The chief rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, has asked to stop the Women of the Wall organization from holding a “women’s priestly blessing” ceremony in the women’s section of the main Kotel plaza scheduled for April 24, during the intermediate days of the Passover holiday.
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Rabinovitch says in a letter he sent on this week to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit that he is determined “to prevent the offensive and insulting ceremony in the Western Wall Plaza, whose goal is to inflame emotions and cause strife and contention.”
Given the government’s failure to implement the cabinet decision to establish separate prayer arrangements and sections at the Kotel for various Jewish denominations and movements, the Women of the Wall announced their intention of holding a new ceremony, “Women’s Prayer and Priestly Blessing,” in the women’s section of the main prayer area. The ceremony is meant to resemble the traditional “Priestly Blessing” ceremony held on Passover and Sukkot at the Western Wall, but instead of male kohanim (priests), women who are the daughters of (male) priests will stand at the front of the women’s prayer section wrapped in prayer shawls, raise their hands in the traditional style and give the traditional blessing based on the Bible to the women.
Such a ceremony by women and for women is something new, though in some Reform and Conservative synagogues women who are the daughters of kohanim participate in the rituals in the same way as male sons do – but certainly not in Orthodox Judaism.
The question facing Mendelblit though is a legal one, and not one of religious law: Whether holding such a ceremony violates the “local practice.”
In April 2013, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the regulations concerning “conducting a religious ceremony not according to the local practice” at holy sites should be interpreted in a lenient fashion. Judge Moshe Sobol ruled that the prayer services of the Women of the Wall, which include public prayers led by a woman cantor and the wearing of prayer shawls and tefillin (phylacteries), do not violate the regulations or the interpretation of these rules handed down by the High Court of Justice over the years.
After the court ruling, a new enforcement policy was adopted by the police in 2013, after which the police stopped interfering with the monthly prayer services held by the Women of the Wall in the women’s section of the main prayer area of the Kotel, or arresting the women.
A group of women who have split off from the Women of the Wall has filed a petition asking the court to allow them to read publicly from a Torah scroll in the women’s section and not just hold a prayer service, saying Sobol’s ruling allows this in principle. This case is currently being heard, but for now Mendelblit will have to decide if the ruling allows the women to hold their own Priestly Blessing ceremony.
This week it was revealed that Israel Radio has refused to broadcast a paid ad from the Women of the Wall informing listeners of the “Women’s Priestly Blessing” on Passover.