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Women of the Wall face Torah smuggling controversy at Shevat Rosh Hodesh prayers

For the second month in a row the Women of the Wall were denied to read from the Torah during their monthly prayer service, Jan. 2, 2014; they were accused of trying to smuggle a Torah scroll into their Shevat service
For the second month in a row the Women of the Wall were denied to read from the Torah during their monthly prayer service, Jan. 2, 2014; they were accused of trying to smuggle a Torah scroll into their Shevat service
Miriam Alster/Flash90

Only two days into the new calendar year and the Women of the Wall (WoW) have already made headlines with their first controversy of 2014 that they tried to smuggle a Torah scroll into the women's section at the Western Wall, Kotel at their prayer service honoring Rosh Hodesh Shevat on Thursday morning, Jan. 2, 2014, an accusation the group denies.

Since the group's 25th anniversary in November 2013, they have returned to having their Rosh Hodesh prayer service at the Women's section of the Kotel after being barred by the police for months to the Robinson's Arch equalitarian area. The women however, will only be praying for a short time at the main women's section until the 16 conditions they agreed to are met making the Robinson's Arch area equal to the Kotel plaza.

The group agreed in October 2013 with the Chairman of Jewish Agency for Israel Nathan Sharansky's proposal to make the Robinson's Arch area the group's permanent home. This caused some contention, which led some board members to leave the group. Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman resigned to the decision stated; "I'm not happy about it, but I'm at peace with it. It took a tremendous amount of courage."

The decision comes with some advantages; the group will have the freedom to pray without the protests and interferences from the security, to wear tallits, kippot and tefillin and to pray out loud and to read from the Torah. For the past two months the group has been barred by security from reading from the Torah at their service.

This month they were accused of trying to smuggle a Torah scroll in a green duffle bag into the women's section. According to the Orthodox halakha, laws, women are forbidden from saying the prayer to read the Torah "in vain." The blessing should only be said by those "obligated" to read the Torah and only men are "obligated." Therefore when the WoW conduct services, read the Torah and say the blessing they are going against the religious rules that are strictly abided by at the Kotel.

The Kotel is administered by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz the head of Western Wall Heritage Foundation and under Orthodox Jewish law, which prevents other more liberal Judaic traditions from praying there if they choose not to abide by Orthodox customs. The Kotel's women section is suppose to be for individual prayer, only men gather in minyans to pray, not women.

The feminist prayer that the Women of the Wall are practicing is a form of liberal prayer that does not conform to the Kotel's norm. Israel's Haredi, ultra-Orthodox object to the women's praying because they choose to wear tallits; praying shawls, and teffilin, which according to the Jewish orthodox tradition are religious garments only men are allowed to wear during prayer, and have been considered illegal for women to wear by Israeli laws. The women also read the Torah, another ritual activity that only men do, and read their prayers out loud. The WoW practices which are against the religious hegemony of the Kotel have led in the past to arrests and protests.

Police have not allowed the group to bring a Torah scroll mostly because of security concerns, possible theft and the protests it might cause. Neither are the women allowed to use the Torah scrolls in the men's section. The women were stopped by security, who found the Torah a routine check of all their bags. The WoW denied trying to smuggle the Torah or of disregarding its sacredness, however, they admitted they placed in the duffle bag to keep it safe while travelling.

Ronit Peskin, Director of Women for the Wall, a group that reinforces traditional prayer at the Kotel issued a statement against the WoW for possibly trying to smuggle the Torah, because it is disrespectful. Perskin stated; "We are extremely disappointed that WoW would misuse a holy Torah Scroll in this way. This is a desecration of something sacred to the entire Jewish nation. WoW has refused to immediately avail themselves of the new Ezrat Yisrael plaza commissioned by Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett, or the many Torah scrolls available at that site. Instead it insists upon disturbing traditional practices at the site commissioned for traditional Jewish prayer, and all of us who wish to pray quietly in that fashion."

The Robinson's Arch is in the archaeological park and is referred to as the "Southern Wall." The area has been used since 1998 for egalitarian prayers with a smaller platform built in 2004, but free access has been limited to morning prayers, the remainder of the time there is an entrance fee. Usually the area is not government run or funded. The new space called "Ezrat Yisrael" can accommodate 450 worshippers.

WoW's Executive Director Leslie Sacks responded about the accusation; "We're stuck. One the one hand, according to Judge Moshe Sobol, we're legally allowed to pray with a Torah scroll. On the other hand, the Kotel Rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, prevents us from bringing our Torah scroll in." Sacks says since they are prevented from using one of 300 Torahs in the men's section, "It is a 'Catch-22' situation."

Last April, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the WoW's practices of wearing Tallits, Kippot and Tefflin and publicly reading from the Torah did not violate "local custom," it is only Rabbi Rabinowitz own rules that prevents Torah scrolls from being brought to Kotel.

The Women of the Wall have been attending their monthly prayer service at the Kotel for 25 years. Formed in 1988, the group of women is predominately composed of Americans Jews that have moved to Israel of liberal denominations and women rabbis, but also some who are traditionalists. The group sees their largest support in North America. Since their formation, they have been fighting for their legal right to gather and pray publicly at the Kotel, Western Wall's women's section.

Otherwise the Women of the Wall's prayer service was uneventful with very little protests against their gathering. Around 200 women attended the prayers, including three American teenagers, who won Philadelphia organization, Moving Traditions' contest "One Moon, One Wall, One People." The contest required the contestants to show support for Women of the Wall on Twitter and with the finalists creating a video explaining why the Kotel should equally allow religious freedom to men and women and all of Judaism's denominations. The three winners Lucy Sattler, Alexandra Schwartz and Eliza Moss-Horwitz won a free trip to Israel, the opportunity to pray with WoW and meet Chairwoman Anat Hoffman at a lunch after Rosh Hodesh services.

The group has promised to continue to pray in the women's section of the Kotel until all their conditions are met at Robinson's Arch, and with all the rules imposed on them that they have broken, WoW plans to continue to attempt each month to bring in a Torah scroll until they will be allowed to read from it.

Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.

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