JERUSALEM -- In a landmark ruling on the struggle over prayer at Judaism's holiest shrine, an Israeli court ruled Thursday that women could legally pray at the Western Wall wearing prayer shawls, contrary to Orthodox practice enforced at the site.
The ruling came after a string of incidents in recent months in which police detained women who wore the shawls while worshipping at the shrine, saying they had broken a law requiring prayer according to "local custom."
The arrests created an uproar in American Jewish communities and exposed a divide between Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate has authority in Jewish religious matters, and the Jewish diaspora, where the more liberal Reform and Conservative movements are dominant.
Rejecting an appeal by the state, the Jerusalem District Court on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling that the arrest of five women at the Western Wall during a prayer service this month was unjustified because they did not cause a public disturbance.
The women are members of Women of the Wall, a group of activists who have been campaigning for the right to pray at the shrine while following practices traditionally reserved for men, including wearing prayer shawls, leather straps and boxes containing parchment with Jewish scripture, and reading aloud from a Torah scroll.
Prayer arrangements at the Western Wall, part of a retaining wall around the courtyard of the ancient Jewish Temple, follow strict Orthodox tradition. Women pray behind a partition, dress codes mandate modest clothing, and an Orthodox rabbi supervises rituals at the site.
But Moshe Sobel, the presiding judge in the District Court, ruled that in its prayer service, Women of the Wall had not violated a law requiring worship according to "local custom" at Jewish holy sites. He cited previous opinions by Supreme Court justices allowing leeway in interpretation of "local custom" that would permit prayer that did not conform to Orthodox tradition.
Judge Sobel said a Supreme Court ruling referring Women of the Wall to an alternative prayer area south of the shrine's main plaza was a recommendation, not a legal requirement, and that the women detained this month had not posed a threat to public security that warranted their arrest or temporary ban from the site, as sought by the police.
Women of the Wall and liberal Jewish groups hailed the ruling as a breakthrough toward ending what they described as an ultra-Orthodox monopoly over worship at the shrine, revered for centuries by Jews as the only remnant of the ancient Temple complex.
"Today Women of the Wall liberated the Western Wall for all Jewish people," Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the group, said in a statement. "We did it for the great diversity of Jews in the world, all of whom deserve to pray according to their belief and custom at the Western Wall."
In an interview, Ms. Hoffman attributed the court decision to "a change in the public climate in Israel," which she said was the result of a "strong diaspora Jewish voice saying: This is unacceptable."
Responding to the growing protests from Jews abroad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December asked Natan Sharansky, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, to come up with a plan for worship at the Western Wall that would accommodate non-Orthodox prayer.
Mr. Sharansky's proposal, presented to American Jewish leaders and endorsed by Mr. Netanyahu, would enlarge the alternative prayer area at a southern extension of the wall, making it equal in size and access to the main plaza. The expanded area would be designated for services in which women could participate on an equal footing with men, as is customary in Reform and Conservative congregations.
The Orthodox rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has called the members of Women of the Wall provocateurs, said Thursday that he would ask Israel's attorney general to look into the legal implications of Thursday's court ruling, which appeared to pave the way for unfettered worship by the group at the shrine.
"I beg the state authorities, and the silent majority that cherishes the Western Wall, to prevent zealots on all sides from turning the Western Wall plaza into a place of internecine strife," he said.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform movement in Israel, said the ruling proved that the police had been used as "a tool of the rabbinical establishment without any legal basis." From now on, Rabbi Kariv said, "the sole role of the police is to protect Women of the Wall and enable them to pray."