The Original Women of the Wall held a women’s minyan (prayer service) and read from a Tora Monday morning in the women’s section of the prayer area at Jerusalem’s Kotel Plaza. The Kotel, also known as the Western Wall, is a remnant of the Temple in Jerusalem which was destroyed by the Romans 2,000 years ago and is the holiest site in the world for Jews.
Located directly below the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock mosque currently stands, the Kotel Plaza has been at the center of discord and competition between the orthodox Jewish community which controls the religious observances of the holy site and the more liberal Jewish groups such as the Reform and Conservative.
The orthodox do not allow men and women to pray together, requiring a physical separation between them, and do not allow women to even hold a Tora scroll, let alone read from one. This is why the Western Wall has separate prayer areas for men and women and why a group known as the Women of The Wall was established in the first place.
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Without giving a long history, the Women of the Wall have been fighting for women’s equality at the Western Wall Plaza for years. Recently they entered into an agreement with the Israeli government for a compromise which would allow for egalitarian Jewish services to be held nearby at a place called the Robinson’s Arch which is also adjacent to the Temple Mount. But even this deal has yet to be implemented due to pressure on the government applied by Israel’s ultra-orthodox community known as Haredim who do not want such a minyan to be allowed anywhere near the holly site.
And this compromise caused the Women of the Wall to Splinter and a new group was formed called the Original Women of The Wall (OWTW).
Confused yet? Well Original Women of the Wall differs from just plain Women of the Wall in that: 1 — they do not want to have a mixed service where men and women participate together and 2 — they want women to be able to pray and read from a Tora scroll at the main Kotel Plaza and not somewhere else.
The group declares that The Original Women of the Wall remain “unalterably committed to our original goals: women’s group prayer at the Kotel (Western Wall) with Torah, talit, and tefillin. We preserve the rights of all Jewish women recognized in landmark Israeli court rulings. We believe it is an error of historic proportions to cede exclusive control of prayer at the Kotel, the most venerated site of Judaism, to the Haredi establishment.”
While Conservative and Reform Jews hold mixed egalitarian services, orthodox women do not believe in praying together with men. They may wish to be allowed to use a Tora scroll and they do so in what is known as a women’s minyan where no men take part. But for these women the Robinson’s Arch compromise is not acceptable and so they support the Original Women of The Wall.
Which brings us back to what happened today. Last week Israel’s Supreme Court gave the government 30 days to show cause as to why women are prohibited from using a Torah scroll while praying at the Kotel. While the move does not mean an end to the current policy which prohibits just that, this did not stop the Original Women of the Wall. They chose to bring a Torah with them to services this morning and women did read from it without incident.
The group posted on its Facebook page, “We had a lovely tefillah [prayer] and Torah reading without incident. Unfortunately we still had to smuggle in a small Sefer Torah because security would not allow a large Torah despite the Supreme Court ruling forbidding anything but standard security checks.”
One of the Original Women of the Wall Jerusalem organizers Cheryl Birkner Mack, an educator from Chicago who has lived in Israel for ten years, was at the Western Wall today and spoke to Jewish Business News about what happened. “We brought in the Tora scroll and we were joined by both regulars and a group of young orthodox women from abroad studying in Israel,” she recounted.
Apparently the only incident was when one orthodox woman came by and blew a whistle at the women as they prayed. Apparently this women has done this in the past as part of an attempt to disrupt their services.
About how OWTW broke from Women of the Wall, Cheryl said, “Women of the Wall agreed to the compromise to hold an egalitarian service at the area of the Robinson’s Arch, but this means women cannot pray at the main women’s section and we do not accept that because it turns the whole Kotel Plaza into a Haredi synagogue.”
“OWOTW does not want a mixed egalitarian service. We want a women’s service for all women including those who do not to pray mixed with men and at the Kotel itself.”
And what prompted OWOTW to move forward with their service today? Well Cheryl Birkner Mack explained that while the court did not specifically order that they be allowed to use a Tora scroll at the Kotel, they chose to give it a try anyway. “Our assumption was that during these 30 days they would not want to interfere with our bringing in a Tora so we just took a chance,” she said.
Today’s actions by the Original Women of the Wall does not mean that this dispute has ended and the Israeli Supreme Court may eventually rule against them. But if it rules to allow women to read from a Tora at the Western Wall whenever they wish then neither OWOTW nor Women of the Wall will be needed any longer.