Judaisms holiest site must belong to all of us by Marlene Adler Marks

But it didn't happen. On our trip to Israel, we did go to the Wall, of course, but I could not suppress the twinge of resentment. There were the young b'nai mitzvah on the other side of the mechitzah, the ritual separation, using Torah scrolls — many of them owned by the government, at taxpayer expense — that only men had access to. Meanwhile, women worshipping at their side of the wall had to mumble sotto voce into their prayerbooks, while the men's voices boomed aloud.

Well, here we are 11 years later, and progress is finally being made. As Rivka Haut, one of the original members of Women of the Wall, told her young grandchildren, ages 4 and 7, there will be bat mitzvah ceremonies at the Wall, maybe by the time they come of age.

"It will happen," she told me. "It's a momentous event of their lifetime."

You don't have to be an Orthodox Jewish feminist to applaud the recent Israeli Supreme Court decision establishing that women have the right to worship with Torah, tallitot and in an audible speaking voices at Jerusalem's Western Wall. This ruling is a major breakthrough for men and women, impacting not only women's religious rights in Israel, but Jewish interests throughout the diaspora.

The lawsuit has been so protracted and controversial because it pushes the major hot buttons of contemporary Jewish life: Is our religious practice fixed in time or does it evolve? Is Israel the capital of Jewish civilization or a theocracy?

The court has taken its sweet time to get there, but last week the ruling made it clear: Judaism evolves. Israel must be open to all Jews. Among the victories of this suit, as Miriam Benson, a long-standing board member of International Committee for Women of the Wall, told me, is that the court did not challenge the legal standing of a group outside Israel to be a plaintiff. The interests of world Jewry in the affairs of Israel might yet be exercised in court in a wide variety of matters.

If the justices had ruled otherwise, that women could not pray at the Jewish people's main historic shrine, and that only Israeli residents could sue, the results for international Jewry would have been disastrous.

When the lawsuit was first brought in 1989, the idea of women wearing tallitot and carrying the Torah was considered outrageous. We were at the beginnings of a Jewish women's movement that would eventually sweep not only secular or liberal feminists, but the entire Orthodox world. By the year 2000, the changes in American Orthodox practices have been dramatic.

In all but the most fervently religious sects, Orthodox girls celebrate b'not mitzvah.

Women's tefillah (prayer) groups are a part of Orthodox shuls.

Women wear tallitot and they read from the Torah.

Women are attending rabbinic seminaries.

Women speak their prayers in normal voices, no longer needing to mumble.

It was only a matter of time before these changes in Orthodox custom would be reflected in Israel, reaching even the Wall.

Jews of every movement can feel the brain-clearing joy of having the obvious ratified into law: Judaism changes.

It so happens that I worshipped last Saturday with the Chabad community in the Conejo Valley near Los Angeles.

Though I sat on the women's side of the mechitzah, I was pleased to find that change had come even to a movement of Judaism whose garb reflects 19th-century Poland.

The Torah was brought to the women's side and women were allowed to embrace it. The women sang out in their own clear voices.

And a woman went up to the bimah in the middle of the service to ask a rabbi a question. She acted like she'd been there many times.

And yet, during his sermon, the Chabad rabbi could not resist equating the court decision on the Western Wall with that week's sulfurous weekly Torah portion, which warned of dire consequences to Israel if changes are made to religious custom.

A thriving Jewish community in Conejo Valley may refuse to see that it, too, is evolving, but that doesn't change the facts. As this case points out, ironies abound throughout the Jewish world.

For decades, world Jewish leadership has bogged down in the "tail and the dog" debates. Just who will save the Jewish people: Israel or America? American Jewry, too, has entertained itself over which group is "authentic": Orthodoxy or the liberal streams? Just who is the tail and who is the dog?

The Women of the Wall's victory recognizes that Judaism is not a dog, but a flowering tree. Perhaps it is the biblical olive: fast-growing, hardy, transportable. And we, the Jewish people, are the process by which the fruit becomes edible.