In landmark decision, High Court rules for women’s Western Wall prayer
Government given 30 days to show ‘good cause’ why women can’t read from Torah scrolls at the holy site.
In a landmark High Court decision Wednesday, the state was given 30 days to find “good cause” why a woman may not read aloud from a Torah scroll as part of prayer services at the Western Wall. The sweeping decision, jointly addressing three petitions on related topics, ruled that assuming the government cannot find “good cause,” not only may women read from the Torah at the Western Wall, but also that the government may no longer argue that the Robinson’s Arch area of the plaza constitutes “access to the Western Wall.” The court did not address a January 2016 government decision to build a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion in the Robinson’s Arch area, which is currently also an archaeological park.
Further, contrary to current practice under the plaza’s administration by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, women will no longer be subjected to body searches for “contraband” Jewish ritual objects by foundation staff.
If the state fails to find “good cause” for not permitting women to read from the Torah, it is yet to be determined whether they will be granted access to the hundreds of scrolls now located in the men’s section of the Western Wall plaza.
“The Center for Women’s Justice is overjoyed by our landmark decision today in the Supreme Court. It’s a major victory not only for our clients, Original Women of the Wall, but for all citizens of Israel. Today’s ruling is a significant game-changer because it holds our democracy to a higher standard,” said Dr. Susan Weiss. Weiss is the director of the Center for Women’s Justice and the lawyer representing four members of the Original Women of the Wall, who brought the original High Court petition.
The decision was celebrated by activists and allies around the Jewish world.
“Just when it seemed the rabbinate’s power was overwhelming, the court’s verdict regarding our demand to read Torah at the women’s section of the Western Wall reflects both courage and wisdom,” said Anat Hoffman, head of the Women of the Wall activist group.
“Today, we have come much closer toward implementation of the Western Wall agreement on gender equality and religious freedom at the Wall. 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.”According to a statement from OWOW following the ruling, that regulation “flagrantly violates Israeli law against discrimination in access to or use of public property.” Further, the Western Wall “is not a synagogue,” the group said, “but ‘a national holy site,’ that is, a public space. The rabbinic administrator does not allow women access to the dozens of Torah scrolls held at the Kotel, and this too, violates Israeli law against discrimination.”
According to both Women of the Wall and OWOW, women have been habitually harassed and subjected to degrading body searches for Jewish ritual objects.
While still awaiting the final decision, attorney Weiss, who represents OWOW, said, “The Center for Women’s Justice will continue to contest every attempt of rabbinic authorities to expand their jurisdiction and to enact regulations that are beyond the scope of laws of the state from which they derive their authority and which defines their jurisdiction.”
What is in the court decision:
In the ruling written by Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein on Wednesday, three petitions were joined.
Access to the Western Wall: The court decided in favor of the petition claiming that Robinson’s Arch is not “access” to the Western Wall. It wrote, “No full alternative solution has yet been found” in regards to women’s access to the Western Wall. According to the ruling, the government decision proposing the solution of Robinson’s Arch area, which lies to the south of the traditional prayer pavilions, was not realized, therefore the women currently do not have true access.
Body searches: The court ruled on Wednesday that employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation must immediately desist from body searches on the women visiting the holy site, aside from normative security checks.
Female Torah reading: In regards to allowing women to bring in a Torah scroll to the women’s section of the Western Wall, the court ruled there are currently conflicting regulations and prior court decisions on the matter.
According to the decision, the current practice of allowing women to wear prayer shawls and phylacteries is acceptable to Rabinovitch, but not Torah reading. Therefore, the court is giving the state an additional 30 days to argue “good cause” for forbidding women to read from the Torah at the Western Wall — or allow it.
Rosh HaShannah - the Jewish new year of 5777 is almost upon us. In households around the world, people will gather for time with family and festive meals. Unfortunately, for too many Israeli families, the holiday season is also a reminder of financial strain and socio-economic struggle. Close to two million Israelis live under the poverty line and struggle day in and day out with making ends meet. The holiday season, a time of hightened expenses, provides for a sore reminder of this reality.
A Monday hearing on a 2013 petition against the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the Prime Minister’s Office served as a forum for the High Court of Justice to scold the government for not upholding its deals, according to attorney Yizhar Hess, head of Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) Movement.
Ostensibly, the 2013 petition was brought by several Liberal Jewish organizations in opposition to the lack of female or Liberal Jewish representation on the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s leadership board. The foundation, which operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Government Companies Authority, administers the Western Wall, the plaza and the Western Wall Tunnels. Its leadership is strictly ultra-Orthodox.
In practice, said Hess, the three judges at Monday’s hearing — Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, and Justice Hanan Melcer — “bombarded the state’s attorney with questions regarding the Kotel [Western Wall] deal.”
On January 31, 2016, the state signed a historic comprehensive compromise which allows for a permanent pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall in the area commonly called Robinson’s Arch, and also for the formation of a new management committee with representation from all streams of Judaism.
The deal was reached after three years of negotiations led by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and then outgoing cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, who currently serves as Israel’s attorney general. The negotiations included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Heritage Foundation and Women of the Wall activist group.
Last winter the compromise was broadly hailed in the international press as an unprecedented sign of religious pluralism in an Israel which still only officially recognizes Orthodoxy for life cycle purposes. However, the plan languished in the current coalition’s partisan politics and today is largely seen as a political nonstarter for the Netanyahu administration.
According to Hess, the judges asked the state’s attorneys why the government had not yet implemented the January decision. Hess — who said he couldn’t “remember such a blunt discussion in the Supreme Court” — reported that Justice Naor even went so far as to ask the state’s attorneys whether the government was waiting for the court to step in “to pull the government’s chestnuts out of the fire.”
The petitioners comprised a cooperation of organizations, including Israel’s Reform Movement; Kolech, an Orthodox women’s group; the Center for Women’s Justice; the Yaakov Herzog Center, a moderate Religious Zionist group; Hiddush and Israel Hofshit, both pro-religious freedom groups; Women of the Wall; and the Masorti movement.
According to Hess, they were asked by the judges to amend and resubmit their 2013 petition, “and to rewrite it in a way that would put the Kotel deal at the center for them to rule on it.”
For the judges to have a more complete and updated account of the issues surrounding the petition to open up the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to women and Liberal Jewry, the petitioners were asked to update their submission to include the facts relating to the Western Wall compromise.
The head of Israel’s Reform Movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, told Israel Radio (Hebrew) that the court was in essence giving the government a “yellow card” — a warning used in soccer games to indicate that a player has been officially cautioned.
Chair of Women of the Wall Anat Hoffman attended the hearing wearing her prayer shawl. In a statement released by the organization, she said, “We are gratified that the Supreme Court, in its wisdom, has accepted our long-held argument that the Western Wall cannot be held hostage by a minority sect.”
“They [the judges] actually used the term ‘for God’s sake’ to demand that the government implement its decision to have a pluralistic plaza right next to the traditional plaza where women, Reform and Conservative Jews can pray as is their custom,” said Hoffman.
For Hess, the court hearing raised mixed emotions.
“We went to negotiate with the Israeli government and we conducted a very serious negotiation and it was signed. We reached an agreement. Now, after you signed an agreement, you need to go to court to implement it?” said Hess.
Hess said, based on Monday’s court hearing, he is cautiously optimistic that the court will rule that the deal must be implemented.
“I would cautiously say I’m happy for the Kotel deal, but it’s a shonda [an embarrassment], a mistake, that the government cannot implement its decisions. It tells you something about the government of the State of Israel,” said Hess.
After almost four decades of service, Rabbi John Levi has retired from the Council of The King David School (KDS) in Melbourne.
In the 1970s a group of visionaries dreamed of opening a progressive Jewish school in Melbourne. That dream became a reality in 1978 when 45 students attended the first year of KDS.
In August this year, one of those visionaries, Rabbi John Levi, retired from School Council after 39 years of continuous service. When the Council held its August meeting later in the month, it was the first time since the school’s opening that Rabbi Levi did not hold an official or honorary position.
“It is worth reflecting how the decisions, actions and determination of a few can have such a profound impact on literally thousands of children, across many generations” said Mark Harrison, President of the KDS Council.
“I have had the privilege of working alongside John for the best part of a decade and together with my fellow Council members have been the beneficiary of his passion, his wisdom, and his vision” said Harrison.
This year the students performed the annual Winter Concert in honour of Rabbi Levi and his wife Robyn as a small token of respect and appreciation for all they have contributed to the school community.
The packed audience gave them a standing ovation as they were presented with a small gift from School Captain Rafael Ungar and Jewish Life Captain Jaimie Engel.
“It was a very moving occasion” said Harrison.
Understanding the Kotel: What’s at Stake for Progressive Jews
With so many news outlets reporting updates about the Kotel – from AP to Times of Israel to The Washington Post – it’s easy to get distracted from what the struggle is really about. The Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), just posted the introductory video below to help explain what’s at stake and what we’re fighting for.