‘Mechitza’ (separation) at the Western Wall – and the unity of Israel

The rabbis and leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary prayed separately until the 1980s, as also did most Reform Jews in Europe before the Holocaust.

September 19, 2017 20:11
4 minute read.
‘Mechitza’ (separation) at the Western Wall – and the unity of Israel

Women reading selichot -- Jewish penitential poems and prayers said leading up to the High Holidays -- at the Western Wall before Rosh Hashana. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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At the heart of the debate over the future of the Western Wall in our generation is the claim of the leaders of the liberal movements that the separation of men and women at the Wall after the Six Day War was a coup that reflected an Orthodox “takeover,” which is contrary to the will of the Jewish People. I don’t pretend to have a solution to the complex conflict, but my argument is that the historical facts refute this claim.

The liberal movements claim that photographs from a certain period during the British Mandate show Jewish women, wrapped up from head to toe, praying as a separate group, without a partition, alongside men at the Western Wall. However, these photographs reflected a brief period in the history of the Western Wall, especially under the British Mandate, which prohibited placing a partition there, aiming to satisfy the demands of the Arabs. The riots of 1929 also broke out on the background of the partition at the wall on Yom Kippur of 1928, in contrast to the procedures established by the Mandate.

There are many pictures and testimonies in the archives that during the Ottoman period, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, that alongside with the steady growth of the Jewish population in Eretz Yisrael, the tendency went more and more towards using a mechitza – a separation at the Wall. Thus, the aspiration of the entire Jewish world in 1929 was to set up prayer services with a mechitza between men and women at the Western Wall under the supervision of an Orthodox rabbi – the rabbi of the Western Wall on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate and the institutions of the Yishuv.

Another unsurprising fact is that at the beginning of the 20th century it was the head of the Conservative Movement – the present partner of the Reform Movement and the Women of Wall in their fight against the legitimacy of the mechitza at the Western Wall – who was at the head of the campaign for setting up prayer services with a partition. This was the second chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America at the time, Dr. Cyrus Adler, an important Jewish American, Jewish studies scholar and the founder of the Jewish Welfare Board, who was appointed to represent the Jewish People before the League of Nations in 1929-1930.

The Orthodox and non-Orthodox Zionist Jewish world, including the Reform Rabbi Judah Magnes, who supported the establishment of a binational state in the Land of Israel and was the first president of the Hebrew University, supported the process of leading prayers with a partition between men and women and appointing an Orthodox rabbi to oversee the prayers at the Western Wall.

In a document submitted to the League of Nations on behalf of the Jewish People, Adler reviewed the history of the Wall. Following Adler’s affidavit, the League of Nations wrote: “The Jews claim accordingly that the use of these religious objects, such as benches, partitions for separation between men and women and a holy ark, including Torah scrolls, lamps, hand washing basin, etc. was common and permitted by the authorities long before the Great War [WWI]. According to Jewish claims, this state of affairs must remain as it is and be established in the legislation as the status quo and as the rights of sustainability which relates to Article 18 of the Mandate.”

This fact was supported for many years by the heads of the Yishuv, and the Jewish National Council, both secular organizations. For example, in 1912 the newspaper Ha-Achdut [The Unity] of the Poalei Zion [Workers of Zion] Labor-Zionist party (among whose editors-in-chief were David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s second president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and his wife, Rachel Yanait) wrote: “The prohibition on putting benches and [a] partition at the Western Wall is a disgrace to the people of Israel and to the Land of Israel.”

Even the ideology of the Conservative Movement in the times of Dr. Adler identified with the desire to lead the Western Wall according to the custom of our ancestors; the rabbis and leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary prayed separately until the 1980s, as also did most Reform Jews in Europe before the Holocaust.

Historian Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna of Brandeis University revealed in a study that members of the Hamburg Temple in Germany, the foundation of which in the early 19th century marked the beginning of the Reform Movement, waived, in the early 20th century, a donation of one million dollars (!) from a donor who demanded the cancellation of the partition in return for his contribution. They adhered to a separate seating of men and women until the destruction of their community in the Holocaust.

Moreover, at the outset of their way, the alliance between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews stood at the heart of Conservative ideology. “For us Jews there can be no fellowship with God without the fellowship with the people [of] Israel” wrote Rabbi A. J. Heschel, the movement’s most important thinker, in his famous book, God in Search of Man.

This spirit also resonated among the young secular people photographed at the Western Wall plaza dancing the “Hora,” men and women together, immediately after the Wall’s liberation in the Six Day War. The return of the partition to the Western Wall by the Chief Rabbinate the day after that photograph was taken was also a natural development, an expression of the unity of the Jewish People during the first century of the Zionist Movement.

The author is a senior lecturer in Jewish thought at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

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