Israeli Minister Seeks New Regulations Against Women's Freedom of Prayer at Western Wall

Israel's attorney general decides not to appeal Jerusalem court's ruling that essentially enables women to pray as they choose at Kotel; Women of the Wall to hold monthly service as usual on Friday, but Naftali Bennett plans to set new regulations by the matter next month.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israel's Minister of Religious Affairs Naftali Bennett plans to present new regulations for Jewish holy places that could restrict the right of Women of the Wall to pray as they see fit in the future, though he promised to formulate the new rules with input from the women's group.

This coming Friday, however, when Women of the Wall plans to hold its next prayer service in honor of Rosh Hodesh (the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan), the women will be allowed to pray in the main Western Wall plaza with prayer shawls, tefillin, a Torah scroll and the attorney general's consent. This is because Yehuda Weinstein said Monday that he would not appeal to the Supreme Court regarding the lower court ruling from last month that gave the women a green light to pray as they choose.

Weinstein's decision, which was made after meeting with Bennett, Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Eli Ben Dahan, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch and other officials, was what led Bennett to declare that by next month, specific detailed regulations would be in place governing behavior at the Western Wall.

Consultations on the matter would begin today, Bennett said, adding that he had invited a WOW delegation to meet with him on the matter.

On April 24, Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel ruled that women wearing prayer shawls and reading from a Torah scroll at the Kotel does not contradict the High Court of Justice ruling of 2003 that the group must adhere to the "custom of the place."

Sobel had issued his ruling in response to an appeal by police of a magistrate's court ruling to release without restrictions five women who had been praying inprayer shawls last Rosh Hodesh. The police had arrested them based on an earlier attorney general's interpretation of the High Court's 2003 ruling, to the effect that a woman praying with a tallit and reading from the Torah did violate "the custom of the place."

"There is no reasonable suspicion that the respondents violated the prohibition in the Regulations Governing Holy Places, one of whose components is 'conducting a religious ceremony that is not in keeping with the custom of the place," Sobel ruled. Sobel's interpretation was criticized not only by religious officials, but also by Justice Ministry officials, who said it was too extreme.

Though Weinstein decided not to appeal, an official who had attended the meeting with him indicated that the attorney general did not object to new regulations.

"It was agreed at this discussion that the status quo cannot be changed through improper behavior," the official said. "If the Women of the Wall had gone to the High Court of Justice, it would have been different. They found a breach and turned it into a victory. We could paralyze the country this way."

The source added that several people at the meeting had expressed concern that such a precedent could also be used to try to change the status quo on the Temple Mount.

Surprisingly enough, the Women of the Wall also seemed disappointed with Weinstein's decision not to appeal. Declaring yesterday "a humiliating day for the rule of law," the group said: "The attorney general is meant to work through the accepted legal channels, and if he thinks there was a fault in the district court's ruling, he should have appealed it to the Supreme Court. In contrast to the attorney general, the brave Women of the Wall will continue to fight for the prayer rights of women at the Kotel."

Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Kotel, credited both Weinstein and Bennett for "finding a legal solution for preserving the status quo at the Kotel." He called on Bennett "to immediately promulgate the new regulations so that the Western Wall will remain as it was a holy place that unites and not, God forbid, a place of dispute and division."

Yizhar Hess, the executive director and CEO of the Masorti Movement, said that since the attorney general had avoided giving his only legal interpretation of the court ruling, it would be best for the religious services minister to allow the clear ruling to resonate in full force and "avoid promulgating regulations that are liable to degrade the judge's decision."

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, CEO of the Reform Movement, welcomed Weinstein's decision not to appeal, and warned the government against regulations or legislation "that would make any effort at dialogue impossible and cause tensions in the Jewish world."

In a related development, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky is scheduled to present his compromise proposal on the Women of the Wall to the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women on Tuesday.

The proposal, which has the support of the Reform and Conservative movements, centers around renovating the Robinson's Arch area adjacent to the Western Wall the area the High Court in 2003 had designated as an alternative so that it would be more of an extension of the Kotel plaza, and would be open most hours of the day to accommodate both WOW and non-Orthodox groups who wanted to hold services.

Following the district court decision, however, the Women of the Wall group announced it would no longer be satisfied with the compromise proposal.

MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), who chairs the Knesset panel on women and had advocated for Sharansky's proposal, warned that the current limbo, "in which it isn't clear what is permitted and what is prohibited, could lead to serious problems on Friday."

Young women wrap themselves in Israeli flags at the Western Wall.Credit: Michal Fattal
Naftali Bennett, party chairman of Habayit Hayehudi.Credit: Reuters

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