This Day in Jewish History / Women of the Wall Movement Is Born

Neither tear gas nor jail would deter the women from demanding their right to read the Torah at the Wall.

Miriam Alster

On December 1, 1988, a group of about 70 women read from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, provoking protest among ultra-Orthodox worshippers around them. This group was to form the core of the Women of the Wall, a movement still struggling to achieve egalitarian treatment of women at the holiest site to Judaism.

To this day, the controversial feminist, pluralist prayer group meets every Rosh Hodesh – the first day of the Jewish-calendar month – to assert their right to worship there, with tefillin and shawls.

Their goal, according to their mission statement, “is to give Jewish women religious voice and expression at Judaism’s holiest site, as Jewish men have been enjoying since 1967,” when Israel occupied the Temple Mount in the Six-Day War.

Prayers and tear gas

Branded provocateurs by some and tireless advocates by others, they have had insults – and objects – hurled at them, been arrested, and have taken their battle to the Supreme Court.

Back in December 1988, Western Wall authorities allowed them to finish their service, despite the fracas developing around them. But in March 1989, when one of their services got so out of hand that police used tear gas on the crowd, the group petitioned the Supreme Court, asking it to allow women to pray and read from the Torah at the Wall.

A lengthy legal battle ensued. The issue made its way through several government commissions and to the Knesset, where ultra-Orthodox parties tried to enact legislation making the group’s kind of prayer service an offense punishable by seven years’ imprisonment.

The battle finally came to a close when the Supreme Court ruled in June 2003 that Women of the Wall did have a legal right to pray at the Kotel. The court recommended, however, that when praying pray aloud, with shawls and a Torah, they should conduct their services at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site adjacent to the Wall.

Yet the fight was not yet over. In 2009, medical student Nofrat Frenkel was charged for illegally wearing a prayer shawl at the Wall. In the years since, a number of movement members were detained and arrested. Some even had restraining orders placed on them.

Sharansky has an idea, no one notices

As clashes became monthly affairs, in December 2012 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, to find a solution. The following April, Sharansky announced his plan for an egalitarian prayer space to be located at Robinson’s Arch. To date, little headway has been made on this.

In January 2013, a coalition of groups, including Women of the Wall, petitioned the Supreme Court, this time asking it to look into what they deemed unequal representation of Jewish streams in the Western Wall authorities.

But the real breakthrough came a few months later, in April, when five members of the group were arrested for disturbing the peace, and the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that the arrests were unjustified. The police appealed and the case went before the district court. There, in a coup for the group, District Court Judge Moshe Sobel ruled that Women of the Wall may pray aloud, wear tallits and lay tefillin, and that it was not a violation of “local custom” for them read from the Torah at the Wall. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox protested at the women’s first prayer service after that ruling.

Despite Sobel’s decision, Western Wall authorities still do not officially allow Women of the Wall to bring Torahs into the women’s section. For the past two months, however, the group has sneaked in a tiny Torah scroll and conducted bat-mitzvah services – the first time in 25 years – and the Wall authorities turned a blind eye. Next time, the group says, it plans to assert its right to read from the Torah at the Wall once again.