Orthodox party pushes to ban mixed-gender prayer at Western Wall

The Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party hopes to pass legislation prohibiting pluralistic and mixed-gender prayer services from taking place at the Western Wall. 

The Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party will push for a ministerial vote this Sunday over legislation that would prohibit pluralistic and mixed-gender prayer services at any part of the Western Wall.

Shas says that the bill, which would impose penalties of six months in prison or a fine of NIS 10,000 on anyone in violation of the bill, targets “religious ceremonies…that do not fit the custom of the place, which would offend the congregation that prays there.”

At the center of the debate surrounding pluralistic and mixed-gender prayer services at the Western Wall is Israeli law as specified in sections 2(a)(1a) of the Regulations for Protecting Jewish Holy Places, which declares it illegal to conduct religious ceremonies that are not in accordance with the “local customs” of the area. A district court ruling in 2013 found that groups like Women of the Wall, which hold prayer services where women don religious garments that are traditionally worn by men such as the tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries), are not in violation of “local custom” at the site.

In the face of ultra-Orthodox opposition to such groups conducting prayer services at the site, albeit in the women’s section, a compromise had been reached within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet in January of 2016 calling for the creation of an “official and respected,” 9,700-square-foot prayer space for pluralistic groups like Women of the Wall.

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“The vision of the new section of the Kotel is a physical and conceptual space open to all forms of Jewish prayer,” Women of the Wall said in a statement at the time. “Instead of splitting up the existing pie into ever more divided, smaller pieces, we are making the pie much larger and sharing the new space.”

The prayer space is to be located just south of the Western Wall plaza, where women pray separately from men. The proposal by Shas would essentially overturn the compromise that was reached.

Shas announced its intention to introduce the legislation against the backdrop of a Supreme Court ruling earlier in January of this year imposing an injunction on Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Religious Services Ministry to submit an explanation within 30 days as to why women “should not be allowed to pray in accordance with their custom at the traditional plaza, or alternatively allow them to pray in accordance with their custom at a place which has access to the Western Wall similar to [the access] at the traditional site.”

The ruling was made after an offshoot group of Women of the Wall, known as “Original Women of the Wall,” which rejects any compromise, petitioned the Supreme Court to challenge a directive at the Western Wall plaza prohibiting women from entering the site with a Torah scroll.

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Shas is expecting its partners in the coalition, which include the Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and the national religious Jewish Home party, to support its proposal.

“We supported an increased tax on third homes, banning the muezzin call and other laws because it was important to our coalition partners,” said a source from Shas to Walla. “We expect them to support this even if it’s not their preference.”

By: Jonathan Benedek, World Israel News