What if a democratic state appointed a man who, on his own authority, restricted one group of citizens from exercising their civil rights at the public heritage site he manages. What would you do?
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is the official manager of the Kotel, the Western Wall. This, however, does not mean that he is the rabbi of the Western Wall. The Kotel is not a synagogue, certainly not a haredi synagogue, and he is not the mara d’atra, the halachic decisor.
Since 1988, when some of us first prayed with a Torah at the Kotel, there has been a long series of successful legal battles (notably in the Supreme Court of Israel in 2003 and district court in 2013) to ensure that women are legally entitled to pray with a Torah (and tallit, etc.) at the Kotel.
Rabbi Rabinowitz responded by issuing two directives: no one may bring a Torah scroll into the Kotel plaza, and no one may give any of the site’s more than 100 scrolls to any woman in the women’s section. These are his decisions alone.
This is despite the fact that the Shulchan Aruch is very clear that women can touch, hold and read from a Torah scroll. There is no halachic violation here. But there have been civil rights violations on the part of the state’s representative.
In response, four independent Israeli women – Shulamit Magnus, Cheryl Birkner Mack, Hannah Kehat and Andrea Wiese – with the help of Susan Weiss, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, are suing in the Israeli Supreme Court to void Rabbi Rabinowitz’s decisions. Furthermore, they asked the court to void his decision banning anyone from bringing their own Torah scroll into the Kotel plaza. They are also seeking damages for this discrimination.
The women claim that they were “silenced, herded into an ever shrinking, distanced space, told to be onlookers while men practise Judaism.” They further claim that “being denied for so long the sacred wrappings of Jewish prayer, they have been demonized and attacked physically for the same acts which, when performed by Jews who are men, are called mitzvah.”
The women pray with a group known as Tefillat Nashim ba’Kotel/Original Women of the Wall, who have been praying at the Kotel with Torah and tallit and tfillin. They come from all walks of life and all religious denominations. They are Orthodox, traditional, Reform, egalitarian, scholars, activists, writers, teachers and lawyers. All are committed to that original model of diversity, inclusion, independence and autonomy and sanctified prayer. They follow in the footsteps of Rivka Haut, an Orthodox Talmud scholar from Brooklyn, N.Y., who originated and inaugurated this vision, and Bonna Devora Haberman, who carried the work of this struggle for years.
Both of these pioneers remained true to this purpose to their dying days.
Shulamit Magnus, founder of a women’s prayer group at the Kotel and one of the plaintiffs in these lawsuits, posted the following explanation online:
“We filed this action to press the State of Israel to enforce historic court rulings that already recognize Jewish women’s full rights to religious expression at the Kotel, equal to those exercised by men there since 1967… The rabbinic administrator of the Kotel has used a ‘gotcha’ tactic to prevent women from being able to read Torah at the Kotel… Our suit seeks to void his ‘Torah directive’ on the grounds that this administrator… has exceeded his authority in issuing it and that it violates Israeli law guaranteeing equal access to and use of public space and property.
“We plaintiffs are all longtime activists in this issue, committed to its purposes for years, some of us, as stated, from the beginning… we remain committed to joining with Jewish women of diverse religious backgrounds, in solidarity as Jewish women, in prayer, in Jewish sacred space, at the national holy site of the Jewish People: to us, all these points are inviolable and non-negotiable. We refuse any alternate site, or the absorption of our cause in any other. That is why we filed these suits, and will pursue them to victory, which victory, yes, will have major implications for civil rights in Israel generally.”
We will not be diminished, removed or silenced
Twenty-seven years ago, a friend named Rivka leaned over and asked me what I thought about going go to the Kotel for Thursday morning prayers. I laughed. We were women after all, feminists and Orthodox. I laughed, yet we went.
We went with over 70 women from all sorts of backgrounds. And that describes us still today. The lawsuits represent our undiminished, continuous and courageous dedication to that experience and vision. We have not been dissuaded by other options or compromises. We have not lost hope. We know the legal rights and responsibilities of women in prayer. We know the spiritual enthusiasm that comes when praying in a holy place with the blessed Torah. We will not be diminished, removed or silenced. We will not lose our standing as Jews, obligated in prayer, part of the holy covenantal community. We struggle for the democratic soul of Israel and for the heart of justice in Judaism