the April decision, paragraph 48 stated that "If the area [Robinson's Arch] will not be prepared—within 12 months—in the appropriate and required way, and if an arrangement acceptable to the two litigants will not be found, it will be the government's obligation ... (and) responsibility to (ensure that) WOW may implement their right to prayer according to their custom at the Kotel."

Leading Israeli archeologists oppose tampering with Robinson's Arch. Nevertheless, the government has committed 2 million shekels—about $450,000 —to prepare a site that will accommodate only 40 women.

For the past 14 years, WOW has demonstrated extraordinary perseverance and spiritual strength. Women gather at the Kotel every Rosh Chodesh and then repair to another location for their Torah service. On Purim and Shavuot, they read from the books of Ruth and Esther, and on Tisha b'Av from Eicha. They pray at that site in rain and in snow, and brave the possibility of stone throwing by both their misguided brethren and by Arabs above them on the Temple Mount.

The court's 12-month deadline is upon us. WOW has been informed by its attorney, Frances Raday, that the government has not met its deadline. Raday anticipates that the government will ask for, and be granted, an extension, as has happened so many times before.

WOW faces a decision. WOW can leave Egypt, claim freedom for Jewish women and bravely pray with a Torah at the Kotel, or WOW can remain in exile from klal Yisrael.

WOW is a working model of Jewish multidenominational unity. Miriam led "all the women" from the different tribes in a circle dance to praise our exodus from slavery in Egypt. As we approach Passover, the holiday of freedom, we must also remember that Jewish women are not yet free to pray together as Jews at the Kotel.

Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut are the co-authors of "Women Of The Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground At Judaism's Holy Site."

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