JERUSALEM -- For years Haviva Ner David, a religious Jewish feminist scholar and petite young mother of three, has withstood catcalls and insults 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, she and her small group of colleagues, many toting babies in backpacks and strollers, were subjected to occasional attack with bottles, books and chairs by ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe women should be neither seen nor heard during prayers.

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

"We hereby order the government to establish proper arrangements and conditions so that the petitioners can fulfill their right to worship, according to their custom, at the Western Wall," the court said in what is 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 of four judges.

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

"For 11 years our case was before various government committees and in various appeals before the Supreme Court. Now, finally, the law has been established. Soon we can have our first bat mitzvah ceremony for a girl at the Western Wall," she said.

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

Orthodox parliamentarians rushed to prepare Knesset legislation designed to circumvent or nullify the high court ruling. And Israel's Minister of Religion Yitzhak Cohen said the government would appeal the decision to a broader panel of 11 high court judges.

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

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

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

Political confrontations between Israel's Orthodox Jewish establishment and the country's secular and more liberal religious groupings have frequently shaken the stability of governments here and even led to their downfall.

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

But the Supreme Court said fears of a violent reaction from ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox elements opposed to the decision was an insufficient excuse to deny the women their rights to assemble in public prayer.

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

The Israeli women who launched the appeal run the gamut from liberal Conservative and Reform Jews to self-described Orthodox feminists such as Ner David.

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

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

While Israel's tiny Conservative and Reform Jewish communities also welcomed the court decision, they have preferred to seek alternative arrangements for prayer near the sensitive Western Wall site, without the involvement of the courts.

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

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

Even more so than a women's prayer group, the prospect of mixed prayers at the Western Wall is likely to enrage ultra-Orthodox groups who believe the intermingling of men and women in religious services undermines their sacred purpose, said Jonathan Rosenblum, an ultra-Orthodox news commentator.

"Jerry Falwell wouldn't go into a place like the Vatican's St. Peter's Square and conduct a revival meeting because it is understood that the form of worship is to remain traditional," said Rosenblum. "But based on the Israeli Supreme Court's reasoning, the subjective desires of every worshipper will be the governing criteria for how services are held," he said. "And in particular, if there are mixed groups at the wall, this will lead to an explosion."

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