Israel’s attorney general bars women from reciting priestly blessing at Kotel


(JTA) — Israel’s attorney general banned Women of the Wall from holding a priestly blessing ceremony at the Western Wall.

The group, which advocates for women’s right to perform rituals that the Western Wall’s Orthodox authorities maintain are reserved for men, had planned to hold a ceremony featuring the traditional prayer Sunday, April 24.

On Thursday, however, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ruled that holding a female version of the priestly blessing ceremony violated a law enforcing “local customs” at religious sites in Israel, according to reports.

His decision followed a meeting with police, prosecutors, the legal adviser of the Religious Services Ministry and the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, Haaretz reported.

The Religious Services Ministry and Rabinowitz opposed the ceremony.

In announcing the ceremony, to be held at the Western Wall’s women’s section, Women of the Wall had declared it “the first of its kind.” Tens of thousands of Jews flock to the Western Wall to receive the blessing from kohanim, or descendants of ancient Israel’s priestly caste, during the intermediate days of Passover, which begins Friday.

The Reform movement in Israel was among those to express disappointment with Mendelblit’s decision.

“The attorney general’s decision is a prize for extremists,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, CEO of Israel’s Reform Movement. “It maintains the status of the Western Wall as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.”

Opposing the ceremony were an NGO called B’Tzedek, whose petition to block the ceremony was rejected by Israel’s High Court of Justice on Wednesday, and Ateret Cohanim, a group that seeks to expand the Jewish presence in Jerusalem’s Old City.

READ: Why the Western Wall compromise matters – and doesn’t

“This is the nation’s central synagogue, and people must act with respect for religious values there,” Mati Dan, Ateret Cohanim’s founder, told Haaretz. “This ceremony is meant to degrade and provoke.”

Rabbi Laura Geller, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, had written a “Prayer for the Safety” of women taking party in the priestly blessing ceremony. She rejected Dan’s notion that the Western Wall is Israel’s “central synagogue.”

“It is not the nation’s central synagogue. It is a public space that belongs to all Jews, and there is more than one way to be a Jew,” Geller told JTA in an interview from Los Angeles.

Geller said the decision also violates the spirt of a compromise, announced in February, that would create an egalitarian prayer plaza in addition to the men’s and women’s sections that currently fall under Orthodox authority.

A 2013 Supreme Court ruling acknowledged the women’s right to pray at the Western Wall according to their beliefs, claiming it does not violate what has come to be known as “local custom.”

Mendelblit’s ruling suggested he did not view the unprecedented priestly blessing as “local custom.”

The Women of the Wall said they would file an appeal with Israel’s Supreme Court as early as Thursday.

“This is an unhappy decision that submits to political pressure of an extremist minority group whose sole aim is to sabotage gender equality at the Western Wall and prevent women from having the right of prayer and worship. It is surprising that at this time, when there is such a need of prayer and blessing for people of Israel, the General Attorney supports delegitimization of women’s prayer, whose only wish is to bless and be blessed,” Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman said in a statement.

She said the group would hold a prayer service for the holiday in the women’s section of the Western Wall on Sunday, the first day of Chol Hamoed, as originally planned.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to the positions of two groups who opposed efforts by Women of the Wall to recite the priestly blessing at the Western Wall. The correct information now appears in the article.

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