The Western Wall in Jerusalem, sometimes known as the Wailing Wall or the Kotel in Hebrew, is Judaism's holiest site. The only remaining wall of the Second Temple, and situated in East Jerusalem, the Western Wall is in some of the most hotly contested real estate in the world. In the Jewish world, however, something else is hotly contested: the right for women to pray openly at the Wall.
A group of Jewish women called Women of the Wall have been protesting at the Western Wall for the right to pray openly since 1988. Every month, they gather at the Kotel to hold prayer services in the women's side of the Western Wall, which is divided in single-sex areas. These women, who come from a diverse range of Jewish backgrounds, are fighting for the right to wear prayer shawls and to read from the Torah collectively and aloud at the Wall, a practice notably done at bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. That is to say, the Women of the Wall are fighting for the right to pray as men do in Orthodoxy – and women traditionally do not.
At the service Rabbi Conyer attended, as the women sang the prayers, some men tried to drown out the women, while there was water thrown over from the men's side.
Rabbi Alison Conyer of Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue in Melbourne has taken part in Women of the Wall's services and tells me that “it was electrifying being part of history, just praying, singing and dancing as women celebrating G-d and our role in the Jewish community. The Wall is a holy place for all Jews – a place where both women and men can express their connection to G-d, the universal Jewish community, and tap into a timeless piece of Jewish history all at the same time. They [the Women of the Wall] only ask to be able to pray to G-d, express their connection to Judaism.”
But while countless women from Israel and the diaspora have shared in these momentous services, the Women of the Wall have also attracted much condemnation, especially from Orthodox (in particular, Haredi or ultra Orthodox) men for whom women's prayer should be silent and the wearing of religious attire a privilege reserved strictly for men. Over the years, the Women of the Wall have been harassed, spat on, assaulted, pelted with baby nappies, and even arrested for their prayer services. At the service Rabbi Conyer attended, as the women sang the prayers, some men tried to drown out the women, while there was water thrown over from the men's side. Politically, too, the Women of the Wall have been met with great hostility by Israel's right wing parties.
The Western Wall itself is managed by a group of Haredi Orthodox rabbis who enforce Orthodox tradition at the site, effectively silencing (literally!) the religious practices of more liberal Jews that make up a significant portion of the Jewish world's diasporic population. Rabbi Conyer points out that the Women of the Wall “do not ask the men to change their practices for them, nor would they change their practices for the men. There is nothing they do that breaks halacha (Jewish law). Those that say the voice of a woman should not be heard are imposing their views onto halacha, as it is not, nor has it ever been halacha.” While Jews from every walk of life make pilgrimage to the Western Wall to pray, its conservative management (which is enforced by the police) makes the site a space in which de-facto Haredi norms control the religious practice of all Jews.
A 2013 court ruling gave the Women of the Wall the right to hold prayer services at the site, but harassment remains a constant.
Over time, the Women of the Wall have made some progress with their fight. A 2013 court ruling gave the Women of the Wall the right to hold prayer services at the site, but harassment remains a constant. More recently, in January this year, the group reached an agreement with the ultra-Orthodox establishment to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Wall. Unfortunately, the deal has since stalled because of Haredi opposition to having a shared entrance to both sites — egalitarian and the sex-segregated areas — as well as to non-Orthodox representation on the new committee that will oversee the new space. In June, a group of Orthodox organisations filed a petition with Israel's Supreme Court to prevent the formation of a new egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. It remains to be seen whether the conflict over Judaism's holiest site – and women's religious practice as Jews – can be resolved.
The Women of the Wall, though, are hopeful of the possibility of change. Anat Hoffman, one of the founders of the group, recently told a group of American Jews that “I am absolutely sure that there will be a bat mitzvah at the Western Wall for Jewish girls. It makes absolutely no sense that it won’t happen because all the facts are showing that women have entered the final frontier of the religious world. There is no doubt in my mind that there will be equality at the Western Wall. The question is, how long will it take?”