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Feb 04

Progressive victory as Kotel is opened to mixed prayer

The Israeli cabinet announced last Sunday that a special section would be provided at the Kotel (Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem for mixed-gender worship, a major victory for the Progressive and Conservative movements, which have fought a 27-year battle over this issue.

The plan for the new prayer space, to be an enlarged version of a temporary space at the Robinson Arch, is an effort to restore the peace at the ancient site, where there have been repeated physical attacks on Reform women worshippers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as “a fair and creative solution” and “a compromise on this delicate issue in a place that is supposed to unite the Jewish people.” But the cabinet did not vote on the matter, and several cabinet ministers immediately denounced the decision in public.

The row began in December 1988, when an international feminist convention attempted to hold services with Torah and tallit in the women’s section of the Kotel, but were stopped by physical attacks from Orthodox women, joined by men on the other side of the mehitsa. A Supreme Court ruling a few months later banned women from praying at the Kotel while holding Torah or wearing tallit. The Orthodox also pushed for a ban on women praying out loud because “the voice of a woman is lewd”.

The women turned prayer at the Wall into a tradition, creating the organisation Women of the Wall, which met at the Kotel every Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the Jewish month. This is considered a special holiday for women, a reward from God for not having taken part with the men in the sinful worship of the golden calf.

Over the next 27 years, repeated clashes followed at the wall, with Orthodox men and women throwing bottles, spitting, wrestling tallit-wearing women to the ground and seizing their siddurim and Torahs. Police were accused of either standing by and doing nothing, or siding with the Orthodox. A number of court cases were brought by the Israel Religious Action Committee (Irac), the activist arm of the Reform movement, with contradictory results. At one point the Knesset passed a law making it a crime for a woman to wear a tallis or hold a Torah at the Kotel, punishable by seven years in prison.

Many women were arrested over the years. The women showed enormous courage and ingenuity, for example smuggling in a Torah so small it had to be read with a magnifying glass. One of the unexpected benefits of the dispute was that it provided an issue on which the Reform and Conservative movements could work together – indeed they even found support from feminists within Modern Orthodox ranks.

In 2003, a major victory was scored when both the Knesset and the Supreme Court allowed the women to worship at Robinson’s Arch, a remote and not very accessible area of the wall. This month’s new ruling – whose details are still to be determined – will allow for a larger prayer section at the Arch, and a wider road leading there.

The South African Association of Progressive Rabbis (SAAPR) and the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (SACRED said that “the historical resolution is a result of three decades of struggle by the Progressive and Conservative movements, representing a majority of the world’s Jews, led by the courageous Woman of the Wall movement, whose leaders defied arrest and harassment over many years. We are proud to stand in comradeship with them.”

“Non-Orthodox Jews all over the world have been the largest supporters of Israel over the years. Yet we have faced continued religious discrimination in Israel in every realm of religious life: we cannot marry or bury our own members, we have limited or no access to holy places, we are left off educational and communal budgets, and face many other forms of state recognition. This last victory is just one sign of the increasing power our movements are gaining, as people move away from discriminative religious practices, choosing better and more enlightened form of our ancient faith.

“Here in South Africa, the Progressive movement and its Rabbis will continue to work for equity and recognition for all Jews