JERUSALEM — Israeli authorities have proposed establishing a new section at the Western Wall where men and women can pray together, a groundbreaking initiative that would mark a significant victory by liberal streams of Judaism in their long quest for recognition.
The proposal is aimed at ending turmoil surrounding the Orthodox establishment’s monopoly over the site, highlighted by the arrests of female worshippers who prayed while performing religious rituals the Orthodox say are reserved for men.
“One Western Wall for one Jewish people,” said Natan Sharansky, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency and mastermind of the proposal. He expressed hope that the site “will once again be a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife.”
While it still needs government approval, the proposal already risks upsetting Israel’s powerful ultra-Orthodox community as well as the Western Wall’s Muslim neighbors, reflecting the explosive mix of religious sensitivities in the area.
The Western Wall, a retaining wall of the biblical Temple compound, is the holiest site where Jews can pray. Currently, it is divided into men’s and women’s sections. Orthodox rabbis, who control Israel’s religious institutions, oppose mixed prayers.
Under the plan, Israel would create a permanent area for mixed-gender and women-led prayer. It would be situated in an area on a lower level where limited mixed prayer already is allowed, but which mainly serves as an archaeological site.
The area would be renovated with a platform that would place it at the same level as the rest of the Western Wall plaza and operate around the clock, like the men’s and women’s sections.
It also would be easily accessible from the main entrance to the plaza. Like the other sections, it would be stocked with Torah scrolls and prayer books. Currently, worshippers must bring their own prayer materials.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads Israel’s Reform Jewish movement, said that the proposal could become a watershed moment for liberal Judaism.