2016-07-27
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JERUSALEM, May 31 (RNS)--Women who read from the Torah or wear Jewish ritual garments such as a prayer shawl at Jerusalem's Western Wall, Judaism's most sacred shrine, could face a seven-year jail term if proposed legislation introduced Wednesday is adopted by Israel's Knesset.

The bill passed a preliminary Knesset reading with a 29-25 majority after being submitted in a surprise move by the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party early in the afternoon. The bill must pass two more votes, however, before actually becoming law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They have prison units here for prostitutes and drug dealers. Now I 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 to conduct women's prayer services.

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

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

"Generally, this will be quite damaging to Israel's standing in the West because legislation aimed at women is the first sign of radicalization of society," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director 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 against the diaspora Jewish community, which will make the struggle between Israel and the diaspora over the issue of conversion to Judaism look like 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, on the grounds the decision could provoke violence and that other suitable sites for non-Orthodox prayer services are available near the sacred shrine.

A site known as Robinson's Arch, just a few dozen yards from the Western Wall pavilion, was recently designated by the government as a site where non-Orthodox prayer services could be conducted, including mixed services of men and women. The Robinson's Arch site is structurally 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 to implement its new ruling, the Women at the Wall group will refrain from openly flaunting Orthodox custom at the Wall site, Hoffman said.

Still, she said she feared the heightened tensions over the issue could trigger confrontations at the Wall next week when women gather for prayers in celebration of the new Jewish calendar month and the holiday of 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 prayer shawls, and then we will distance ourselves in a more secluded spot to conduct the rest of our service as we have been doing for years.

"Even so," she added, "I imagine that there will be many more women who will turn out for the prayers and many more ultra-Orthodox opponents. I hope that the police will protect us, and we'll come out alive."

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