We once again witnessed the ridiculousness of the separation between men and women at the Western Wall when female journalists were forced to stand on chairs to see US Vice-President Michael Pence pray at the Western Wall during his recent visit. No one, not even the rabbi of the Western Wall, can explain the benefit or importance of this separation of the sexes.
In recent months, the separation of men and women at the Western Wall has attracted the attention of the Israeli public. The cancellation of the Kotel Agreement, the negotiated compromise that would have allocated space for a separate prayer area in which the two sexes could pray together, highlights once again the question of why there is a partition at that site.
The partition that separates the two sexes at the Western Wall was first implemented in July of 1967, a few weeks after the end of the Six-Day War. The original partition was comprised of temporary police barricades, but, over time, those barricades were replaced by a permanent, taller barrier. Over the years, the existence of this partition has had a negative effect on other Jewish holy sites in Israel and, today, there is complete separation of the genders at those sites.
Before the establishment of the modern state of Israel, men and women prayed together at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron, the grave of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes in Tiberias and Rachel’s Tomb outside Bethlehem. After the establishment of the state, male and female pilgrims to sites such as Elijah’s Cave in Haifa and David’s Tomb in Jerusalem continued to pray side by side. The Middle Eastern and North African immigrants who began to make mass pilgrimages to those sites did so as families, without any division between the sexes. Immediately after the Six-Day War, Jews returned to the holy sites that had been behind enemy lines for the preceding 19 years, with no gender separation at Maarat HaMachpelah in Hebron, the grave of Samuel the Prophet, the grave of Shimon the Just in Jerusalem or Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus.
The destructive precedent of gender separation at holy sites was created at the Western Wall in 1967. The excuse given by the then-minister for religious affairs for this separation included the claim that such separation existed at the time of the Temple — an argument that is not historically accurate. The religious establishment then began to separate women from men at Maarat HaMachpelah and Rachel’s Tomb. Starting in the 1990s, this trend spread to all of the Jewish holy sites. Several years ago, a partition between men and women was set up at David’s Tomb on Mt. Zion. Similar partitions have been set up at the graves of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, as well as the graves of many other saintly figures, which have become increasingly popular in recent years. At the grave of Yehonatan Ben Uziel in Amuka, the cave of Honi HaMaagal in Hatzor HaGlilit, the grave of the Rabbi of Zvhil in the Sheikh Badar cemetery and many other holy sites, men and women are separated by ugly partitions, staircases and gates. Individuals who wish to pray together with relatives of the opposite sex— husband and wife, mother and son, father and daughter — are unable to do so. In addition, at all of those sites, the area allocated for women is much smaller than that allocated for men.
This state of affairs is without historical precedent and is part of a growing phenomenon of extremist groups exerting control over holy sites and imposing customs that are discriminatory against women; customs that were never the local practice. This is also a case of Ashkenazi customs over-ruling Mizrachi customs. Historical analysis of the prayer customs of Mizrachi Jews reveals a tradition of family-focused practices and, historically, the custom of men and women going together to the graves of saintly individuals on the anniversaries of their respective deaths was widely accepted. In recent years, this custom has also changed; this is another area in which religious extremism has left its mark.
There will be those who argue that male and female worshipers want to pray separately at these sites. However, I believe that most women would prefer to pray at these sites together with their loved ones and enjoy a more powerful spiritual experience. The Western Wall and the other Jewish holy sites are not synagogues and there is no real reason for gender segregation at these sites.
Prof. Doron Bar is the president of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, a lecturer in the field of Land of Israel and Jerusalem Studies, and a historical geographer who specializes in the study of the development of popular and national holy sites in Israel.