Men and Women Used to Pray Together at the Kotel

Agudath Israel posted a statement by Rabbi Avi Shafran that Jews have prayed at the Western Wall since 1967 according to halakhah (Jewish law), by which he meant that Jews have always been separated by gender, as is the case today.

Agudath Israel seems to want us to believe that everything has always been the same as it is today at the Kotel. That, of course, is historically inaccurate. 

The claim that there has always been a gender separation at the Kotel is, at best, misleading. For background, see this article from the Schechter Institutes in Israel by Rabbi David Golinkin.

Before 1948, of course, and before the present Plaza existed, both men and women prayed side by side at the Wall. The Kotel was a prayer place, not a sanctuary or synagogue. Israel might simply return the Kotel to its historical status. Until a mistake was made in 1967 by the Israeli government, the Kotel was a praying place for all Jews but not a synagogue requiring a mehitza (separation between women and men).

Jews could not reach the Kotel for prayers from 1948 through 1967, and the Israeli government created the forerunner of the current situation by placing the Western Wall under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate after the Six Day War.

As a Reform rabbi and ohev Yisrael, I started leading congregational tours to Israel in 1984. Prior to that I led youth tours in the summers of 1971,1972 and 1979. With two of the youth tours, excluding the first, and the group tours through the nineties, I led Friday night worship in the Plaza at the Kotel using a Reform liturgy. We’d pray communally in mixed gender worship from Gates of Prayer, our Reform siddur, and then free the group to either offer prayers individually at the Kotel or wait to see if the Yeshiva boys would dance down to the wall.

In the nineties the Plaza area guards began hassling us about not praying in mixed gender groupings, and in the first decade of the 21st century we were actually prevented from praying together. But for nearly thirty years I had periodically and routinely led combined worship in the Plaza of the Kotel.

Agudath Israel has their own agenda, to prove that liberal Jews are creating a balagan over access to equal prayer rights at the Wall, as though exclusively Orthodox worship has always been the status quo. But that is simply their political agenda, and not the historical truth. Had Israel not turned over control of the Western Wall to the Chief Rabbinate in 1967 and given authority instead to the National Parks Authority, as Moshe Dayan wanted, we would not be facing the crisis that divides world Jewry today and threatens to alienate millions of diaspora Jews from the Jewish State that now rejects them.

About the Author
Rabbi Mark H. Levin has been the congregational Pulpit Rabbi for Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, Kansas since its inception in 1988 up until his retirement from this position in June 2014. In July 2014 he accepted the position of Beth Torah’s Founding Rabbi. Rabbi Levin serves on several local boards and writes religion columns for the Kansas City Star, and answers questions for the “Ask the Rabbi” service of the Union of Reform Judaism.
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