Western Wall Rabbi: No More Tallit and Tefillin for Women at Kotel

Orthodox feminists say new agreement leaves them in the lurch: unable to pray at new egalitarian space, and facing greater restrictions in traditional women’s area.

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(NOT WOMEN OF THE WALL) A woman wears a Jewish prayer shawl and Tefillin a monthly prayer session at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. May 10, 2013
A woman wears a Jewish prayer shawl and Tefillin a monthly prayer session at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. May 10, 2013 Credit: Reuters
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Women will no longer be allowed to wear prayer shawls and tefillin, or phylacteries, at the women’s section of the Western Wall once the newly-agreed upon egalitarian prayer space is set up, the chief custodian of the Jewish holy site said on Monday.

In response to an email query from Haaretz, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, said: “Women will pray in accordance with Jewish tradition and heritage – without tefillin and prayer shawls.”

The government approved on Sunday a landmark agreement to create a new area in the southern expanse of the Western Wall where the Conservative and Reform movements will be allowed to hold mixed prayer services for men and women. Women praying in this new egalitarian space will be allowed to wear prayer shawls and phylacteries and to read from the Torah.

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

The agreement does not spell out, however, whether women who choose to pray in the existing women’s section in the northern part of the site will be allowed to continue wearing prayer shawls and tefillin, which is the case today. It suffices with the following statement: “In the northern prayer plaza, prayer will be conducted according to Orthodox Jewish tradition and according to the rules of the Torah upheld by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which require, among other things, a separation between the men’s section and the women’s section, and women’s prayer being conducted according to this custom.”

A spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate declined to comment on the matter.

Many members of Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational feminist prayer group, wear prayer shawls and tefillin when they participate in the group’s monthly prayer service held for the past 25 years in the women’s section. In the 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.

A member of Women of the Wall dons tefillin, a religious custom traditionally performed only by men, Western Wall, Jerusalem, 2013.Credit: Michal Fattal

The group has pledged to move its monthly service to the new egalitarian area once it is completed

Under the terms of the new agreement, Rabinowitz’s jurisdiction will be restricted to the existing gender-segregated prayers areas. The new egalitarian area will be operated by a council comprised of representatives of the government, the Jewish Agency, the Reform and Conservative movements, and Women of the Wall.

The agreement stipulates that any violation of prayer regulations at the Western Wall will not be considered a criminal offense, as was the case in the past. In past years, it was not uncommon for Women of the Wall activists to be arrested for violating rules of conduct at the holy site.

Female worshipers at Western Wall. September 2008. Credit: Tess Scheflan

Among these who have expressed disappointment and anger with the new agreement are some prominent Orthodox feminists. Since their beliefs do not allow them to pray together with men, these women say that they have no choice but to pray in the existing gender-segregated where tougher restrictions are about to be enforced.

“It is unacceptable to me that we should be forced to forfeit our rights to pray as we wish,” said Hannah Kehat, a pioneer of Orthodox feminism in Israel. “It’s as if we’re being forced to start our struggle from square one. We are going to fight this though.”

Ayellet Cohen-Wieder, another prominent Orthodox Israeli feminist, praised Women of the Wall for leading the struggle for women’s prayer rights for so many years. At the same time, she said: “Women of the Wall did not have a mandate to negotiate this deal on behalf of all women.” Cohen-Wieder also challenged Rabinowitz’s claim that it was a violation of Jewish law for women to wear prayer shawls and tefillin. “Nowhere does it say that this is forbidden,” she said. “The ultra-Orthodox may not feel comfortable with it, but that’s a different matter.”

In order to accommodate Orthodox women who want to continue attending the Women of the Wall monthly prayer service, the group has arranged for a portable barrier to be made available in the new egalitarian section so that participants can separate themselves from the men. This barrier will not be available, however, on a daily basis.

“If Orthodox women want to continue fighting for their rights to pray as they see fit in the women’s section, we will support them in this fight,” said the group’s spokeswoman Shira Pruce.