Women’s priestly blessing at Jerusalem’s Western Wall curtailed

A bid by the Women of the Wall to challenge tradition at Jerusalem’s Western Wall with a blessing usually conducted by men was curtailed Sunday after a decision by the attorney general.

Around 50 women gathered on the plaza leading to the wall amid Passover celebrations and held prayers, though without carrying out the full blessing.

They prayed under heavy police guard as a crowd of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and boys in dark suits looked on and harangued them.

A decision from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday prohibited the first-ever “women’s priestly blessing” at the wall because it did not conform to local custom.

The ultra-Orthodox establishment that oversees the Western Wall strongly opposed the bid, viewing it as a desecration under their strict interpretation of Jewish law.

It had been unclear whether the women would defy the attorney general’s ruling, but on Sunday they said police asked them to sign a document committing to not conduct the blessing, which they did.

They were also kept in a cordoned-off area around 50 meters from the wall itself, with police telling them it was necessary for their safety, they said.

“In order to get our buses in, we signed that we will not raise our hands in the air, we will not bless the people of Israel and we will not put our (prayer shawls) over our heads,” Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall said. “It’s pretty demeaning, and it shows I think how grotesque and absurd the system is.”

Israeli police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The traditional benediction sees male decedents the Cohanim priestly caste gather to bless crowds.

It involves the raising of hands in a form similar to the “Vulcan salute” which Leonard Nimoy borrowed from Judaism for his “Star Trek” role as Mr. Spock. Those conducting the blessing also cover their heads with prayer shawls.

Women participating in the prayer on Sunday wore pins in the shape of the hand gesture. At least one woman could be seen making the sign discreetly during prayers.

The rabbi who oversees the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, called the gathering a “provocation” and argued that the type of blessing they wanted to carry out had never been done “by any [Jewish] community in the world.”

He said their actions “hurt feelings and desecrate.”

In a statement released this week to publicize the event scheduled for Sunday, the group, which has held monthly prayer services at the Western Wall for the past 27 years, said the service was aimed at preserving the tradition of the priestly blessing by making it more accessible.

In a historic move, the cabinet voted two months ago to modify and enhance the Robinson’s Arch plaza for mixed gender prayer at the Western Wall, adjacent to the current Orthodox prayer plaza. It was viewed as a victory for liberal streams of Judaism, which are dominant in the US.

But the plan has run into fierce opposition from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers and groups in Israel, many of whom wield influence within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow coalition government.

The deal would expand the wall’s non-Orthodox section and construct a shared entrance for both sides. Women of the Wall has agreed to move its monthly services to the non-Orthodox section once the deal is implemented.

The decision, which allows for the construction of a massive 10,000 square feet permanent prayer area and the establishment of a new pluralistic entrance for the entire Western Wall plaza, is a benchmark case in that it would mark the first time the State of Israel is giving formal recognition to the rights of millions of Liberal Jews, complete with budget.