April 13, 2013

Women stand up for equal rites at Western Wall

Arrests come a day after an Israeli agency proposes a compromise on the issue of female worship.

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM - Israeli police on Thursday detained five women at a Jerusalem holy site for performing religious rituals that ultra-Orthodox Jews say are reserved for men.

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Israeli women pray Thursday at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site where Jews can pray. Orthodox rabbis oppose mixed-gender prayers.

The Associated Press

The detentions came just a day after an Israeli organization proposed a compromise to diffuse tensions over the issue of women's worship at the Western Wall. The proposal, which still has to be approved by the government, envisions establishing a new section at the site where men and women can pray together.

About 120 women arrived Thursday morning for their monthly prayer service and police detained five for wearing prayer shawls, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. He said they were later released without charge.

Rosenfeld said an ultra-Orthodox man was also detained for burning a prayer book in protest and was still in custody.

The Western Wall, the only remaining part of the biblical Temple compound, is the holiest site where Jews can pray. It is currently divided into men's and women's sections. Orthodox rabbis, who control Israel's religious institutions, oppose mixed-gender prayers.

In recent months, female worshippers have been detained at the site for wearing religious garments and leading prayers.

On Wednesday, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the semi-governmental Jewish Agency, offered a compromise that could mark a significant victory for liberal streams of Judaism in their long quest for recognition.

After the arrests on Thursday, the agency again urged for compromise.

"The events at the Western Wall today are one more reminder of the urgent need to reach a permanent solution and make the Western Wall once again a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife," the agency said in a statement.

While most Israelis are secular, Judaism has a formal place in the country's affairs, and Orthodox rabbis govern events such as weddings, divorces and burials for the Jewish population.

The ultra-Orthodox, who follow a strict brand of Judaism that promotes religious studies over work, military service and other involvement in modern society, have traditionally wielded vast political power -- although they make up only about 10 percent of the population.

However, the ultra-Orthodox have been left out of the new Israeli government, raising hopes among liberal Jews that reforms can be promoted.

Sharansky's proposal would create a permanent area for mixed-gender and women-led prayer. It would be located in an area on a lower level, where limited mixed-gender prayer already is allowed.


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