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Women in Israel: "Women of the Wall"

by Sarah Szymkowicz

Women of the Wall, or in its more familiar abbreviation, WOW,  is a group of mostly religiously observant women who believe that women should be allowed to pray as a group at the Kotel, read from a Torah scroll and wear tallit. Currently, Israeli law does not permit women to perform these acts at the Kotel, and those who do so anyway are subject to a fine and up to six months in jail. Once a month on Rosh Hodesh, WOW members come together to form a minyan and pray at the Kotel. They complete the shacharit service and Hallel in front of the Wall and then move to a nearby archaeological area in order to read Torah and conclude the service.

WOW has thousands of members all over the world dedicated to freedom of worship at the Kotel. WOW encompasses members from all branches of Judaism, including Orthodoxy. There is also an International Committee for Women of the Wall (ICWOW) that works very closely with WOW and helps gain non-Israeli support for WOW's cause.

WOW was founded in December 1988 during the first International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem. A group of approximately one hundred women who attended the conference went to pray at the Kotel, where they were disrupted by verbal and physical assaults by the ultra-Orthodox men and women. A group of Jerusalem women, who eventually formed the Women of the Wall, continued to pray at the Kotel frequently after the conference was over and suffered continual abuse. After a particularly bad incident, WOW filed a petition to the government of Israel. The response, which was negative, included a list of extreme halachic opinions that ban women from praying in groups, touching a Torah scroll, and wearing religious garments. Most Jews, even many Orthodox Jews, do not agree with these opinions. Indeed, it is a point of Jewish law that since Torah scrolls can never become ritually impure, women may touch and hold them at any time.

In 1991, WOW appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that they should be allowed to to worship according to their custom in safety and security. For several years the issue was debated in court. Finally, in 1994, WOW lost its case, but the Supreme Court decided that a commission should be set up to resolve the issue. In 1996 the commission proposed that WOW move to the southeastern corner of Jerusalem outside the Old City. WOW found this unacceptable and appealed for a new commission. The group won a small victory when the Supreme Court awarded the group five thousand shekels for attorneys' fees as compensation for the enormous amount of time the case took due to the government's slow response time.

In 1997, a new commission was appointed and the Supreme Court helped the legal process move faster. In the Knesset, Shas tried to pass a bill that would change the status of the Kotel from a national site, to an Orthodox synagogue, but the bill did not pass. Later WOW went to court again. On May 22, 2002, the court ruled in WOW's favor, granting women the right to wear prayer shawls at the Kotel, pray aloud and read from a Torah scroll as part of the prayer service. Jewish feminists all over the world rejoiced, but the happiness of WOW was shattered when the state appealed the decision. Four days later, Shas submitted several bills to override the Supreme Court decision, including one that would make communal prayer by women punishable by a fine and seven years in prison.

In 2005, a panel of nine judges ultimately ruled against Women of the Wall, five to four. Though WOW lost its case in the Supreme Court, the group continues to worship at the Western Wall every Rosh Hodesh. The members of WOW also read the Scroll of Esther at the Kotel every Purim and the Book of Lamentations every Tisha b'Av.

In April 2013, the Jerusalem District Court upheld an earlier decision of the magistrate’s court that women who wear prayer shawls at the Western Wall Plaza are not contravening “local custom” or causing a public disturbance and therefore should not be arrested, seemingly overturning the Supreme Court ruling against WOW from 2003. “This is a critically important story for reclaiming Judaism, redefining our values and reclaiming the Wall,” Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman said. “Women of the Wall have really achieved something for Israeli society and the entire Jewish world.”

Following the District Court decision and numerous protests at the site of WOW prayers in the Western Wall Plaza, the Supreme Court  gave permission for the Women of the Wall to hold services at the site after deciding that their prayer and ritual were not against the "local custom" and since the women did not use physical or verbal violence, they could not be held responsible for any resulting disturbances.

Interestingly enough, a May 2013 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that about half of the Israel public supports the Women of the Wall, but that men (51.5%) are more inclined to support the women’s prayer group than women (46%).

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men slashed the tires of and hurled rocks at buses on October 20 in protest of ads on the sides of the buses that promoted female worship at the Western Wall.  The attack occured in the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim and involved dozens of Ultra-Orthodox males.  These ads were posted on the sides of the buses by the group Women of the Wall and depicted women in prayer shawls and holding Torah scrolls.  The words "end the obscene pictures" were spray-painted over the images on the buses.  Half of these ads run by Women of the Wall have been vandalized since the campaign began on October 12.  Even though an Israeli court in 2013 ruled that women were allowed to pray at any part of the wall they choose, Women of the Wall claim that their members are still barred from worshipping at the wall with a Torah scroll in hand. 

In a display of defiance of the Rabbinic authorities, the Women of the Wall brought a tiny Torah to prayers at the women's section of the Kotel on October 23 2014.  This is claimed to be the first reading of the Torah by women at the holy site in over 25 years. A young girl from Be'er Sheva, Sasha Lutt, read from the tiny Torah scroll as a part of her Bat Mitzvah, marking the first time that a full Bat Mitzvah ceremony has been performed at the Kotel.  Women who come to pray at the Kotel are not allowed access to the 300 Torahs that are stored for prayers at the wall; they are for men only.  The tiny Torah scroll measured just 28 centimetres in length and was smuggled into the Kotel area in a talit bag.  The unique Torah scroll was made in 1880 in Lituania, then was used in South Africa and finally made it's way to the United Kingdom.  The Women of the Wall were loaned the Torah by it's owners in England.  While the women were reading from it security gaurds looked on from the side but did not interrupt. 

The Women of the Wall read from a full-size Torah scroll at the Wall for the first time ever on April 20, 2015. Male supporters of the Women of the Wall organization passed one of the 100 full-sized Torah scrolls that are available for public use to the women's side of the wall, enduring verbal abuse and physical attacks from Orthdox men as they did so. These Orthdox men broke through the barrier between the men's and women's sides and attempted to take the scroll away from the women, but were apprehended by police. After the chaos, the women were allowed to finish their morning service.

In order to prevent women from reading from a full-sized Torah at the Wall again, Western Wall police locked the gate separating the mens side of the Wall from the women's on May 18, 2015. Police detained a man attempting to pass a Torah to the women's side earlier in the day. In a sign of protest, women stood on chairs and overlooked the locked partition with their arms outstretched, reaching for the Torahs.

The Israeli government approved the creation of an “Egalitarian” prayer space where non-Orthodox Jewish men and women can pray together at the Western Wall, on January 31, 2016. This decision was met with praise from Jewish leaders across the globe, and opposition from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Israeli citizens and members of government. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that the creation of this space was a “fair and creative solution,” to rising tensions at the site. The advocacy group Women of the Wall counted this decision as a victory, with the government recognizing that, according to the organization's chairwoman, “that there is more than one way to be Jewish.” The new prayer space will be designated South of the mens and women's prayer sections of the wall, in an area known as Robinson's Arch.

Sources: Women of the Wall;
Sharon, Jeremy. “Historic victory in court for Women of the Wall,” Jerusalem Post (April 25, 2013);
Ferber, Alona. “Defying Regulations, Women of the Wall Sneak Tiny Torah Scroll Into the Kotel,” Haaretz (October 23, 2014);
“In First, Women Of The Wall Read From Full-Size Torah Scroll At Kotel,” The Jewish Week (April 20, 2014);
Maltz, Judy. “Western Wall Gender Barriers Locked to Stop Women Reading From Torah,” Haaretz (May 19, 2015);
Kershner, Isabel. “Israel Approves Prayer Space at Western Wall for Non-Orthodox Jews,” New York Times (January 31, 2016);