Historic deal allows men and women to pray together at Western Wall

31 January 2016
The Guardian

Israel approves official separate area for mixed gender praying that will be registered in country’s Law of Holy Sites.

A battle lasting more than a quarter of a century over the Western Wall, the religious site revered by Jews all over the world, has resulted in a historic deal to create a space where men and women are permitted to pray together in equality.

On Sunday, the Israeli government approved the creation of a permanent and official separate area for mixed gender praying at the site in Jerusalem’s Old City. Liberal and reform Jews hailed the move as a victory for Jews everywhere.

Women of the Wall has campaigned for equal prayer rights at the Western Wall for the past 27 years, holding monthly protests in the plaza in front of the wall’s ancient golden stones. The gatherings frequently ended in physical tussles and arrests.

The women’s demands were anathema to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, which manages the site. The rules governing worship – set by the Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz – forbade men and women from praying together. A small section of the wall is sectioned off for women.

Women of the Wall also demanded an end to ultra-orthodox bans on women praying aloud, reading from the Torah and wearing traditional prayer shawls, known as tallit.

Thousands of Jews pray every day at the site, the last remnant of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, pushing scraps of paper bearing handwritten prayers into the cracks between the ancient stones. The site also attracts thousands of tourists and international dignitaries, with Pope Francis, Barack Obama and Madonna among global figures who have prayed at the wall.

The new section for non-Orthodox mixed gender prayer will double the size and make permanent an area designated under a temporary compromise reached in 2013 after Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered a solution to be found to the dispute. The expanded area, costing £6m, will accommodate 1,200 worshippers and be officially registered in Israel’s Law of Holy Sites. It will be administered by government officials.

The Israeli cabinet approved the plan without a formal vote. Ultra-Orthodox cabinet members criticised the move, with interior minister Aryeh Deri saying: “For all the years of its existence, the state of Israel has conducted itself based on traditional Judaism.”

Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, the sister movement of Reform Judaism in Israel, said: “This is a landmark decision for Jews across the globe. It recognises that Judaism is an inclusive religion with a variety of different but valid expressions.

“Equality of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation are central to Liberal Judaism and now at last liberal Jews can celebrate a Judaism in keeping with the modern world at our most holy site.”

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