As feminist prayer group Women of the Wall arrived at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Monday for a bat mitzvah ceremony and their monthly prayer service, they found their way blocked by crowds of dissenters.
The Women of the Wall have sparked extreme backlash in Israel for their petitions to change gendered restrictions at the Kotel, or Western Wall. They seek a space at the wall for women and men to pray together—currently, the Western Wall has only sex-segregated spaces. The group has also advocated for women’s right to read Torah at the Kotel.
The Israeli government has prohibited women from reading Torah or wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall since 2003. The Women of the Wall have historically protested this injunction by sneaking in the Torah to the women’s section of the wall and holding prayer services, leading security at the wall to conduct extensive body searches on them before allowing them into the holy site.
In January of this year, Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered security to cease conducting such body searches on women and, furthermore, gave the state 30 days to present them with “good cause” for the Western Wall’s prohibition on women reading Torah.
Women of the Wall celebrated this development as a move toward “gender equality and religious freedom at the Wall.”
“I am elated because when I was looking for justice, and then courage, they were missing, and now the highest court in the land has shown me both,” said Anat Hoffman, the group’s leader.
Monday, as the group arrived at the Wall to hold prayer services and to perform a Bat Mitzvah ceremony for an Israeli girl, however, they found their way blocked by Orthodox worshipers.
Liba, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group that has fervently campaigned against the changes championed by the Women of the Wall, called upon the Israeli Orthodox to crowd the Wall so as to block the Women of the Wall out. Liba bused in thousands of Orthodox high school girls for the event so that they could fill up the women’s section of the wall.
Police constructed a barricade so that the Women of the Wall could still pray inside the women’s section. Their service was nearly drowned out, however, because Western Wall administrator Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz broadcast men’s morning prayers over a loudspeaker that is usually reserved for Jewish festivals, Religion News Service reported.
Despite Haredi men jostling the women upon entrance to the Wall and Orthodox girls in the women’s section reportedly shouting, “You are animals,” approximately 120 women participated in the prayers and bat mitzvah.
Hoffman said that the successful bat mitzvah ceremony for 12-year-old Noa Brenner brings her hope that change is on the horizon.
“My only comment to Noa today is that I am convinced that when she’s a grandmother, her grandchildren will not believe that her bat mitzvah was the chaos we saw today, because, by then [having a] bat mitzvah [at the Western Wall] will be a normal thing,” Hoffman told The Jerusalem Post. “It’s just a shame that Israel, instead of being a leader in the Jewish world by making this something normal, is being dragged by its hair by the Women of the Wall, the Reform and Conservative movements and other partners to a place where…women have the right to pray out loud, read Torah, put on tefillin and have a bat mitzvah.”
Liberal lobbying group Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah, meanwhile, expressed its concern about Liba’s choice to bus in Orthodox students for the protest. “The Western Wall is a holy and sensitive site that is currently the subject of a lengthy and important debate, within the national-religious community and without, regarding religious practice there,” the group said. “There are many varied opinions within the national-religious community on this issue, and sending school girls to a demonstration like the one this morning is an educational and moral failure by parents and the [educational] institutions.”
Although Israeli boys commonly hold their bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall, restrictions on women’s Torah-reading prohibit girls from having their bat mitzvah at the Wall. The first known bat mitzvah at the Kotel was in 2014. The Women of the Wall smuggled in a miniature Torah, which 12-year-old Sasha Lutt read with a magnifying glass.
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: Women Praying at Robinson’s Arch. Photo by Michal Patelle-Women of the Wall, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.