JERUSALEM, May 31 (RNS)--Women who read from the Torah or wear Jewish ritualgarments such as a prayer shawl at Jerusalem's Western Wall, Judaism'smost sacred shrine, could face a seven-year jail term if proposedlegislation introduced Wednesday is adopted by Israel'sKnesset.

The bill passed a preliminary Knesset reading with a 29-25 majorityafter being submitted in a surprise move by the ultra-Orthodox UnitedTorah Judaism party early in the afternoon. The bill must pass two morevotes, however, before actually becoming law.

The proposal sent shock waves through Israeli society, sharplydivided along religious-secular lines, and fanned the flames of a debateover women's prayer services at the Wall following a recent precedent-settingSupreme Court decision permitting such rituals.

The Supreme Court ruled the state must permit women to conductpublic prayer services at the Wall, reading aloud from the Torah, orJewish Bibles, and wearing prayer shawls or other ritual garments.

Typically, according to Orthodox custom, only men are permitted toconduct formal services and wear ritual items of dress. At the Wall--a remnant of the biblical-era Jerusalem Temple-- women normallypray silently and separated from men by a barrier.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians had publicly vowed last week tocircumvent the recent court decision with legislative action.

But the severity of the proposed law generated an immediate outcryamong liberal and secular sectors of Israeli society.

"What have we become--Afghanistan?" said left-wing MeretzKnesset member Naomi Chazan, reacting to Wednesday's preliminary vote.

"They have prison units here for prostitutes and drug dealers. NowI suggest that they set up a separate section for women prayer-goers,"said Anat Hoffman, a left-wing member of the Jerusalem City Council.

Hoffman was among the leaders of the feminist "Women at the Wall"group that appealed to the Supreme Court 11 years ago for the right toconduct women's prayer services.

"There is no greater desecration of a holy place than that of womenwho come to the Western Wall to create a provocation, including the useof Torah scrolls. That right in Jewish law belongs only to men," saidYa'acov Litzman, an ultra-Orthodox Knesset member, in defense of theproposed legislation.

The Knesset move also triggered an immediate wave of protest fromliberal Jewish groups in the United States.

"Generally, this will be quite damaging to Israel's standing in theWest because legislation aimed at women is the first sign ofradicalization of society," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executivedirector of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, a branch of the 1.5 million-member Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

"As for the Jewish community, this is a declaration of war againstthe diaspora Jewish community, which will make the struggle betweenIsrael and the diaspora over the issue of conversion to Judaism looklike child's play," Hirsch added.

In a related development, Israel's State Attorney Edna Arbel was reportedly also preparing to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its recent ruling, onthe grounds the decision could provoke violence and that other suitablesites for non-Orthodox prayer services are available near the sacredshrine.

A site known as Robinson's Arch, just a few dozen yards from theWestern Wall pavilion, was recently designated by the government as asite where non-Orthodox prayer services could be conducted, includingmixed services of men and women. The Robinson's Arch site isstructurally part of the western retaining wall of the Herodion-era Temple, but it is somewhat removed from the usual focus of Orthodox prayers.

Since the Supreme Court has given the government six months toimplement its new ruling, the Women at the Wall group will refrain fromopenly flaunting Orthodox custom at the Wall site, Hoffman said.

Still, she said she feared the heightened tensions over the issuecould trigger confrontations at the Wall next week when women gather forprayers in celebration of the new Jewish calendar month and the holidayof Shavuot.

"For the moment, our services won't be any different than usual,"Hoffman said. "We'll pray at the Wall without a Torah scroll or prayershawls, and then we will distance ourselves in a more secluded spot toconduct the rest of our service as we have been doing for years.

"Even so," she added, "I imagine that there will be many morewomen who will turn out for the prayers and many more ultra-Orthodoxopponents.

I hope that the police will protect us, and we'll come outalive."