Three petitions culminated in a landmark High Court decision on Wednesday which gives the Israeli government 30 days to find “good cause” as to why women may not read the Torah aloud at the kotel. The decision also states that Israeli government may no longer claim that the Robinson’s Arch area of the plaza constitutes “access to the Western Wall.”
The January 2016 government decision to build a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion in the Robinson’s Arch area was not addressed by the court.
Jewish women will also no longer be searched for “contraband” Jewish ritual items, the current practice under the plaza’s administration by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
If “good cause” is not found, it is still yet to be determined whether women will have access to the hundreds of scrolls in the men’s section of the Western Wall plaza.
“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.”
The group Hiddush: Freedom of Religion for Israel conducted a poll which found that 62 percent of the Israeli public supports female prayer quorums at the Western Wall. Israel’s religious population largely do not support women’s prayer groups at the wall with 81% of modern Orthodox and 95% of ultra-Orthodox in objection.
The “Original Women of the Wall” (OWOW), a Women of the Wall splinter group, brought a petition to have women read from a Torah at the wall some 14 months ago asking the High Court to nullify a directive brought by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation head Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch banning Torah scrolls from entering the women’s section.
Aa statement from OWOW following the ruling read that the regulation “flagrantly violates Israeli law against discrimination in access to or use of public property.” Further, “the Kotel 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.”
Both Women of the Wall and OWOW claim that until this ruling surfaced women have been repeatedly harassed and subjected to degrading body searches for Jewish ritual objects.
Attorney Susan 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.”
Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote the Wednesday ruling which joined three petitions.
The first was in regards to access to the Western Wall which claimed that Robinson’s Arch did not constitute “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. The ruling states that the Robinson’s Arch solution never came to fruition and that therefore the women currently do not have true access.
The second petition led the court to rule on Wednesday that employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation must immediately halt all body searches on the women visiting the holy site, not including regular security checks.
The last petition dealt with allowing women to bring a Torah to the women’s section. The court ruled that there are currently conflicting regulations and prior court decisions on the matter.
The decision stated that the current practice of allowing women to wear tallis and tefillin is acceptable to Rabinovitch, but not Torah reading. The court has responded by giving the state an additional 30 days to argue “good cause” for not allowing women to read from the Torah at the Western Wall — or allow for it.