From the mid-1800s, photographs of Jews praying together at the Western Wall became common on the walls of houses across the Western world. Today, a rich collection is found in Washington’s Library of Congress digital archives, in which a jumble of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, men and women, are depicted in prayer at what has been considered one of Judaism’s holiest sites for the past two millennia.
Mixed prayer, with men and women praying together, appears to be the norm — or at least a viable option — in these archival images, aside from High Holy Day crushes, in which women either were not in attendance, or prayed off to the side.
In fact, the idea of partitioning prayer between men and women at the Western Wall is relatively modern, and due to a variety of sociological and political constraints was only put into practice after the unification of Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967. However, for centuries, the wall has had central importance as an anchor of Jewish worship and culture.
For hundreds of years following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews were persecuted and eventually forbidden from worshiping in Jerusalem. Only in 325 CE, under the Christian Byzantine Empire, was the ban lifted and were Jews allowed to pray on the ruins of their temple once a year on Tisha B’av, a holiday which memorializes its destruction.
In 361 CE Jews were again able to settle in Jerusalem and by 614 were again present in such numbers as to stage a revolt — siding with the Persians — against the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. Thoroughly trounced by 630, the Jews were generally massacred by returning forces and fled from the city.
In 638, the Arabs conquered Jerusalem and after they granted residents freedom of worship, Jews once again resettled the city. Under Arab rule, the Western Wall became a popular place of worship and was cited by several writers and diarists of the time. In the meantime, the Crusaders besieged Jerusalem in 1099 and slaughtered most Jewish inhabitants.
Following the Crusader conquests, a series of “high-profile” visitors are recorded as having come to the Holy City, among them poet Yehuda Halevi (1141), physician/philosopher Maimonides (1165), and diarist Benjamin of Tudela (1173).
During his 300-city winding pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in 1170 Benjamin of Tudela wrote (in Hebrew), “In front of this place is the Western Wall, which is one of the walls of the Holy of Holies. This is called the Gate of Mercy, and hither come all the Jews to pray before the Wall in the open court.”
Officially, however, only after Saladin captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders were Jews again allowed to resettle in 1187. Medieval Jewish scholar Nachmanides visited Jerusalem in 1267 to pray at the Western Wall, but reportedly met just two Jewish families in the city.
Under the Ottoman Empire, restrictions were again imposed on the Jews by 1705, including the inability to create permanent fixtures such as partitions — or even tables and benches — at the Western Wall, though they were still able to worship there. In 1840 Ibrahim Pasha wrote an edict forbidding Jews from paving a path to the Western Wall. The firman, or decree, also told Jews not to speak or pray loudly or keep books in the area.
The edict from Ibrahim Pasha can be explained by the uptick of Jewish settlement in the mid-1800s. However, even as new Jewish neighborhoods were built outside of the Old City, the Western Wall became ever more central for Jewish prayer.
Bavarian-born geographer Joseph Schwarz, a Jerusalem resident until his death in 1865, wrote in 1850 that “the large space at [the Wall’s] foot is often so densely filled up, that all cannot perform their devotions here at the same time.”
By the British Mandate period, the issue of Jewish prayer at the Western Wall came to a head with 1929 riots, which were in part over a new Committee for the Western Wall. Jewish historian and Hebrew literature professor Joseph Klausner established the “Pro-Wailing Wall Committee” to formalize the right to Jewish worship at the wall. The desire to create a prayer partition between sexes was part of the committee’s efforts. For his efforts, alongside massive destruction and bloody loss of life throughout Mandate Palestine, Klausner’s house in Jerusalem was destroyed.
With the outbreak of the 1948 War of Independence, Jerusalem’s Old City was captured by Jordanian forces and Jews were blocked from the Western Wall until its “redemption” in the 1967 Six Day War.
Images of the Western Wall became the iconic face of unified Jerusalem and the site took on national as well as religious symbolism. Quickly, a 12th-century neighborhood known as the Moroccan Quarter was razed, paving the way for what is today’s Western Wall plaza.
A transfer of authority from the IDF rabbis to the religious affairs minister was enshrined in the 1967 Law of the Conservation of Holy Places, which stated, among other things: “The holy places will be protected against desecration and all other harm, and against all things that may prevent free access of all religions to the holy places, and their feelings for these sites.”
That the wall was originally intended for all Jews — and other religions of the world — is borne out by a statement by then-religious affairs minister Zerach Warhaftig, a legal thinker who signed the Declaration of Independence. About two weeks after the war, Warhaftig told the Knesset that the law would ensure that people of all religions, from all places, have free access to the holy sites.
At the same time, the Western Wall was divided between a prayer section — north of the Mughrabi Bridge leading to the Al-Aqsa Mosque — and a southern section for the research and presentation of in situ archaeology.
The Western Wall became a major attraction for spiritual and nationalistic reasons and was visited by droves of Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
The section delineated for prayer was then administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which, after salvage archaeological excavations were completed, quickly put up a low separation barrier between men and women’s sections for prayer.
In 1988, The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a governmental body established by the Ministry of Religion, was created to “cultivate, develop and preserve the Kotel (Western Wall) and its tunnels.”
At the same time, the impulse of Reform and Conservative Jews to worship at the Western Wall also grew. By the late 1980s, there were several instances of interrupted prayer through physical violence and “missiles” of feces-filled diapers thrown at groups made up largely of Diaspora Jews and the fledgling group of female worshipers that came to be known as Women of the Wall in 1988.
Alongside Women of the Wall, Reform and Conservative Jewry took the matter of their right to pray at the Western Wall to court. A series of governmental committees began negotiations toward a compromise. By the 1990s, however, after a proposal to dedicate the Robinson’s Arch archaeological park to egalitarian prayer, both the Women of the Wall and Israeli Reform Jewry decided not to continue negotiations to that end.
The Conservative movement moved forward and since 2000 has had a continuous presence at Robinson’s Arch. In 2013, then religious affairs minister Naftali Bennett built a temporary prayer platform there which is in use until today.
At the same time, as the Women of the Wall has continued its monthly prayer gatherings at the Western Wall, the Heritage Foundation has built ever-higher prayer separations between the men’s and women’s sections to prevent the smuggling of Torah scrolls into the women’s section.
After three and a half years of negotiations between Women of the Wall, Reform and Conservative Jewry, as well as Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and government representatives, a January 31, 2016, government decision was passed to create a much enlarged and more contiguous prayer area in Robinson’s Arch.
On Sunday, that plan was officially frozen after a surprise cabinet vote.