On January 10, my column was entitled “Religious Freedom in Israel is a Fantasy” and I criticized both the Chief Rabbinate and the government for perpetuating religious discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews world-wide.
Before our independence, men and women prayed at the Kotel (Western Wall), last remnant of our holy Temple in Jerusalem. There was no conflict with mixed worshippers. Not until the Lithuanian-brand of rabbis decided that women could not worship at our holiest place.
I condemned the discrimination which separated Jew from Jew. The majority of Jews in the diaspora are not Orthodox. They are either Conservative (Masorti), Reform, Reconstructionist, or non-observant and when they visit Israel and wish to pray according to their tradition, they are denied access to the Wall.
There is no biblical or talmudic restriction against women wearing talitot (prayer shawls) nor even tefilin (leather phylacteries worn on the arm close to the heart and between the eyes on the forehead… a sign that God is in our hearts and minds).
There was a rabbinical prohibition of women singing lest their voices arouse the male worshippers. Neither was there a prohibition for women to read from the Torah.
These prohibitions are not mid’oraita (from the law) but rather mi-d’rabbanan (from the rabbis). Those rabbis were medieval in their understanding of religious fervor and they remain small-minded and medieval to this day.
For more than a quarter of a century a group of devoted women, known as WoW (Women of the Wall), have been activists in attempting to overturn the strict discriminatory rules which were enforced by the Rabbi of the Wall joined by the haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews who harassed them and sometimes attacked them by throwing chairs over the dividing section which separated the men from the women.
Restricted by law to a separate section of the Wall, devout non-Orthodox women prayed with fervor, wore prayer shawls, some wore tefilin, and they chanted the reading of the Torah portions.
This brought upon them heckling, verbal abuse, and sometimes even physical abuse by the Orthodox men. The police stood by and enforced the restrictions set by the rabbinate.
Many in the secular Israeli Jewish public have long supported the actions of the WoW, and non-Orthodox Jews from abroad joined them in their prayers when they visited in Israel.
In my column of January 10, I urged the government to finally intervene and to end the discriminatory policies in the name of freedom of religion as guaranteed in our Declaration of Independence.
Finally, the government took steps in the right direction and overturned the existing restrictions. A new plaza will be built on the site of archaeological ruins at Robinson’s Arch directly facing the Kotel.
It may take a year to build but it is long overdue progress.
One of the hurdles which needs to be overcome is the signature of the Minister of Religious Affairs, Rabbi Azoulay who opposes the changes in the law. He needs to consult with the ultra-Orthodox sages in the Shas party for approval which almost certainly will be rejected.
If so, the WoW may appeal to the Supreme Court which already has ruled in their favor.
Az oolai Rabbi Azoulay may be required to sign the document which forever will end discrimination against women and non-Orthodox Jews.
This is indeed a great victory for WoW. The Women of the Wall have been the pioneers to demand the religious freedom guaranteed by our Declaration of Independence in 1948.
These brave women are our n’shai chayil… our Women of Valor. Because of their long dedicated and devoted efforts and the suffering which they have endured, religious freedom is no longer a fantasy in Israel.