JERUSALEM — The clutch of demurely dressed women edged toward the ancient stones of the Western Wall, prayer books in hand, skittish in anticipation. They didn't have to wait long.
The moment their voices rose in a prayerful song of the Jewish faith, the sentinels of the ultra-Orthodox sounded the alarm. "Shame! Shame!" raged an Orthodox woman. "You cannot do this. It is not permitted."
Across the low partition that separates men from women at the wall, the holiest of Judaism's holy places, a bearded Orthodox man, his head covered with the white-and-black Jewish prayer shawl, grabbed a metal chair and raked it across the stone terrace, drowning the voices of the praying women and filling the air with threat.
Weeks earlier, the men had heaved chairs across the divider, and a woman in the prayer group had been hit on the head and badly cut.
Manhandled, Spat On
Before this day was out, the praying women would be manhandled and spat on, a rabbi would be called a liar and lawsuits would be filed. What they have here is a difference of opinion--cultural and religious.
It is one of the divisions that make Israel, and particularly the religion-filled city of Jerusalem, a place of conflict for those committed to faith and causes.
The protagonist is this case is a small group called the Women of the Wall. One of its leaders, Anat Hoffman, an American-educated activist, notes ruefully, "Sometimes they call us the Women Off the Wall."
What Hoffman and the others say they want is unfettered faith at the Western Wall, sometimes known as the Wailing Wall, which Jews revere as the remaining remnant of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Roman legions in the 1st Century.
Photographs as Proof
Two decades ago, after Israeli troops seized the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordanian soldiers in the 1967 war, Jewish women and men prayed together at the wall, without partitions, say Hoffman and others in the group, producing old photographs to prove their point. But as the years went by and the Orthodox community solidified its hold on the religious affairs of Israel, ritual restrictions began to be imposed at the wall.
In the synagogues of the ultra-Orthodox, religious practices are precise and steeped in tradition. Among the many provisions that apply to women, two in particular concern the Women of the Wall: prohibitions against women reading the Torah, the first five books of the Bible that constitute the Jewish holy book, and against women wearing prayer shawls.
What Hoffman calls a prayer group, the 100 or more members of Women of the Wall are not trying to change the practices of Orthodox synagogues--even though, she says, nearly 80% of the group is Orthodox. Instead, they want an open regimen at the wall, which is an open-air synagogue with its own Orthodox rabbi, the government-appointed Meir Yehuda Getz.
'Not a Private Prayer Place'
Judith Green, one of the leaders of the prayer group, has proclaimed the wall "neutral Jewish territory, a public prayer place, not a private prayer place like a synagogue." Her viewpoint would not seem unusual to women of the Reformed or Conservative synagogues in the United States, or even to many Orthodox.
But in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox Jews with traditional practices hold nearly complete control over religious issues, a woman reading the Torah or wearing the shawl anywhere appears almost heretical, although nothing in religious law, the Halacha , specifically forbids it, according to rabbinical scholars.
In a recently published interview in the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Menahem Hacohen described women's prayer groups as "abnormal."
"They see prayer as an experience, but I don't pray as an experience," he explained, speaking of the exclusive role that men have always held in the rituals of the Orthodox synagogues. "I pray as an obligation. . . .
"I support women who fight for equal rights, but women who fight for the right to assume more religious obligations are like people fighting for the right to pay more income tax."
Thoughtful opinions like these, however, are not heard during the monthly visits of the women to the wall, which began last fall.
In March, the women attempted to read from the Torah and wear prayer shawls. The reaction was violent, and police had to fire tear gas to turn back the ultra-Orthodox men who shoved and cursed the frightened but determined knot of praying women.
Turning to the civil courts, the women won a promise of protection from further attacks and an order to Getz to show cause by the end of this year why women should not be allowed to read from the Torah at the wall.
Earlier this month, the women returned to the wall, but this time without the Torah and with only the intention to recite prayers. But that again was too much for the ultra-Orthodox, whose women severely chastised the prayer group, insisting that, according to the custom of their sect, a woman's voice raised in prayer was sexually distracting to praying men nearby.
From Both Sides