JERUSALEM -- For years Haviva Ner David, a religious Jewish feministscholar and petite young mother of three, has withstood catcalls andinsults to attend a monthly women's prayer group at the Western Wall,Judaism's holiest site.

Just for daring to read the Torah, or Jewish Bible, out loud, sheand her small group of colleagues, many toting babies in backpacks andstrollers, were subjected to occasional attack with bottles, books andchairs by ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe women should be neither seennor heard during prayers.

Now, however, a ruling Monday (May 22) by Israel's Supreme Courtappears set to change the balance of religious powers at the sacred siteby formally granting Jewish women the right to hold religious ceremoniesat the wall.

"We hereby order the government to establish proper arrangements andconditions so that the petitioners can fulfill their right to worship,according to their custom, at the Western Wall," the court said in whatis being hailed as a historic decision.

"It was a shock, a victory that we weren't at all prepared for,"said a stunned Ner David, speaking just after the ruling by a panel offour judges.

"We've emerged from the Middle Ages," said Jerusalem city councilorAnat Hoffman, one of the leaders of the "Women at the Wall" group. "Wehave been fighting for 11 years for the right of women to pray aloud, towear prayer shawls and to read from the Torah alongside the WesternWall.

"For 11 years our case was before various government committees andin various appeals before the Supreme Court. Now, finally, the law hasbeen established. Soon we can have our first bat mitzvah ceremony for agirl at the Western Wall," she said.

In fact, however, the court has given the government six months tocomply with the ruling. And already on Monday, a storm of controversyhad erupted that could delay implementation for even longer.

Orthodox parliamentarians rushed to prepare Knesset legislationdesigned to circumvent or nullify the high court ruling. And Israel'sMinister of Religion Yitzhak Cohen said the government would appeal thedecision to a broader panel of 11 high court judges.

"This time the Supreme Court has touched on the holy of holies, theremains of our holy temple in which God's spirit resides eternally,"said the ultra-Orthodox Cohen, in an interview on Israel Radio. "It isan insufferable situation and the decision won't stand the test on theground."

Even liberal Orthodox figures, such as Minister for Jewish DiasporaAffairs Rabbi Michael Melchior, issued dire predictions about the impactthe decision might have on Israel's fragile status quo between Orthodoxreligious and non-Orthodox groups.

"It will cause a terrible and violent dispute," said Melchior.

Political confrontations between Israel's Orthodox Jewishestablishment and the country's secular and more liberal religiousgroupings have frequently shaken the stability of governments here andeven led to their downfall.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, already embroiled in a peace process thathas erupted into violence both in the West Bank and in southern Lebanon,is hardly eager to ignite the flames of sectarian religious sentiment onhis domestic front.

But the Supreme Court said fears of a violent reaction fromultra-Orthodox or Orthodox elements opposed to the decision was aninsufficient excuse to deny the women their rights to assemble in publicprayer.

"We acknowledge the possibility that the recognition of women topray in their customary fashion at the wall could lead to violentreactions from intolerant parties," said Supreme Court Judge EliahuMatza in one section of the ruling. "But we don't accept a situation inwhich the threat of a violent reaction from any one side would negatethe rights of other parties."

The Israeli women who launched the appeal run the gamut from liberalConservative and Reform Jews to self-described Orthodox feminists suchas Ner David.

"Even many leading Orthodox rabbis have admitted that women's prayergroups are acceptable according to Jewish law and there is such room forwomen's expression in Jewish legal texts," said Ner David.

"But they have continued to prohibit such activities because theyare afraid of where it might lead," she said, referring to the monopolymen have on religious institutions and the apparatus of religiousdecision-making in Israel.

While Israel's tiny Conservative and Reform Jewish communities alsowelcomed the court decision, they have preferred to seek alternativearrangements for prayer near the sensitive Western Wall site, withoutthe involvement of the courts.

On Sunday, leaders of Israel's Masoreti, or Conservative movement,signed an agreement with Barak's government permitting them to holdmixed prayers near an archaeological park at the southernmost corner ofthe Western Wall somewhat removed from the area controlled by OrthodoxJews.

"We welcome the Supreme Court ruling and agree with it inprinciple," said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masoreti movementin Israel. "However our desire to avoid a confrontation that might, Godforbid, lead to violence or bloodshed has led us to sign an agreementwhereby the government will put at our disposal the southern end of theWestern Wall for egalitarian services for a trial period of 12 months."