Haredi party said to demand law banning all non-Orthodox prayer at Western Wall

Reform movement and Women of the Wall come out fiercely against proposal to nix all mixed-gender services at the holy site, including in its egalitarian section

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Members of Women of the Wall gather around a Torah scroll the group smuggled in for their Rosh Hodesh prayers marking the new month at the Western Wall, where women are forbidden from reading from the Torah, December 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Members of Women of the Wall gather around a Torah scroll the group smuggled in for their Rosh Hodesh prayers marking the new month at the Western Wall, where women are forbidden from reading from the Torah, December 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The United Torah Judaism party has reportedly issued a fresh demand — that all mixed-gender prayer be forbidden at the Western Wall, including in its egalitarian section, as part of ongoing coalition negotiations with the Likud party.

The proposal sparked fierce denunciations from the Reform movement in Israel, as well as Women of the Wall, a group that advocates for female-led prayer services at the site.

The ultra-Orthodox UTJ party is demanding a change to the law that would forbid prayer not conducted “in accordance with the traditions of the Chief Rabbinate,” Army Radio reported Thursday.

Currently, the 1981 regulation that governs behavior at the Western Wall forbids holding “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the local traditions.” In 2013, the High Court of Justice ruled that female-led prayers do not violate this prohibition. However, they would be in violation of the law if the standards were matched to the Rabbinate’s views against female-led services and mixed-gender prayer.

Though it appeared to be directed primarily against Women of the Wall, which holds monthly prayer services in the section of the site set aside for women, such legislation would also apply to the egalitarian, mixed-gender section of the Western Wall, since the law does not officially consider the area to be a distinct space.

According to Army Radio, the Likud negotiation team did not explicitly oppose the UTJ demand, but talks were ongoing and still far from resolved.

This latest request joins a host of demands from the religious parties poised to join the next coalition aimed at strengthening the Chief Rabbinate and Orthodox Jewry’s control over religious life in Israel. This has included demands to revoke recognition of non-Rabbinate conversions to Judaism for the purposes of citizenship, restricting immigration to Israel by people who are not Jewish according to Orthodox interpretations, permitting gender segregations at public events and more. Though experts say that not all of these measures are expected to pass into law.

A boy reads from the Torah as part of his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall’s egalitarian section in Jerusalem on November 17, 2022. (Egalitarian section/Facebook)

The Reform movement called on Likud party chief, presumed incoming premier Benjamin Netanyahu, to remember that the Western Wall “is not the private yard of ultra-Orthodox Judaism alone, but is a holy place and a national site of the first order to all Jews and Jewesses in Israel and in the Diaspora, including millions of liberal Jews.”

Women of the Wall similarly denounced the demand, saying it was a “disgrace to the future government of Israel and a disgrace to the entire State of Israel.”

“The significance of this move is the exclusion of millions of Jews and Jewesses from the Western Wall by the State of Israel and an unambiguous declaration that they are not wanted in the state of the Jews,” the group said.

The religious feminist attorney Nitzan Caspi Shiloni, of the Center for Women’s Justice, said that such a law change would radically alter the distribution of legal powers in Israel, giving rabbinic legal authorities direct control over a space that is currently governed by civil law. Currently, she noted, only two aspects of Israeli society — marriage and divorce — are governed by religious law.

“Today a rabbi manages the Western Wall, but the rules are set by civil law. The Chief Rabbinate is a regulator for religious issues, not a lawmaker. This would be a revolution,” she said.

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