JERUSALEM — As morning sunlight bathed the stones of the Western Wall early Sunday, a group of women gathered nearby, pointed their faces toward the sky and lifted their voices in prayer.
"Hallelujah, hal-le-lu-jah," they sang before Judaism's most holy site.
And in so doing they launched another salvo in Israel's bitter religious wars. At issue are fundamental and divisive questions over who is a proper Jew and what role women should assume in the tradition-bound culture of religious observance.
Armed with a new Supreme Court ruling, the 75 women attempting to pray were nevertheless met with a barrage of insults and heckling from mostly ultra-Orthodox men--and women--who found the display offensive.
"You are worse than Christians!" shouted one ultra-Orthodox man. "You are not Jews!" shouted an ultra-Orthodox woman.
Police formed lines to protect the mostly secular women from their opponents, and only a few minor scuffles broke out among some of the ultra-Orthodox men and the police. Four men were detained.
The prayer demonstration was part of an effort to gain for women the right to worship at the Western Wall in much the same way men do. In another of its landmark decisions, the Supreme Court on May 22 ruled that women do have that right--essentially that they can pray out loud, read from the Torah, and wear the fringed prayer shawl known as the tallit and other accouterments, including the tefillin, or phylacteries, leather cases that contain passages from Scripture.
Many religious Jews were outraged at the court's ruling and accused the judicial body of meddling and attempting to erode the tradition on which Judaism is based.
As has happened with most of the court's groundbreaking decisions, the parliament immediately began work to circumvent it. Last week, preliminary parliamentary approval was given to a bill that punishes women with seven years in prison if they pray at the Western Wall in the manner in which the Supreme Court said they could.
That in turn outraged the women's group and many members of Israel's secular majority.
"Great," scoffed Anat Hoffman, a Jerusalem City Council member and leader of the group. "In prison, you'll have a section for the prostitutes, a section for the terrorists and a section for praying women."
"What have we become?" asked an incensed Naomi Chazan, who represents the leftist Meretz Party in parliament. "Afghanistan? Iran?"
First Gathering Since Court Ruling
Hoffman and Chazan were among those who came to the wall Sunday in their first attempt to pray together since the court ruling and the parliamentary action. Sunday was the first day of the Jewish month, a time for special prayers.
They stood in a knot facing the wall and prayed for about an hour, weathering taunts that brought some to tears. A couple of the women donned prayer shawls. Each time they sang aloud, the men's section erupted in a chorus of boos intended to drown them out. A handful of ultra-Orthodox women hissed at the other women, "Quiet! Silence!" and accused them of "destroying the people of Israel."
The ultra-Orthodox believe that women should not pray aloud because men who are praying at the wall should not be exposed to their distracting voices. The use of prayer shawls and other accessories is also, by tradition, restricted to men, they contend.
At the Western Wall, a remnant of the biblical Second Temple that is also known as the Wailing Wall or, in Hebrew, the Kotel, men and women pray on separate sides, with a tall metal fence dividing the two, in keeping with Orthodox practice. Women are supposed to pray only as individuals.
"It was hard," Linda Segal, a 60-year-old teacher and mother of four, said after Sunday's session ended. "The inequities bother me. This is a place for all Jews."
Segal was drawn by the backlash the women encountered after the court ruling.
Accusations of Self-Promotion
Michael Kaufman, who said he is a writer who specializes in Judaism and feminism, watched the prayer demonstration and accused the women of violating sanctified customs in the interest of self-promotion.
"Can you imagine a bunch of Protestants walking into the Vatican and holding their own service?" he said.
Many of the women participating Sunday are from the Reform and Conservative movements, liberal branches of Judaism popular in the United States but seen by the ultra-Orthodox here as false claims on the faith.
The parliamentary bill that would send women to prison was sponsored by two of Israel's leading religious parties. Yakov Litzman, a parliament member from the United Torah Judaism party, said the seven-year sentence comes from existing legislation that punishes anyone who desecrates holy sites.
"And there is no desecration greater than that of women who come to desecrate the holiness of the Western Wall with all kinds of provocations such as carrying a Torah scroll and other things reserved by Halakha [Jewish law] only to men," Litzman said.
The bill passed when nearly half the lawmakers were absent from the Knesset, or parliament. Even some religious leaders think the prison sentence harsh, and ultimately the law might not pass.
But the debate over how women should be allowed to worship will rage on.
"This is a horrible provocation intended to drive tens of thousands of people away from Judaism's most holy site . . . and to divide the Jewish people," said Rabbi Moshe Gafni, another Knesset member from United Torah Judaism.