Campaigners for religious pluralism drove two gaping breaches this week through Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox control of the Western Wall. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that women may pray together at Judaism's holiest shrine, wearing tallitot and reading aloud from the Torah. At the same time, Ehud Barak's government signed a deal permitting Conservative Jews to conduct mixed services at a separate stretch of the 2,000-year-old Herodian wall.
Anat Hoffman, a leader of the Women at the Wall, who have challenged Orthodox dictation for 11 years, celebrated the Supreme Court decision as a great day for pluralism. "From now on," said Hoffman, a Reform activist and Meretz member of the Jerusalem City Council, "the ultra-Orthodox will not be the only ones to decide in what way Jews will pray at the wall. This makes the wall a part of Israel. Women are now going to have a voice in what might be the final frontier after politics and the army."
Despite regulations threatening them with six months in prison for "offending religious sensibilities at a holy place," Women at the Wall have always insisted that their services are compatible with halacha, Jewish religious law. At least half the members of their core group of 15 women are modern Orthodox. Hoffman estimates that an overwhelming majority of their wider support network of 110 women hails from the Orthodox community.
One of them, Haviva Ner-David, is going one step further and studying to be Israel's (and perhaps the Jewish world's) first Orthodox female rabbi. Reading a scroll at the wall, she argued, brought them closer to Torah. "We will be reading it ourselves," said the American-born mother of three, who settled in Jerusalem four years ago. "We won't be standing at the other side of the partition hearing men reading from it. The Torah is mine, and I don't have to be a spectator."
Asked why she needed to pray with a women's minyan at the wall, Ner-David, author of the recently published feminist memoir "On the Fringes", explained: "Whenever I came to Israel, the Kotel was a powerful spot for me. It symbolized the land of Israel in a religious way. But while my father and brothers could join a minyan and pray, I was left out. Praying there with a group of women is perfect for me. Once I moved to Israel, it was a natural place to daven."
They are not there yet, however. The Supreme Court gave the government six months to draft rules for the women's services. The Orthodox establishment is girding for battle. Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who is Orthodox, has threatened to ask an expanded Supreme Court bench to think again.
"Unfortunately," said Na'amah Kelman, a Reform rabbi and educator, "the court didn't give clear directives about where and when. I hope it's not going to be open season for the Orthodox parties to start blackmailing the coalition." Haviva Ner-David feared they might be attacked physically.Rabbi Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox Knesset member, condemned the court ruling as "a shocking insult and a stab in the back for the religious public." Oded Weiner, who supervises holy sites for the Religious Affairs Ministry, added: "The judges did not properly assess the backlash their decision will produce. Past experience has taught us that whenever the Women at the Wall arrive to pray, riots break out. I am afraid that the legitimacy they have achieved will lead to even more severe rioting."
The prospects for the Conservative mixed holiday services at the wall seem more promising. The new agreement, negotiated with the Israeli Masorti movement by cabinet secretary Yitzhak Herzog, won the blessing of the Sephardi chief rabbi, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron. Herzog is the son of the late President Chaim Herzog and grandson of a former chief rabbi.
Men and women will pray together at the southern end of the Western Wall, outside and below the paved plaza. The site, an archaeological park, is controlled by the Antiquities Department, not the Religious Affairs Ministry.
"We have not given up our right to hold services at the Western Wall plaza," insisted Rabbi Ehud Bandel, the Masorti president. "It is the right of every Jew to pray there according to his customs and beliefs. But we have compromised for the sake of peace and unity and to show that our involvement at the Kotel is sincere. The agreement gives us a permanent site for egalitarian services, with men and women praying together at the wall."
And if they are met by violence, as they have been in the past? "We hope the government will not submit to violence," Bandel replied. "In any case, we will never raise a hand against others." The first test will come at Shavuot on June 9.