Women pray at contested Wall without major conflict

JERUSALEM — The women who gathered at the Western Wall this week are taking it as a good sign that despite jeers from hecklers, they were able to conduct a prayer service without any major incident.

Members of the group Women of the Wall said they are optimistic that the Israeli government will carry out a recent Supreme Court ruling that allows them to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall.

And aside from some name-calling and attempted food-throwing from those who believe that women should not be allowed to hold formal prayer services at Judaism's holiest site, the service went ahead without the physical confrontation that had been feared.

An estimated 200 women turned out for the service, four times the usual amount who participate, according to one group member.

In keeping with the court ruling, the women did not wear tallitot or bring a Torah. Upon concluding the service, however, the group did move to an area in the Jewish Quarter above the Wall, where some of them wore their prayer shawls, tefillin and read from the Torah, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Several dozen worshippers at the site, both male and female, shouted at the group, and Israeli police detained four fervently religious men who they said planned to throw eggs at the Women of the Wall.

A group of haredi men located on the edge of the plaza above the female prayer group used their vantage point to yell slurs.

"Lesbians, lesbians, they're all lesbians," screamed one man, according to the Post.

The women's service was given heavy police protection out of concern for possible clashes with fervently religious worshippers who disagree with the court's decision, a landmark ruling that capped an 11-year legal battle by the women's group.

Anat Hoffman, a leader of the Women of the Wall, said that the women would not give in to the attempts to keep them away from the holy site.

"We are a big and significant enough group that we should be allowed to pray here," Hoffman said, holding a white prayer shawl near the wall. She also said the hecklers "desecrated the holy site" by swearing at the women.

Hoffman thought that the police worked effectively to maintain order.

"The police for 11 years told the high court they could not protect us and that it was a situation the police cannot deal with," she said. "We think the police can now tell the government they can protect us."

Hoffman said the turnout greatly encouraged her.

"I felt strengthened in many ways," Hoffman said. "Five times more women than usual arrived."

But a member of the fervently religious United Judaism bloc told CNN that the women's behavior was "against modesty."

"They can't have the right to come to us and say, 'I think you should change your religious law.' They don't have the right to do so," said Rabbi Avraham Ravitz.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court gave the government six months to come up with the necessary arrangements to enable the women's group to pray at the Wall, reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls.

Conservative religious legislators have initiated bills to bypass the court ruling. One bill would sentence women to seven years in jail for reading from the Torah, blowing the shofar or wearing a tallit at the Western Wall.

That bill, sponsored by the fervently religious United Torah Judaism bloc, passed the first of three required votes in the Knesset last week.

"We are very anxious about this legislation," Hoffman said. "It is a serious stain on the Israeli law books."

While some religious lawmakers are taking the legislative route to bypass the court ruling altogether, others are seeking compromise.

Israel Radio reported that legislator Nahum Langental, a member of the National Religious Party, has proposed allowing the Women of the Wall to hold their services at Robinson's Arch, which is at the southern end of the Western Wall.

The Conservative movement recently agreed to a compromise under which it will hold services at the arch.

Hoffman suggested that a timetable be made up to allow groups with different interests to share the site.

Sunday's service celebrated Rosh Chodesh, the new month on the Hebrew calendar.