High court hints women should be allowed to read Torah at Western Wall

The High Court of Justice on Wednesday gave a strong indication that it will rule that women should be allowed to read from the Torah at the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza.

In an interim injunction, the court stated that the Western Wall administrator, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and other state agencies “must explain why the petitions [by Original Women of the Wall and others] should not be allowed to pray in accordance with their custom at the traditional plaza, or alternatively allow them to pray in accordance with their custom at a place which has access to the Western Wall similar to [the access] at the traditional site.”

The court gave Rabinowitz and the other respondents, including the director of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Religious Services Ministry, 30 days to submit their response to the injunction.

The phrase “in accordance with their custom” refers to the practice of reading from the Torah on days when Jewish law requires a Torah reading (Mondays, Thursdays, the Sabbath, New Months and other holidays) when some women seek to read from the Torah at the Western Wall.

The justices also wrote in the interim injunction that the pluralist prayer section at the Robinson’s Arch area at the southern end of the Western Wall does not constitute an equal alternative to the central Western Wall prayer sections, because it lacks full access to the wall itself.

In telling Rabinowitz and the other respondents that an alternative to allowing women to read from Torah at the central Western Wall prayer site would be creating a site with “full access” to the wall itself, the court was strongly hinting that the respondents should implement the Western Wall resolution approved by the cabinet in January.

The resolution would create an expanded and upgraded prayer section for pluralist prayer at the Robinson’s Arch area, which would be explicitly recognized by the state as designated for progressive Jewish prayer.

The resolution was reached after nearly three years of negotiations between the Women of the Wall organization and the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) Movements in Israel, based on the premise that, if it were implemented, these groups would give up the right to pray at the main, Orthodox section of the Western Wall.

Additionally, the High Court on Wednesday specifically instructed Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to cease conducting body searches on women entering the Western Wall complex.

The Women of the Wall group has clandestinely brought in Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall prayer area on several occasions.

Since then, Western Wall Heritage Foundation orderlies and security guards have conducted body searches on women entering the site to pray with Women of the Wall.

The court said that searches could not go beyond the usual security requirements.

The petition on reading Torah at the women’s section of the Western Wall will now be heard together with the petitions of the Women of the Wall and the Reform and Masorti movements, which demand that a pluralist prayer section be created at the current Western Wall prayer area if the government resolution is not implemented.

Prof. Shulamit Magnus of the Original Women of the Wall, who is the primary petitioner, called the High Court’s interim injunction “a major development.”

“The onus is now on the state to justify why Jews should not be allowed to pray fully at the Western Wall,” she told The Jerusalem Post.

“Can anyone defend that? In [the Six Day War in] 1967 it was made a primary objective to capture the Western Wall, because it was outrageous that the Jewish people couldn’t pray and have full access and prayer rights at the Western Wall.

“We want to apply the historic changes of 1967 to the 52% of the Jewish people to whom it has been denied, women. All we’re asking is that women should have the same rights as men have had since 1967.”

Magnus’s and Original Women of the Wall’s petition were brought to the High Court by the Center for Women’s Justice.

The Original Women of the Wall split with Women of the Wall in protest at the latter’s decision to agree to pray at Robinson’s Arch on condition that the site it be upgraded in accordance with the cabinet decision.

Dr. Susan Weiss, executive director of the Center for Women’s Justice, said that her organization “will continue to contest every attempt of the Chief Rabbinate to expand its jurisdiction and to draft regulations that are beyond the scope of the laws of the state that empowers their activity.”

Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman described the court’s interim injunction as wise and courageous.

“Today, we have come much closer toward implementation of the Western Wall agreement on gender equality and religious freedom at the Wall,” Hoffman said.

“I am elated, because when I was looking for justice and then courage, they were missing, and now the highest court in the land has shown me both.”