Egalitarian Prayer at the Kotel
By Jake Benglesdorf
In early March, thousands of Haredi Jews protested an egalitarian Rosh Chodesh service led by Conservative and Reform Jews at the Western Wall, the holiest place in the Jewish religion.
The service occurs monthly and is led by Women of the Wall, a “group of Jewish women from Israel and around the world who strive to achieve the right to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”
The group has been met with outrage from ultra-orthodox protesters, many of whom believe that only men should read from the Torah. Other sects of Judaism, however, such as the primarily American Conservative and Reform movements, do not abide by this precept, allowing for full egalitarian prayer.
After the Israeli government gained control of the Western Wall from Jordan in 1967, the Ministry of Religious affairs was quick to announce in 1968 that egalitarian prayer would not be permitted at the holy site, with the Knesset reaffirming this stance. Further attempts at creating egalitarian spaces were met with massive protests, and was even criminalized by the Ministries of Religion in 1989.
In 1994, the Israeli Supreme court assigned the Ne’eman commission the task of solving the egalitarian prayer question for Women of the Wall. The conclusion was to allow the group to practice prayer in a southwestern corner of the historic wall called Robinson’s Arch, an area fully separated from the orthodox section and out of orthodox jurisdiction.
Due to a 2013 ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court, women are legally allowed to read from the Torah at the western wall. Many Reform and Conservative advocates feel this is not enough, and that a permanent egalitarian installation should be made at the Kotel. A 2016 agreement by Reform and Conservative Jews was passed by the Israeli government and set in motion, but has received little attention since then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze the expansion plan in 2017.
The current coalition government, far more receptive to egalitarian prayer, seemed to be interested in pushing the plan through. However due to pressure from Orthodox coalitions, Prime Minister Neftali Bennett has held off.
Bennett additionally met with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements last month in what was said to be a productive discussion about the future of Egalitarian Judaism in Israel. This is the first time such a meeting has occurred since Benjamin Netanyahu’s Western Wall agreement, from which the former prime minister withdrew.
This historic meeting was attended by leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, as well as Conservative Member of Knesset Alon Tal of Kakhol V’Lavan.