Women Are Denied the Right to Read From a Torah Scroll at the Western Wall

12/08/2015 05:21 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2016

A group of Original Women of the Wall went to the Kotel to pray this morning in celebration of Hanukkah and the first time women prayed as a group together at Kotel 27 years ago. Reports Cheryl Birkner Mack:

...three of us went to the men's side. I asked two employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation if we could have a sefer Torah. They smiled and said "no." I explained to them that we had come to pray in honor of Hanukka and would like to read Torah. "Ah, in honor of Hanukka....no. We don't have permission to give one to you." I asked how many scrolls they had. "About 160 and you only want one." I nodded,"only one". They said "you should have snuck one in a bag."

Imagine US Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elana Kagan going together, along with other Jewish women, to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Say they wished to pray, as women, to mark a special event: a bat mitzvah or upcoming wedding of a family member; say they wanted to mark the new moon, Rosh Hodesh. Thanks to landmark legislation that Jewish feminists have fought for, while our justices might be harassed, there would be no legal impediment to their singing prayers aloud together from their prayer books or chanting from a printed Bible. Were they to wear prayer shawls, even the plain white ones that not long ago led to arrests, they could do so: now, pictures of them handcuffed and led away by the police would not appear on front pages of newspapers. But if Justices Ginsburg and Kagan wanted to read from a Torah scroll, they would be forbidden. If they were desperate to engage fully as Jews in what many consider to be Judaism's holiest site, they would have only one degrading solution that has worked several times: they would have to smuggle one in. Here is the protocol currently in place: women who successfully smuggle in a Torah are allowed to use it.

Why are the full spiritual rights of women as Jews still denied? The Protection of Holy places Law of 1967 states that it is forbidden to "violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them..." But that right can apparently be ignored when the "member" is a Jewish woman.

The State of Israel has delegated the administration of the Wall to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz of the Ultraorthodox Western Wall Heritage Foundation. (Professor Norma Baumel Joseph of the Original Women of the Wall clarifies, "Let's be factually specific. Although a rabbi, he is not the rabbi of the site. He is appointed over the site as a manager (memuneh al hakotel). The kotel is not a synagogue, certainly not a haredi synagogue, and he is not the mara de'atra, the halakhic decisor. ) Not long ago Rabinowitz issued a directive prohibiting visitors to the Wall from bringing their own Torah scrolls. If the Chief Rabbi of England brought along a Torah scroll saved from the Holocaust, in theory, it would be banned by security agents unless he smuggled it in. According to the directive, only the Western Wall Foundation can hand out the Torah scrolls they keep there. So the Chief Rabbi can borrow one. So can bar mitzvah boys from Long Island, Paris, Haifa or Johannesburg. Any Jewish man who wishes to "borrow" a Torah can do so.

But no woman can borrow one of the many Torah scrolls. Be sure: there is no Jewish law prohibiting women from holding, touching or reading from a Torah. That is something the leading Jewish legal experts on the Israeli Supreme Court clarified years ago. This is not a reading just of the liberal communities: around the world, Orthodox women are reading from the Torah and are teaching their daughters to do so with the full support of their rabbis. But Rabinowitz's directive makes it impossible for any woman to have access to a Torah scroll at the Wall. Not any of the Orthodox women who have been ordained as clergy nor the women who have been deans, presidents, or professors of sacred texts or Jewish Law in rabbinical seminaries worldwide, not Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, and certainly not young Jewish women marking their maturity.

This is a human rights issue, and to that end, a lawsuit against Rabbi Rabinowitz and his organization has been filed last week by Susan Weiss, Director of The Center for Women's Justice, on behalf of four Israeli Jewish women activists They pray with a group known as Original Women of the Wall: Tefilat Nashim Bakotel (O-WOW). (This group, including women in Israel and North America of diverse backgrounds, distinguishes itself from those women, led by Anat Hoffman (an employee of the Reform movement) who were willing to relocate their women's prayers to a newly created egalitarian site at Robinson's Arch that would be called Ezrat Yisrael. The Original Women of the Wall, praying at the Wall for 27 years, wish these women well, but have no intention of relocating anywhere.)

The Original Women of the Wall have challenged Rabinowitz's right to withhold Torah scrolls from women. As Professor Shulamit Magnus, one of the named plaintifs, "We bring this action because not to act would be to allow the denial of women's right to Torah reading at the kotel to become enshrined; legal rights are actual rights only when enforced and lived out, on the ground."

I become distressed anticipating how the legal proceedings and responses to them will play out. I am confident the Israel Supreme Court will resolve that the rights of Jewish women have been violated, and for some brief moments, the named defendants of the Original Women of the Wall and their supporters will celebrate justice being done in the State of Israel. Then politics will kick in and the government, which needs the good will of the Ultraorthodox in its coalitions, will find some justification to claim "This issue is being taken up by the government; it is under discussion, and we are not at liberty to talk about this or change our policy." Perhaps Jewish women who have resolved to stay at the Wall will be told once again: Don't you want to go to the very nice space set up for you elsewhere where you can read Torah to your heart's content?" I think that's the most likely scenario. Certainly, it is unlikely that Rabbi Rabinowitz and the men of his Foundation will be dispatched to a very nice space elsewhere. The very fact that this possibility seems like a joke highlights the egregious injustice against women.

It is my hope, however, that the Court will find ways for the rights of women in Israel to be upheld, not just as a court documents, but as a fact on the ground that is upheld. The resolution of this matter has far-reaching implications beyond the Western Wall. Here, Magnus references Susan Weiss: "the larger context is the ever-expanding, illicit reach of the official rabbinical establishment in Israel into civil life and civil space."

So here is the best-case scenario, and the one for which I, an activist in this cause since the get-go, pray: I want to be able to look out onto the Wall and witness many circles of Jewish women in their prayers, many Torah scrolls being read from. I want to be among those who can say proudly, "Pains have been taken by the State of Israel to assure that the rights of all people to their sacred spaces are secure."