Ministers: Mixed Western Wall Prayer Space Undermines Jewish Tradition

Israel's cabinet set to vote on mixed-prayer space after nearly three years of negotiations, but ultra-Orthodox and religious lawmakers could kill compromise.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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2013 | Western Wall, Jerusalem.
A member of Women of the Wall dons tefillin, a religious custom traditionally performed only by men. The group wants to secure the right of women to pray at the site.
A member of Women of the Wall dons tefillin, a religious custom traditionally performed only by men, Western Wall, Jerusalem, 2013.Credit: Michal Fattal
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) said he will vote against the establishment of a mixed-prayer space at the Western Wall, claiming the proposal "harms the Jewish tradition and will lead to unnecessary conflict." His comments were echoed by Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas) and Israel's religious services minister, who also said they would vote against the proposal.

As reported in Haaretz earlier this week, the government intends to vote on a plan to create a special prayer space in the southern expanse of the Western Wall where the Conservative and Reform movements can hold mixed services for men and women. The new prayer space will be accessed through a common entrance with the existing gender-segregated areas and will be equally visible, under the terms of the new agreement.

However, Haaretz also learned that the Religious Services Ministry has decided not provide any funding for the plan, fearing the move might be construed as recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish movements in Israel, and now at least four cabinet ministers have decided not to vote in favor.

A Jewish woman wears a prayer shawl as she prays at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's old city, Monday, Nov. 4, 2013. Credit: AP

JTA reported Thursday that Moshe Gafni, from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, intends to use his position as head of the Knesset Finance Committee to block funding for the plan. David Azoulay, an MK from another ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, heads the religious services ministry, and has said he will vote against the move Sunday, joining Interior Minister Arye Dery and Health Yaakov Minister Litzman.

Ahead of the cabinet meeting, Dery said Sunday "the State of Israel is run according to the Jewish tradition. The whole problem with Reform and Conservative Jews was nonexistent until now in Israel and there is intention to introduce it now. There is nothing to compromise here."

Interior Minister Arye Dery.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

Sunday’s cabinet vote comes after nearly three years of negotiations. The expansion plan is based on a report issued by a committee led by outgoing Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit. It is designed to put an end to the disagreement over the holy site that has waged since 1988, resolving the dispute by separating the different streams of Judaism. It would provide a separate site for non-Orthodox prayer and the Women of the Wall organization: this space is at the southern end of the Western Wall plaza, in an area known as Robinson’s Arch.

The concept was endorsed by the cabinet as far back as the 1990s. The Reform and Conservative movements, along with Women of the Wall – a women’s prayer group that holds monthly meetings at the women’s section – have now consented to the plan, saying the plan’s details have been improved.

Women of the Wall members observe practices at variance with traditional Orthodox custom, notably in allowing women to read from the Torah and wear prayer shawls. The group notes that its participants include Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox women.

The platform at the Western Wall built at the behest of Naftali Bennett. Women of the Wall disparagingly refer to the space as "the sundeck."Credit: Michal Fattal

The Center for Women’s Justice said it would oppose any deal that prevents women from praying out loud as a group in the existing women’s section as well as any deal that prevents them from wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries while they pray.

The cabinet resolution being voted provides that, as a general rule, there will be no separation of men and women at the non-Orthodox prayer site, but that Women of the Wall, “whose devoted battle to pray in their own way at the Western Wall plaza has continued for more than 25 years, [will be given] the opportunity to hold separate prayer at the site, according to their custom, on the first day of every Hebrew month [Rosh Hodesh], on the Fast of Esther [Ta’anit Ester], and at additional times at which the party responsible for the southern prayer area will provide specific permission, based on the opinion of the southern prayer area council.”

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