Jewish holy site’s prayer rules relaxed

Ultra-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on 31 January 2016Image copyright

The Israeli government has approved the creation of a new prayer space for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, allowing men and women to pray together.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “creative solution” that would “unify the people of Israel”.

Orthodox Jews voted against the move but said they accepted the decision.

Traditionally, only Orthodox Jews are allowed to pray at the Western Wall – and men and women are kept separate.

The decision was welcomed by the more liberal Reform and Conservative Jewish movements in Israel and North America and the group Women of the Wall (WOW), which has long held monthly prayers – upsetting the Orthodox leaders of the site.

A founding member of WOW, Anat Hoffman, called it an “historic day”.

“We have been fighting for 27 years. We were single when we started; we are grandmothers now. And what we have done is liberate another part of the wall that will be open to all. It will be tolerant and equal and friendly,” she said.

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Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, said he received news of the decision “with a heavy heart and a sigh of relief”, acknowledging the Wall had gone “from being a unifying site to one of incessant quarrels”.

“The Western Wall will continue to remain open to any worshipper – man or woman – at all hours of every day, with respect and loyalty to Jewish tradition and Jewish heritage, as the Western Wall is the clear symbol of these,” he said.

The new mixed-gender prayer area will be built beside the the current male and female prayer sites and will be managed by a separate committee which includes representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements.

The Western Wall is a remnant of the retaining wall of the mount on which the Holy Temples once stood, and is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism. Every year, millions of Jews from all over the world visit the wall to pray.

Correspondents say the dispute over the wall became a symbol of the greater tensions in Israeli society between ultra-Orthodox Jews, who abide by a very strict interpretation of Jewish law, and more modern elements of Judaism.

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