Religious Services Minister Calls for Legal Action Against Women of the Wall

David Azoulay calls on attorney general to use all means at his disposal after the feminist religious group held a prohibited ceremony at the Western Wall.

Women of the Wall holding priestly blessing at the Western Wall, May 9, 2016.
Women of the Wall's Facebook page

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay has called for the attorney general to take legal action against Women of the Wall, after the feminist prayer group held a female version of a traditionally male priestly benediction in Jerusalem on Monday.

The ceremony took place at the Western Wall despite a ban imposed by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, featuring a female adaptation of the blessing which is traditionally recited for cohanim, the descendants of ancient Jewish priests.

Some 120 women participated and the police allowed the ceremony to take place and even arrested a heckler, Matti Dan, chairman of Ateret Cohanim, a group that seeks to expand the Jewish presence in Jerusalem's Old City.

Many traditional Jews object to the recitation of the female priestly benediction at the Western Wall, claiming that it is at variance with Orthodox custom, while supporters consider the issue a matter of freedom of religious expression.

Women of the Wall hold priestly blessing ceremony at Western Wall.

For his part, Azoulay asked Mendelblit to see to it that the female priestly blessing ceremonies are not held at the Wall in the future. "I would ask you to take every measure against violators of the law. I would ask that you see fit to instruct the police that the holding of future ceremonies of this kind not be permitted."

Mendelblit issued his order, as a violation of "local custom," in connection with plans by Women of the Wall to hold the priestly blessing ceremony during Passover, when it is traditionally held. The feminist organization cancelled their plans at the time as a result, but questioned the legal basis for Mendelblit's order.

Many members of Women of the Wall, wear prayer shawls and tefillin, phylacteries, when they participate in the group’s monthly prayer service held for the past 25 years in the women’s section. In the more distant past, they were sometimes prevented from engaging in such practices, which are considered sacrilegious by ultra-Orthodox Jews. But since April 2013, when a Jerusalem District Court judge ruled that these practices are not a violation of “local custom,” they have been left alone.

More broadly, non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall, which is under the administration of ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz, has been a matter of contention. Earlier this year, Women of the Wall, along with representatives of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements in Israel, came to an agreement that was approved by the cabinet that is to establish an egalitarian prayer plaza adjacent to the current Western Wall plaza. Since the agreement was announced, however, there has been major opposition in the ultra-Orthodox community.