Women of the Wall leader detained at Western Wall for smuggling in Torah scroll

Lesley Sachs, executive director of the Women of the Wall prayer rights organization, was detained at the Western Wall on Tuesday morning for bringing a Torah scroll into the site in contravention of governing regulations.

According to WoW, Sachs was detained for questioning by police for breach of public order, which the police said was for smuggling the Torah into the women’s section. She was later released.

The incident comes against a background of heightened tensions over the Western Wall, and the continued delay in implementing a government decision to create a large, state-recognized prayer area at the site for the pluralist prayer.

Members of the Women of the Wall prayer group have been routinely arrested for wearing prayer shawls and tefillin at the Western Wall, acts which were deemed to be in contravention of local custom practiced at the site, and distressing to the sensitivities of other worshipers.

A landmark ruling by the Jerusalem District Court in 2013 overturned this interpretation, and incidents in which members of WoW’s prayer group have been detained since have been extremely rare.

WoW said approximately 80 women participated in Tuesday’s Rosh Hodesh prayer service, which passed smoothly before Sachs was detained.

Regulations drafted in 2010 by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, prohibit anyone from bringing a private Torah scroll into the Western Wall Plaza. The rabbi has refused requests by WoW to use one of the Torah scrolls made available in the men’s section.

“Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, administrator of the Western Wall and Holy Places, has created a Catch-22 for women at the Western Wall,” WoW said in a statement. “He prohibits entrances with private Torah scrolls, and refuses women access to the 100 scrolls he holds at the Kotel for public use in the men’s section.

Rabbi Rabinowitz believes that women who wish to read from the Torah and hear the Torah reading are a ‘provocation.’” Yizhar Hess, executive director and CEO of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, said that the police had “decided to comply with the orders of the administrator of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, instead of doing its job of protecting the law.”

Hess said that Rabinowitz was using the police “for his own sectoral needs,” and that he had overstepped his authority by demanding that women be arrested for reading Torah at the site, just as he had demanded that the police arrest women for wearing prayer shawls and tefillin before April 2013.

Rabinowitz said that he was “outraged” that WoW had clandestinely brought a Torah scroll to the Western Wall, and described the organization as “a separatist and raucous group which is disseminating division and hatred.”

The rabbi also accused WoW of having brought the Torah into the Western Wall complex under the clothes of a group member, saying that WoW believed their rights to be more important than the sanctity of a Torah scroll.

A spokeswoman for WoW said she would not respond directly as to how the Torah was brought to the site, but that Rabinowitz “has left women with no choice but to smuggle a Torah into the Western Wall.”

She insisted that the group had not and would not violate the sanctity of the Torah.

“Rabbi Rabinowitz sees a woman with a Torah like someone with a dangerous weapon,” the spokeswoman said. “When he allows women to bring in a Torah freely, then there will be no need to smuggle a Torah at all.”

Rabinowitz said he would present Religious Services Minister David Azoulay “clear and obligatory regulations for conduct at the Western Wall, to halt the disgrace that takes place every new month at this holy place.”