Since Israel regained control of Jerusalem in 1967, the Western Wall plaza has been open to public prayer. But until now, it was exclusively under the oversight of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leadership and strict rules were enforced to prevent non-Orthodox practices. Women and men were separated by a barrier just as they would be in an Orthodox synagogue, and women were not allowed to carry Torah scrolls or lead prayer services.
For years, groups within Israel have worked to break the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on the site, but the highly-sensitive religious nature of the topic has caused tremendous controversy. Two years ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu instructed a committee to work on finding a solution. This week, the Prime Minister’s cabinet voted on a compromise and it passed 15-5.
Israel will construct a separate platform against the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer, with it’s own entrance, so that the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox worshipers may continue their traditional practices on one side and the Conservative and Reform worshipers may worship freely in a mixed-gender setting on the other side.
As with any compromise, not everyone is fully satisfied with the result, but those who are opposed are still relieved that the controversy is at an end.
Shmuel Rabinowitz, chief rabbi of the Western Wall, gave a statement expressing relief that there would no longer be quarrels at the Wall among Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshipers. In part, he said, “The Western Wall will continue to remain open to any worshiper — man or woman — at all hours of every day, with respect and loyalty to Jewish tradition and Jewish heritage, as the Western Wall is the clear symbol of these.”
Anat Hoffman, Chairwoman of the controversial women’s rights group Women at the Wall, celebrated the news. She said, “This is a dramatic and meaningful victory for the women of Israel and the people of Israel.”
While the new prayer platform is being built, the current ultra-Orthodox practices must still be followed at the Western Wall. Once the project is complete, all visitors will have full access to either side to pray, but must follow the customs assigned to each.