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Israel’s High Court orders Western Wall rabbi to explain why women can’t pray

JERUSALEM (RNS) The feminists’ legal challenge argued that the rabbi’s directive 'violates Israeli law against discrimination in access to or use of public property.'

Anat Hoffman (second from left in foreground), chair of Women of the Wall, an activist group that is challenging the Orthodox monopoly over rites at the Western Wall, holds a Torah scroll during a monthly prayer at the site on Nov. 2, 2016. The Western Wall is Judaism's holiest prayer site. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Michal Fattal

JERUSALEM (RNS) Israel’s High Court has ordered the government and the rabbinic administration of the Western Wall to respond by Feb. 1 to a question: Why should women be denied the right to pray from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall?

Fourteen months ago, a Jewish feminist prayer group petitioned the court to invalidate a 2010 rabbinical directive that barred male and female worshippers from bringing Torah scrolls to the Western Wall.

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Men have access to more than 100 state-owned Torah scrolls, but women have none.

The feminists’ legal challenge argued that the rabbi’s directive “violates Israeli law against discrimination in access to or use of public property” and that the Western Wall “is not a synagogue, but a national holy site,” and therefore a public space.

The interim ruling Wednesday (Jan. 11) also prohibited Western Wall administrators from performing body searches on women entering the wall’s plaza.

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In addition, the court determined that Robinson’s Arch, a secluded section of the Western Wall often used for egalitarian non-Orthodox prayer, is not the same as the traditional Western Wall.

Members of the Original Women of the Wall say morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Feb. 3, 2016. Photo courtesy of Shmuel Browns

Members of the Original Women of the Wall say morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Feb. 3, 2016. Photo courtesy of Shmuel Browns

If the High Court ultimately rules that women can read Torah in the women’s section of the Western Wall, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in the Israeli Parliament may try to pass legislation to criminalize the practice, not only at the traditional wall but also at Robinson’s Arch.

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Anat Hoffman, who leads another feminist group that has fought for the right to pray at the wall with Torahs — though not the group related to Wednesday’s ruling — embraced the interim motion.

“Just when it seemed the rabbinate’s power was overwhelming, the court’s verdict regarding our demand to read Torah at women’s section of the Western Wall reflects both courage and wisdom,” she said.

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)