In a move that was both hailed and denounced, Israel’s Cabinet voted Sunday to rescind a 2016 decision to create a section of the holy Western Wall where men and women could pray together.
You may have noticed during his May stay in Israel, President Trump, a Presbyterian, and wife Melania, a Roman Catholic, were split and stood to pray separately before the ancient wall, according to Orthodox custom. As an inattentive gentile male who inadvertently walked toward the women’s side before being politely shooed away by a pair of no-nonsense matrons, I can attest to the strict separation of genders at what is the world’s holiest site where Jews pray.
The Western Wall is revered as a remnant of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by those visiting Romans about 1,947 years ago. Men and women are strictly segregated there and in Orthodox synagogues where, it was explained, the sole total focus should be on God and prayer, absolutely free of any distracting contamination from worldly or other kind of human gender thoughts.
In January last year the cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a nod to pressure from more liberal Conservative and Reform Jews many abroad, voted overwhelmingly to create a separate wall section to the right of the current women’s section where both genders would be allowed to pray together.
The vote may have been 15-5. But the plan never got off the ground due to domestic opposition from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties, two of which belong to Netanyahu’s fragile political coalition. The Wall is administered by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi.
The chair of Women of the Wall, which for years has favored rules changes, was also disappointed. Anat Hoffman called it “a terrible day for women in Israel when the PM sacrifices their rights while kowtowing to a handful of religious extremists.”
Spokesmen for the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties were pleased, saying the plan’s cancellation “reflects the will of most of the nation that seeks to safeguard the Western Wall’s sanctity and status.”