A member of the Women of the Wall wears a tallit (prayer shawl) as she prays holding a Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 11, 2016 (AFP/GALI TIBBON)
The chief rabbi of the Western Wall on Friday accused Women of the Wall, an organization which works for increased women's prayer rights at the Jewish holy site, of deliberately provoking friction by bringing in a Torah scroll to the women's section at the site during morning prayers earlier in the day. Such an act, he said, was a desecration.
According to Israel Radio, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch accused the group of contradicting arrangements for the holy site set out earlier this week by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — the Orthodox former cabinet secretary behind a recently approved plan by the cabinet to build a new plaza at the Wall for mixed-gender prayer. Rabinovitch said the act of bringing in a Torah scroll into the site's women's section, an act heavily frowned upon by most ultra-Orthodox Jews, proves that "no outline or compromise can please the Women of the Wall." He said that the organization's real intent was to undermine the status quo at the Western Wall, the radio said.
A landmark agreement on prayer at the Western Wall was approved by the cabinet in January, and officially sets aside an egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer space at the Orthodox-controlled holy site for the first time in Israel's history. According to the plan, the state will build the new plaza at Robinson's Arch, adjacent to the Orthodox prayer plaza.
Conservative Jews pray at the section prepared for prayer for the Women of the Wall at Robinson's Arch in Jerusalem's Old City on July 30, 2014. (Robert Swift/Flash90)
The far-reaching plan, which advocates say represents unprecedented government support for liberal streams of Judaism, was backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Jerusalem's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said earlier this week that the government plan was the equivalent of destroying the Western Wall altogether. In a Jewish legal ruling, Amar maintained that the government had no legal jurisdiction over the Wall, because "there is no ownership" of the site.
On that same day, the Chief Rabbinate canceled a planned meeting with Netanyahu over the issue, and said it would draft an alternative plan regarding the mixed-gender prayer section, one that does not include recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
In response, Women of the Wall said they agreed that no one "body or person can or should have ownership over the Western Wall."
"Women of the Wall have long opposed the relegation of the Western Wall to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the sole authority of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch over the holy site. Ideally, the Western Wall would not be divided at all, but opened up to all Jews and their traditions," the prayer group said in a statement.
The Women of the Wall also accused the ultra-Orthodox leadership of abusing its position to "incite hatred against fellow Jews and Jewish women."
"The baseless hatred that the chief rabbis in Israel express toward Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox Jews only stands to show how truly out of touch they are with the modern-day Jewish people," it said.
Women seen praying in the women's section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, September 30, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The rabbinate broke its silence on February 25, declaring the new prayer site at Robinson's Arch unlawful, according to Kikar HaShabat. It was reportedly basing its opposition on a legal opinion which maintained that only the religious affairs minister has the authority to designate a new "holy site" in Israel.
But Gilad Kariv, the leader of the Reform Movement in Israel, said at the time that the rabbinate had already approved the decision to designate the mixed-gender area.
The Chief Rabbinate Council "is acting like it's a branch of United Torah Judaism or Shas, rather than a state body," he said in a statement, referring to the two ultra-Orthodox political parties that form part of Netanyahu's coalition government.
"The rabbinical establishment was involved in the discussions about the Western Wall compromise and gave its consent," he maintained, accusing the rabbinate of "shameful cowardice."