A Place for Prayer at the Kotel
Century-old photographs show men and women praying side by side at the Western Wall. But that was before there was a State of Israel and a government with ultra-Orthodox parties. When Israel gained control over the site as a result of the Six-Day War, the government granted authority over it to the Religious Affairs Ministry, which established separate men’s and women’s sections and put an Orthodox rabbi in charge—currently, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch serves that role.
Thus was born the question of who may pray at the Kotel—a retaining wall of the Temple Mount—and how.
The battle for religious freedom has been waged on three fronts: in the courts, in negotiations with the government and through prayer at the Kotel. Partners in the struggle include Women of the Wall, the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements, their American counterparts and other groups.
Two main solutions have been considered: creating a third space for women’s-only prayer as well as egalitarian, non-Orthodox prayer alongside the existing gender-segregated spaces, or expanding an egalitarian prayer space along the southern part of the site, at what is called Robinson’s Arch.
Spearheading the struggle is the Women of the Wall, a feminist group comprising women from various streams of Judaism. Since 1988, the group has held a women’s prayer service in the women’s section of the plaza at the start of each Jewish month that, according to Rabinovitch, violates the “custom of the place” (which has never been formally defined). The group’s service includes singing, reading aloud from the Torah and wearing religious items (tallit, tefillin and kippah). Members have been assaulted both verbally and physically by ultra-Orthodox men and women and have been arrested and detained.
In January 2016, after years of negotiations, the government approved the creation and funding of an upgraded, accessible and visible egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch. But the ultra-Orthodox parties, which initially agreed not to block the plan, have stymied it. The matter is again before the courts, which have previously ruled that if the government does not develop the Robinson’s Arch site, the women must be allowed to pray at the Kotel.
Esther Hecht is a journalist based in Jerusalem.
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