Women's blessing at Jerusalem's Western Wall curtailed

Mike Smith

Jerusalem (AFP) - A bid by a Jewish women's group to challenge tradition at Jerusalem's Western Wall with a blessing usually conducted by men was curtailed Sunday after a decision by Israel's attorney general.

The plan was the latest by the Women of the Wall group to push for equal prayer rights at the site, the holiest location where Jews are currently allowed to pray.

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

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

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit's decision 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 metres (yards) from the wall itself.

Previous prayers by Women of the Wall have led to harassment and abuse by ultra-Orthodox worshippers.

- 'Absurd system' -

"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 told AFP.

"It's pretty demeaning, and it shows I think how grotesque and absurd the system is."

Police did not respond to a request for comment.

The traditional benediction sees male descendants of the Cohanim priestly caste bless congregations during daily morning prayers. A mass blessing will be held on Monday at the Western Wall to mark Passover.

It involves the raising of hands in a form similar to the "Vulcan salute" Leonard Nimoy borrowed from Judaism for his "Star Trek" role as Mr Spock.

A grant from Nimoy's estate financed bus transportation for Sunday's event, Women of the Wall said.

Those conducting the blessing also cover their heads with prayer shawls.

Women on Sunday wore pins in the shape of the hand gesture, and at least one made the sign discreetly during prayers.

The rabbi who oversees the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitz, called the gathering a "provocation" and argued that the blessing they wanted to carry out had never been done "by any (Jewish) community in the world".

He also said their actions "desecrate the sanctity" of the site.

- 'Very dangerous' -

One 40-year-old ultra-Orthodox woman at the plaza called what the group was doing "very, very dangerous".

"Because we have one God, and he says what to do," the mother of 11 said.

Shaina Lidd, a 21-year-old American teaching English in Israel, took part and said she hoped a full women's priestly blessing could happen soon.

"In the future, I hope to see that happen one day, hopefully next year," she said. "But I'm still happy that we got to be together and pray."

Women of the Wall has also been pushing for an egalitarian prayer space at the wall, where men and women currently pray in separate areas.

The government in January approved an agreement to create such a space, but ultra-Orthodox parties have come out strongly against it and more discussions are being held.

The Western Wall, in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, is believed to be among the last remnants of the second Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

The hill above the wall is revered as the site of the temple itself. It is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.

It is now the location of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and the Dome of the Rock.

Jews are allowed to visit but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions, with Israel having occupied east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognised internationally.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews oppose visits to the site, saying that under current conditions Jews cannot sufficiently "purify" themselves to be there.