Western Wall Rabbi Forbids Women's Hanukkah Candle-lighting Ceremony

Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Kotel, rejects request by Knesset members, calling it a 'media provocation.'

Women of the Wall, along with MKs Michal Rozin and Tamar Zandberg, hold a small Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at the Western Wall, December 18, 2014.
Danielle Shitrit

A demand to allow feminist activists to hold their own official state-sponsored Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at the Western Wall has been rejected.

In response to a letter submitted by several members of Knesset, Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Kotel, on Wednesday characterized the demand as a “media provocation.” His response was published on the website of Jewish Pluralism Watch, an organization founded by the Conservative movement in Israel that monitors the positions of Knesset members on matters of religion and state.

Rabinowitz described the organizations behind the Hanukkah candle-lighting initiative as “extremist” and “fanatic” and accused them of trying to undermine ongoing negotiations concerning the creation of a new mixed-prayer section at the Jewish holy site.

The request for permission to hold an official candle-lighting ceremony in the women’s section of the Kotel was submitted by Tamar Zandberg and Michal Rosin, both from the left-wing Meretz Party, and Ksenia Svetlova of the center-left Zionist Union.

“It is regrettable that this is the response to a legitimate and understandable request,” said Svetlova in response to Rabinowitz's ban. No connection exists, she said, between negotiations over the mixed-prayer space and the demand to have a special candle-lighting ceremony for women at the Western Wall.

Women of the Wall, a feminist prayer group that holds a monthly service at the holy site, recently launched a campaign calling on Israeli dignitaries to boycott the official annual Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony unless women were included.

Leaders of the group demanded that either women be allowed to participate in a state-sponsored mixed ceremony in the plaza adjacent to the segregated prayer areas or that they be allowed to hold their own ceremony in the women’s section.

Responding to the Western Wall rabbi’s ruling, Tammy Gottlieb, vice chairwoman of the feminist group, said: “Rabbi Rabinowitz’s reference to the negotiations that have been going on for two years (and can go on much longer) as grounds for discrimination and exclusion of women is unacceptable to us. He had a full year to consider solutions, following our request last year, but he insists on ignoring the religious needs of women and other groups that are not ultra-Orthodox.”

Women of the Wall called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene in the matter.

Addressing the Jewish Federations General Assembly earlier this month, Netanyahu pledged to invest in strengthening the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel and promised to ensure that the Western Wall “is a source of unity for our people and not a source of division.”

Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement, as it is known in Israel, described the Western Wall rabbi’s response as “chutzpah,” saying it was tantamount to “prohibiting women from entering the Knesset on the grounds that this could be seen as a provocation.”

He accused Rabinowitz of transforming the Western Wall “from a national site to an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.”