Women who want to say the Mourner’s Kaddish at the Western Wall were threatened with arrest in a recent letter from the Israeli police to a women’s rights group, but both Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who runs the government body that oversees holy sites like the wall, say it will not happen.
The group, Women of the Wall, has been agitating for about 25 years for women’s right to pray together and out loud, to read Torah from a scroll and to wear prayer shawls at the holy place.
Currently, women can pray quietly and individually at the wall in a women’s section, and they are allowed to hold audible services from a scroll, wear prayer shawls and chant the Mourner’s Kaddish, in the separate “Robinson’s Arch” area near the wall. The Israeli Supreme Court established these rules in a 2003 ruling.
In recent months, however, the wall has been the site of increasing tension, mainly during the regular prayer services Women of the Wall holds to celebrate the new lunar month, during which they challenge the rules by, for example, wearing prayer shawls.
The group thought it had achieved a kind of modus vivendi with the police, but between roughly August and February, about 25 female participants in those services had been arrested, Women of the Wall spokeswoman Shira Pruce has told The Jewish Week.
Last month, however, three female members of the Israeli Knesset participated in the service in prayer shawls. Because of their parliamentary immunity, they were not arrested, and neither was anybody else.
The police sent the letter, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said, to put Women of the Wall on notice that last month did not set a precedent: participants in the service who are not Knesset members violating the rules will be arrested at the next service.
“They fully know what they’re allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do,” he said.
The letter, addressed to Women of the Wall chair Anat Hoffman, reminded her of the court ruling, including the prohibition against saying Kaddish at the wall.
The allusion to the Mourner’s Kaddish, one of Judaism’s central prayers, impelled Sharansky, the Jewish Agency head and renowned Soviet dissident, to intervene.
His involvement in the issue dates from December, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked him to study the issue women’s prayer at the wall and help the government resolve the tension.
When Sharansky learned of the letter, he met with Rabbi Rabinowitz, Chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, to express his displeasure, Sharansky’s office said in a statement.
The rabbi assured Sharansky that no woman would be arrested for reciting Kaddish at the wall. In an interview with the Jewish Week, Rabbi Rabinowitz said that it is not customary according to Jewish tradition for women to say Kaddish at all, and therefore they should not do so at the wall. But he also said the police wouldn’t arrest anybody for doing so, because it’s not an infraction of the rules that disturbs others.
“The way of the Kotel is that women don’t say Kaddish,” he said. “But they won’t arrest anyone who does that. It’s not the job of anyone to listen to the prayer of someone and hear what he’s saying, not a man, not a woman. A woman who comes in talis and tefilin offends others. Whoever offends the other, their place isn’t at the Kotel, especially when they’ve been built a special place where they can do whatever they want.”
The Women of the Wall have long complained that prayer at the site is under the de facto control of Rabbi Rabinowitz and the foundation, a government body comprised of ultra-Orthodox men.
Both Rabbi Rabinowitz and Rosenfeld have denied to the Jewish Week that the foundation has any authority over the police.
The rabbi doesn’t have any legal authority over the police, he said, but he does share his thoughts with them, he told the Jewish Week.
Despite the text of the letter, which explicitly mentions the Kaddish, Rosenfeld said the issue of whether it can be said at the wall is “between the women and the rabbis.”
Women of the Wall is petitioning the Israeli Supreme Court to challenge the make-up of the fundation’s board.
Sharansky is in the final stages of drafting his recommendations for Netanyahu, according to the statement.