Skip To Content
We’ve Taken Down the Forward Paywall: An Open Letter to Our ReadersRead Now

Israeli Court Ruling Gives Women Long-Sought Access to ‘Sacred Space’ at Western Wall

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously made a distinction between sacred space and sacred time. Jews – who for much of history were itinerant, kicked out of one country, and expelled from another – sanctified time, unlike Christians, who sanctified space. Sacred space took a back seat to sacred time and Shabbat, he argued, no matter where in the world we were, became our cathedral in time, because we didn’t have cathedrals. We, as wandering Jews, could pray anywhere; in the desert, on a mountaintop.

Today’s Israeli Supreme Court decision, however, proves otherwise. In a groundbreaking interim injunction the Israeli court ruled that women should be able to read from the Torah in the women’s section of the Western Wall, and that the egalitarian prayer area at nearby Robinson’s arch does not constitute equal access. These rulings fly in the face of longtime Orthodox control over the site – control which has prevented Jewish women from leading and participating fully in all forms of Jewish prayer at the site.

Why does this matter so much? It matters because the Kotel, the Western Wall, is the axis mundi of the Jewish world, the place where Jews, for thousands of years, have believed God to be most present on earth, b’tocham, in our midst. So the fact that, over the past three decades, women have been relegated to smaller and smaller portions of it, (in 1992 the mechitza separating men from women sat smack in the middle of the courtyard, while today it has migrated so that the men’s section takes up nearly 75% of the wall) banned from reading the Torah by it, prevented from wearing tallitot and tfillin at it, and, above all, leading their own prayer services has sent a deafening message about access and authority. The message was: the wall does not actually belong to all Jews. It belongs first and foremost to Jewish men who have the right to worship there as they please and only then does it belong to Jewish women, but with caveats (they can’t read from the Torah at the wall, lead services, or wear tallitot or tefillin).

The Original Women of the Wall (a break-off group from the Women of the Wall) called this ruling “momentous” on Facebook, stating on Facebook that “the Court [has]put the onus on the defendants to justify withholding Jewish women’s rights to full religious expression, rather than asking us to defend that we have them.”

And yet there’s still a long way to go. The Women of the Wall, in petitioning for equal access to the site, argued that “the Kotel is not a synagogue but a ‘national holy site’, that is ‘public space’.” While legally this may hold weight, it is, in lived reality, not actually true. The Kotel, for millions of Jews, is the ultimate, original synagogue, a place for b’nei mitzvah, the culmination of all Jewish pilgrimages, and the place in the Jewish imagination which, more than any other, represents holiness on earth, God’s Presence in our midst. It was always meant to be shared by all Jews, no matter gender, observance, or affiliation. No single group of us has a monopoly on God, Torah, or prayer. To claim otherwise is a rebuke to our shared heritage and it’s fundamental and most beautiful belief that we are all, despite our differences – klal yisrael – the people of Israel, and that we all, no matter what we believe, stood at Sinai and received the Torah together.

Jordie Gerson is a former Hillel campus rabbi who has worked at the Hillels of Yale University and the University of Vermont. Her work has been featured in The Huffington Post, the Harvard Divinity Bulletin,, Boston Magazine, the magazine Delicious Living and on the website Follow her on Facebook.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.