Debate over mixed-prayer section reaches nation’s highest court
Liberal groups in Israel have petitioned the Supreme Court to enforce a 2016 agreement to create a new mixed-gender prayer section at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. Presently, the Western Wall has a men’s and women’s section—as, according to Jewish law, genders must be separated during religious services—with an existing mixed section located away from the physical structure itself but still inside the broader complex.
A four-hour-long court hearing was held this week, after the government suspended the deal last June amid pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition parties. The move set off an unprecedented crisis between Jerusalem and U.S. Jewry, with most major Jewish-American organizations having reacted with fury to the government’s reversal.
During the proceedings, an expanded seven-justice panel criticized the state for failing to protect advocates of the initiative from discrimination, but also questioned some of the demands of those same individuals and related groups. “What has to be done to satisfy you? For the Western Wall rabbi to personally present you with a Torah [the Jewish Bible containing the Five Books of Moses]?,” Justice Noam Sohlberg reportedly quipped in reference to those promoting the project.
The original pact was forged between the Israeli government and representatives of Judaism’s Reform and Conservative movements, along with officials from the Jewish Agency and members of the activist Women of the Wall organization. It included a provision to create one entrance for all three sections of the Western Wall as well as a board to oversee the newly-created area. Currently, only Orthodox groups are tasked with monitoring the holy site.
“We saw this as a turning point and now it is frozen forever without any official statement on the topic so that’s pretty frustrating,” Dana Sharon, a Women of the Wall board member told The Media Line. “We’re hoping that the Supreme Court will make the government stay [true] to its word.”
Groups such as Women of the Wall have long protested against the segregated spaces, as well as the general prohibition on females partaking in Jewish rituals such as reading from the Torah. For years, the organization has held monthly demonstrations at the Western Wall, which at times have descended into verbal and physical confrontations.
By contrast, many Orthodox groups contend that the push for a mixed-prayer section detracts from the Western Wall’s holiness. Some also claim that the campaign has been used by left-wing groups to advance their own political agendas under the guise of promoting equality.
“We believe that this is a needless conflict and are pleased that the Supreme Court is finally asking hard questions of those causing [problems],” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, a U.S-based Orthodox advocacy group, wrote to The Media Line in an email. “The Western Wall should be a place of prayer, not politics.”
Leah Aharoni, founder of Women for the Wall (a play on the progressive organization’s name), does not believe that the Supreme Court has the authority to interfere in the issue. “The law on the books is that the court cannot rule on the proceedings of religious sites,” she told The Media Line. “We are very optimistic that the court will not intervene in the goings on at the Western Wall.”
For his part, Dr. Shuki Friedman, Director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, says the law pertaining to the court’s jurisdiction is ambiguous and thus open to interpretation, noting that the body has in the past presided over similar issues. As per the law governing religious practice at the Western Wall, Dr. Friedman seemingly agreed with Aharoni, telling The Media Line that “it does not specifically describe what is prohibited at the holy site.” While the suspension of the deal by Netanyahu’s cabinet “may not be reasonable, it is not illegal,” he concluded.
The Supreme Court is slated to hold a follow-up hearing in mid-April and while it is unclear how it will rule, Women of the Wall activists have vowed to continue their protest. “We’re not backing down. We’re either going to win this fight or go down fighting,” Sharon affirmed.
(Dina Berliner is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)