Plan to give women equal prayer rights at Western Wall creates divisions

Proposed changes that would give women the same prayer rights as men at the Western Wall continue to cause divisions in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox community wields considerable political power, the CBC's Derek Stoffel writes from Jerusalem.

Netanyahu agrees to review proposal in move seen as bow to Orthodox community

Before Rachel Yeshurun goes to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, she has to figure out how she can smuggle her Torah scrolls past the security guards.

Yeshurun is a member of Women of the Wall, a group that has spent nearly 30 years challenging the rules that favour men at one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

On a recent morning in which Yeshurun, who is originally from Montreal, led a prayer session, she stashed her Torah scrolls inside a baby stroller to avoid detection — and arrest.

The rules of the Western Wall plaza, which are in line with the Orthodox norms in Israel, do not grant women the same prayer rights as men, who can freely worship with Torah scrolls. Until recently, women were barred from singing or praying out loud.

"We're second class citizens," Yeshurun told CBC News.

Now, Israel's government, under pressure from diaspora Jews, particularly those in Canada and the United States, has agreed to create an egalitarian prayer space for non-Orthodox worshippers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it "a compromise on this delicate issue in a place that is supposed to unite the Jewish people."

But the proposed changes continue to cause divisions in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox community wields considerable political power.

Status quo

Netanyahu recently agreed to review the changes, effectively putting them on hold, in what's seen as bow to the Orthodox community that makes up part of his electoral base.

So, the status quo at the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel, remains in place.

Men and women are segregated, with male worshippers free to pray with Torah scrolls and wear prayer shawls in a large plaza in front of the Wall.

Women are separated by a large wooden fence and are banned from using Torah scrolls, which Women of the Wall say limits the practice of their religion.

An Orthodox woman who opposes women praying out loud at the Western Wall confronts a member of the Women of the Wall group at a recent prayer session in Jerusalem. (Ellen Krosney/CBC)

The proposal would create a third prayer space, where women and men could worship together in the area known as Robinson's Arch.

Yeshurun welcomes the compromise as a "win-win" for the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism and the Orthodox as well.

"Diaspora Jews will feel at home. They'll have choice. They won't feel as if they've landed on a different planet where women suddenly become second class citizens," she said.

But the Orthodox community strongly disagrees with the changes, which has resulted in the delay to establish a pluralistic prayer space.

'Tradition has not been changed'

A group formed to oppose the alteration of the status quo, Women For the Wall, believes tradition trumps calls for change by a small group of women staging a "media frenzy."

"It's a site that has 2,000 years of prayer tradition," said Leah Aharoni of Women For the Wall. "Like other religious sites in the world, tradition has not changed. It's not changed at the Vatican. It's not changed in Mecca."

The Western Wall refers to what remains of a retaining wall that surrounded the ancient Temple Mount, heralded by Jews as the site of their ancient temples, the holiest place in Judaism.

On the plateau above is the al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest site for Muslims, where members of other religions are allowed to visit but not to pray.

Rabbi Reuben Poupko remembers visiting the Western Wall for the first time nearly 50 years ago as a child, and today calls the Kotel "a touchstone for the Jewish people."

Poupko, a leader of the Jewish community in Montreal and a director with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, told CBC News that many in Canada's Jewish community had felt alienated from Israel because of the rules at the Western Wall.

"To see Jews going to a place where they want to be welcomed and then feel unwelcome and unwanted is deeply painful," Poupko said from Montreal. "That a symbol that should unify Jews should be a source of division was deeply, deeply painful."

Rabbi Poupko, who continues to lead prayer sessions at the Wall when visiting Israel, welcomes the creation of the egalitarian prayer space, calling it "a path now to resolution that will satisfy most of the people involved in this discussion."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.