Women of the Wall priestly blessing ceremony faces internal criticism

WOW announced on Sunday night that Passover ceremony would be conducted “by women, for women,"

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March 21, 2016 18:14
2 minute read.
Women of the Wall with Torah scroll in women's section of the Western Wall, March 11, 2016

Women of the Wall with Torah scroll in women's section of the Western Wall, March 11, 2016. (photo credit: WOMEN OF THE WALL)

 
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The Women of the Wall (WoW) prayer rights organization said it will conduct a priestly blessing ceremony during Passover, a step that has upset some of its supporters.

Twice a year, on Passover and Succot, male Cohanim gather at the Western Wall to conduct a mass priestly blessing, Birkat Cohanim, at the site. WoW announced Sunday night that it would conduct a ceremony “by women for women,” and invited all women in Israel to come to the service, and women who are from the priestly Cohanim caste to participate in the blessing.

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In Orthodox Judaism, only men carry out the blessing, and the latest announcement likely will lead to strong opposition from the Orthodox religious establishment.

The event is being supported by the Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy Estate.

WoW noted that the late Jewish actor Leonard Nimoy, who played Dr. Spock in Star Trek, implemented the hand sign Cohanim use in the priestly blessing service as part of his TV persona when intoning “Live long and prosper” in the famous sci-fi series.

Charlie Kalech, a WoW supporter who assisted the group last year in reading from a fullsize Torah scroll at the Western Wall, said he could not support the plans to stage a women’s priestly blessing ceremony, however.

Kalech argued that Rabbi Reuven Hammer, the founder of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, has written a position statement against women performing the ritual, and said WoW’s ceremony would not be inclusive of Masorti Jewish communities in Israel.

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“This latest blatant disregard for respect of different streams of Judaism, confirms the suspicions of many of us that what started out as an effort to allow women to pray as an exclusive women’s tefilla [prayer] group has been usurped by those who disregard halachic observance for their own political agenda,” said Kalech.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, he claimed that members of WoW were using the organization “for their own political reasons” and advancing Reform practices, which could alienate non-Reform supporters and members.

In April 2015, Kalech passed a Torah scroll from the men’s section of the Western Wall prayer area to members of the WoW prayer group in the women’s section, enabling them to read from a full-size Torah scroll there for the first time.

Torah scrolls are not made available to women at the site due to the objections of the Orthodox religious establishment and administrator of the site Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.

Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for WoW argued, however, that all the Jewish denominations deal with the Birkat Cohanim ceremony differently, and that women in the Conservative movement in the US perform the ritual.

“There are women in Orthodox partnership prayer services where women do Birkat Cohanim, as do some Conservative communities, as did the late Bonna Habberman, one of WoW’s founders,” Pruce said.

“WoW is taking this on as part of the prayer service and a spiritual practice in a pluralistic manner. All women can come to the prayer service and participate as they see fit. We are not forcing this on any women, but are offering it as an opportunity to empower and spiritually uplift. It is not coming from any particular rabbi or denomination, so I don’t know why this is being called a Reform measure,” she said.

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