Their backs were against the Wall, so to speak.
But a flood of faxes sent to Israeli legislators has staved off — at least temporarily — consideration of a new law that if passed, would ban women from conducting any religious ceremony in their section at the Western Wall.
The bill, submitted to the Knesset by members of the United Torah Judaism party, would prohibit women from opening a Torah scroll, blowing a shofar, or wearing a tallit or tefillin at Judaism’s holiest site. Violators would face seven years in prison.
The bill was aimed squarely at the Women of the Wall, a Modern Orthodox group that meets for morning services on Rosh Chodesh — the traditional women’s holiday that starts each new Jewish month.
In fervently Orthodox practice, which is now in place at the Wall, women are forbidden to touch — let alone read from — a Torah scroll.
The bill’s language, which would also prohibit prayers by men and women in a mixed group, would have also precluded the recent efforts of Conservative and Reform Jews to pray within the Wall’s vicinity on Jewish holy days.
When WoW leaders notified supporters of the impending bill, organizations including the Orthodox group Meimad, the Israeli branch of the Conservative movement and Hadassah urged their members to register opposition with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other prominent Knesset members.
The Israeli government leaders received about 1,000 faxes and e-mails, according to a note sent to supporters by Peggy Cidor, WoW’s Jerusalem coordinator.
As a result, Labor Knesset member Efi Oshaya sent a message to Sharon, who was here in the U.S., saying his party would withdraw from the coalition government if the bill passed, Cidor wrote.
WoW and the government have been battling it out in Israel’s Supreme Court since soon after women first tried to pray at the wall as a group in December 1988. Its most recent ruling, in May 2000, was a limited win for WoW. The court said that WoW has a right to pray at the Wall but instructed the government to work out the details. The government, which in the past asked the women’s group to pray outside the Old City walls, in Arab East Jerusalem, asked the court for the right to appeal, which the justices are now considering.
“At issue here is not only the rights of WoW members but of any Jew who wants to pray at the Wall” in a way not permitted by the status quo, said WoW attorney Miriam Benson.
“The Orthodox community backs legislation aimed at preserving the traditional religious character of the Kotel and plaza area” in front of it, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. “But right now Israel and the Jewish people have many, many more pressing matters to worry about. I don’t think anyone will feel upset that this has been pushed off for a quieter moment.”