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Women's prayer tests ultra-Orthodox hold on Western Wall

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The singing rises through the early-morning cool which still covers the esplanade in front of the Western Wall, the holiest site at which Jews can pray.

A mother and daughter pray entwined. A young woman clutches a tiny infant of just a few months to her chest. Another almost disappears under a prayer shawl embroidered with red flowers as if to protect herself from the invective of the ultra-Orthodox worshippers on the other side of the police barrier separating them from the section of the plaza reserved for women.

"You are animals! The proof is that the police have you shut in a cage!" hisses an ultra-Orthodox woman dressed in a long black dress, her head covered.

The object of her vitriol is a group called Women of the Wall, most of them liberal in outlook, who demand the right to read aloud from the Torah.

They are also seeking to pray there wearing certain objects usually reserved for men: a tallit prayer shawl, a kippa (skullcap), or to put on tefillin -- leather straps to which are attached tiny boxes containing portions of scripture.

But such practises are anathema to the ultra-Orthodox community, whose rabbinate holds authority over the Wall and its esplanade, and regulates worship there.

At the start of every month in the Jewish calendar, the women come to conduct the monthly Rosh Hodesh prayers by the Wall, the last remaining section of the western support wall around the plaza that housed the Second Temple which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

- Backing of the courts -

In recent months, the hostility of the ultra-Orthodox (or 'haredim') towards the women has increased dramatically as the group has scored legal victories and won support from a growing number of politicians.

Formed in 1988, Women of the Wall has managed to secure the backing of the court which has recognised their right to pray as they want, after revising in their favour an earlier Supreme Court ruling from 2003.

"The fact that a woman prays with a tallit, tefillin or a kippa is not forbidden by halacha (Jewish law). These are practices which were being used as far back as the 13th and 14th centuries," explains Aliza Lavie, an MP with the centrist, secular Yesh Atid party.

"The Women of the Wall are questioning the norms imposed by the ultra-Orthodox, which are only their (the ultra-Orthodox) interpretation of Judaism," says Lavie, who describes herself as observant.

The growing polemic around the demands of the women, one of a number of disputes between different strands of Judaism, is a sign of a growing tension between the closed world of the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society.

The political influence of the ultra-Orthodox and their monopoly over religious affairs as well as elements of the civilian life are being increasingly challenged by Israeli society.

For the first time in many decades, the new Israeli government which was sworn in in March does not include any of the ultra-Orthodox parties, ending a years-long tradition in which they played a pivotal role in every ruling coalition.

- 'Apply tolerant and pluralistic policies' -

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has publicly expressed her support for Women of the Wall, declaring last month that the time has come "to apply tolerant and pluralistic policies at the Western Wall".

"I'm an optimist, things are changing at a political level," Rabbi Valerie Stessin told AFP.

"There is also a growing interest in Jewish tradition within non-Orthodox circles in Israel with the creation of study groups and egalitarian synagogues where women have the same role as men," she says.

In April, this mother-of-two -- who was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 1993 -- was one of five women arrested by police for praying while wearing a tallit.

"On that day, I decided to pray with my tallit, knowing that I risked being arrested because I could no longer stand the idea of living in a country which claims to be democratic but where there is an ultra-Orthodox monopoly over a site which is supposed to be for everyone," she admitted.

Unlike in the United States, where several of the women come from, those who define themselves as following the liberal stream of Judaism are only a tiny minority in Israel.

According to figures published by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), only 7.1 percent of Israeli Jews define themselves as Reform or Conservative -- the two branches of liberal Judaism -- compared with 26.5 percent who define themselves as Orthodox.

Angered by the actions of their more liberal counterparts, a group of Orthodox women have set up their own organisation called "Women for the Wall".

"I respect the desire of these women to pray as they wish, but why do several hundred of them try to impose their ways on thousands of people who come to pray daily at the Wall in an Orthodox fashion?" asked Leah Aharoni, a co-founder of Women for the Wall.

"These practices work very well in the United States but not here in Israel. We are not submissive or oppressed, we are only attached to our traditions," she told AFP.

For Lavie, the issue boils down to a question of freedom of worship at the site for everyone.

"The Women of the Wall phenomenon is not very popular in Israel, but the wall is a symbol for all Jews, not only for the Orthodox. We need to find a way to divide the public space in a way that suits everyone," she says.

One compromise which has been put forward by Jewish Agency director Natan Sharansky is the creation of a third space for mixed, non-Orthodox prayer at the Wall.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130628/womens-prayer-tests-ultra-orthodox-hold-western-wall