Jerusalem’s Western Wall (called the Kotel in Hebrew), is considered the holiest prayer-site for the Jewish people.
The limestone wall was part of the anciently constructed Second Jewish Temple. When the Temple was built, the wall sectioned off an area that would later be termed the Temple Mount — Judaism’s most sacred site and an extremely important landmark in Islam and Christianity.
This area in Jerusalem’s Old City is, not surprisingly, first on the list for many who visit Israel. The significance and particular holiness of the Western Wall and the surrounding area make it a high-traffic area and a very meaningful experience for Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish people alike.
“Status quo” laws govern Temple Mount and exist to uphold certain standards and control the sharing of the space between several faiths, and entrance to the Wall is contingent upon particular criteria. At the Wall itself, men and women are separated according to Halakhic, or Torah-based, laws. To pray at the Wall, women must adhere to modesty standards, which means their arms, knees, and, in some cases, hair should be covered. They are prohibited from holding or partaking in organized prayer, holding or reading aloud from a Torah, and from wearing a prayer shawl.
On several occasions throughout history, legislation has been passed that challenges the right of women to pray at the Wall in the same ways as their male counterparts.
Certain Halakhic laws, such as the idea that a woman’s voice is tempting or inherently sexual, which are observed in a variety of ways by more observant Jews, have caused discord. Modern women and their desire for contemporary equality come up against the ultra-Orthodox and their desire to preserve their concept of sanctity through strict observation and regulations. In the late eighties, legislative action, including rulings by the Supreme Court, barred women from praying at the Wall while wearing tallit (traditional prayer shawls) or holding a Torah, both of which are actions in-keeping with traditional prayer and are important elements of Jewish worship.
There’s traction on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, organizations and international entities that are interested in protecting religious customs seek to advocate for the rights of various religious groups. They look to preserve the ability of people of faith to practice their religions. On the other, there are organizations like the Women of the Wall, which, since the 1980s, has worked to secure women the right to pray freely and equally.
The Women of the Wall are, as they define it, interested in “[attaining] social and legal recognition of [their] right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah, collectively and aloud, at the Western Wall.” Several of their members have been detained, arrested, and escorted away from the Wall by police for their attempts to pray traditionally. Their leaders have met with several Israeli Prime Ministers, with Rabbis of great import, and with religious leaders across international divides, all in effort to create a “pluralistic” and open environment for prayer at the Wall.
In 2016, the Women of the Wall, also known as “WOW,” proposed the Mendelblit Plan, which would, according to their 2016 Press Release, bring about the creation of a “third, pluralist prayer section at the Western Wall,” and, thereby, “acknowledge women’s full equality and autonomy at the Kotel and the imperative of freedom of choice in Judaism and in Israel.” The Plan was accepted by the Israeli government this winter, but, as WOW wrote in their April update, “the first deadlines towards implementation have already come and gone.”
Though their fight has been decades long and their work continues, WOW remains committed to their mission “to change the status-quo that is currently preventing women from being able to pray freely at the Western Wall.” Creation of a freer prayer space at the Western Wall will not come quickly or easily. WOW’s proposals touch on a longtime struggle, and shed light on the extremely difficult and delicate relationship between religion and women’s rights to freedom, autonomy, and choice. The questions are big and the fight is long, but WOW does not lose hope, as evidenced by the organization’s most recent blog post.
“The execution of this plan may take some time,” they wrote, “and until its completion, Women of the Wall continue to pray in the women’s section of the Western Wall, remaining steadfast in the fight.”