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The Women’s Wall

In calling for desegregation of the Kotel, the modern movement is actually reviving 19th-century traditions

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“Jew’s Place of Wailing, Jerusalem” from William Bartlett’s Walks About the City and Environs of Jerusalem, 1844. (Wikimedia Commons)
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When District Judge Moshe Sobol handed down a historic decision in Israel last week, ruling that the practices of the Women of the Wall do not violate “local custom,” he was more correct than he probably realized. In 1930 Cyrus Adler, who was then serving as president both of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary and the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate learning in Philadelphia—as well as editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review—managed also to publish a Memorandum on the Western Wall. The memorandum had been prepared, as its subtitle announced, “for the Special Commission of the League of Nations on behalf of the Jewish Agency for Palestine.” In his introduction Adler noted that Article 14 of the League’s “Mandate for Palestine” had instructed the Special Commission “to study, define, and determine finally the rights and claims of Jews and Muslims at the Western or Wailing Wall at Jerusalem.”

Adler, like many of his contemporaries, would probably have had difficulty imagining that in a future Jewish state, yet another special commission would be required “to determine finally the rights and claims” of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, both male and female, to that embattled holy site. Yet hardly anyone who might have submitted a memorandum to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky after he was delegated by Benjamin Netanyahu to deal with Israel’s most recent outbreak of “Women of the Wall” controversies would have been so naïve as to assert, as did Adler in 1930, that “the subject is one purely of religion, of devotion, and of sentiment.” We are dealing, after all, with a dispute between Jews—among whom religion has long ceased to be a matter of mere devotion and sentiment. And few scholars (except some of my fellow Israelis) would feel confident enough to “give the assurance that the memorandum here offered has been prepared in an objective and historical manner.”


One of the earlier 19th-century accounts quoted by Adler in his 1930 Memorandum was William Bartlett’s illustrated Walks About the City and Environs of Jerusalem (1844). “We repaired to this place on a Friday,” wrote Bartlett of his 1842 visit, “when a considerable number [of Jews] usually assemble.” In the wall’s shadow, on the right, “were seated many venerable men, reading the books of the law.” But there were also, he noted, “many women in their long white robes, who, as they entered the small area, walked along the sacred wall, kissing its ancient masonry, and praying through the crevices with every appearance of deep devotion.” Bartlett did not describe the men and women as sitting apart, but as pursuing different kinds of activities. The men, who were presumably more literate, were sitting and reading, while the women walked along the wall, kissed its stones, and prayed through their crevices with evident devotion. Whereas the “venerable men” did not seem to be dressed in any distinctive manner, the British artist commented on the women’s “long white robes”—which may have been donned in honor of the approaching Sabbath.

Had Adler published an illustrated edition of his Memorandum it might well have included Robert Brandard’s steel engraving of the “Jews’ Place of Wailing,” based on a drawing by Bartlett (see above). In it the only person praying at the wall is a woman wearing a long white shawl, which also covers her head. Another woman, similarly draped, stands among the (probably shoeless) men sitting on the ground with books in their hands. In A Visit to My Fatherland (1845), the British nonconformist minister Ridley Haim Herschell, who was a native of Prussian Poland, described his 1843 visit to the “Place of Wailing” on a Friday as “one of the most striking” scenes that he beheld in that city. Herschell, whose account was later quoted by Adler, wrote that “about 30 men and half as many women were assembled together, all without shoes, the ground whereon they trod being in their estimation holy.” He too gives no indication of any separation between men and women at the Western Wall.

Another visitor to Jerusalem during the early 1840s quoted by Adler was John Price Durbin—though just as Adler was evidently too busy with his many other duties to inform his readers that Herschell was a Polish-born convert, so too did he fail to mention that Durbin was a Kentucky-born Methodist minister. Of course, neither Durbin’s background nor that of his British colleague Herschell render their testimonies any less “reliable and authentic.” In fact, the members of the Special Commission addressed by Adler in his Memorandum might have been especially impressed by the testimony of Protestant divines concerning the deep and continuous Jewish connection with the Western Wall. Durbin, who was president of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania when he set off for Europe and the Middle East, later described in his Observations in the East (1845), “a most touching custom, long kept up by the children of Israel.” On Fridays, he wrote, the Jews of Jerusalem would assemble “in considerable numbers” in order “to weep over the fallen glory of their race, under the very ruins of their once magnificent sanctuary.” After quoting a verse from Lamentations (5:2) allegedly recited in unison at the Wall, Durbin reported that “the Book of the Law is read by aged men, and women walk up and down the small area, occasionally approaching the wall to kiss it, pouring forth lamentations and prayers.”

Like Bartlett who visited Jerusalem shortly before he did, the American Methodist contrasted the stationary men who “read” (probably from a printed Hebrew Bible), with the more kinetic (and evidently younger) women who “walk” alongside the wall, “kiss” its stones, and pour forth “lamentations and prayers.” For both authors (as well as, presumably, for the Jews themselves) the division between men and women at the “Place of Wailing” was less spatial than performatory. The women would seem to have moved with greater freedom and prayed with greater fervor than they would in Jerusalem’s local synagogues, and it is they alone who kiss the wall’s “ancient masonry.” The Friday scene, in short, is dominated by their dynamic presence.

Although Durbin did not cite the distinctive “long white robes” mentioned (and drawn) by Bartlett, they do appear in the account of a Friday visit to the Western Wall composed by the Anglican divine George Fisk, who like his countryman Bartlett visited Jerusalem in 1842. In his Pastor’s Memorial of Egypt, the Red Sea … Mount Sinai, Jerusalem, and Other Principal Localities of the Holy Land—a work that was evidently not in the library utilized by Adler when preparing his Memorandum—Rev. Fisk reported that “upon reaching the spot, we found a row of aged Jews sitting in the dust in front of the wall, all of them engaged in reading or reciting certain portions of the Hebrew scriptures.” Among these men, he added, “were several Jewesses, enveloped from head to foot in ample white veils.” In contrast to the men, all of whom remained seated and among whom Fisk saw “no such outward expression of emotion as I had been led to expect,” the women in white “stepped forward to various parts of the ancient wall, kissed them with great fervency of manner, and uttered their petitions in a low whisper.”

The distinctive character of female prayer at the wall was also noted by Fisk’s colleague and contemporary Moses Margoliouth, who like Ridley Haim Herschell was a Polish-born convert from Judaism. In 1844 Margoliouth was ordained an Anglican priest in Liverpool and six years later published his two-volume Pilgrimage to the Land of My Fathers—a copy of which was evidently also absent from the American library used by Adler for researching his Memorandum. Like Herschell’s aforementioned Visit to My Fatherland—to which its title would appear to allude—Margoliouth’s travel account was largely epistolary. In May of 1850 he wrote from Jerusalem to “Her Grace, the Duchess of Manchester” having “at last fixed upon a topic, which I think will interest you.” That topic was Jewish mourning and prayer at the place he called (as we do) “the western wall”—unlike most contemporary Christians who referred to it, as we have seen, as “the Jews’ Place of Wailing.”

Margoliouth informed the duchess that “my poor brethren, whose love for Jerusalem is undying, assemble themselves daily together there, and sit themselves on the ground, and mourn, lament, and bewail Jerusalem’s alienation, and their own degradation.” On Fridays, he noted, “the attendance is very numerous,” adding that William Bartlett had given “a very good picture of the wall, with its mourners,” in his Walks About the City and Environs of Jerusalem. Although Bartlett had mentioned the white-robed women who “walked along the sacred wall, kissing its ancient masonry, and praying through the crevices with every appearance of deep devotion,” Margoliouth felt it necessary to add a thing or two about those early “women of the wall”—which he did with a curious combination of sympathy and irony that reflected his own ambivalence as a convert.

The poor Jewesses express their affection for this, their ancient relic, in a most practical manner; they go along kissing the old stone, and fix themselves to pray at those spots which have small crevices. They entertain the strange idea that their petitions pass through the small holes … thence they would be sure to ascend to heaven, without being intercepted. I have often seen, therefore, Jewesses with their lips close to a split wall, immoveably fixed for some time, and manifest the greatest reluctance to leave their position.

Like his countrymen Bartlett and Fisk before him, Margoliouth stressed that it was only the “Jewesses” who kissed the wall, in contrast to their male coreligionists who sat on the ground and read or recited texts.

Unlike the others, however, Margoliouth spoke not only of mourning and prayer at the wall, but of love and affection—of his brethren’s undying “love for Jerusalem” and of the women who “express their affection for this, their ancient relic.” Of the latter group he also noticed, relatedly, their great “reluctance to leave their position”—perhaps hinting that some of the men had sought to distance them from their intimate embrace of the wall and its crevices. Since 1989 the women of Jerusalem have begun to re-embrace the Western Wall, expressing—as Margoliouth wrote—“affection for this, their ancient relic” with rituals somewhat different from those of their 19th-century forerunners, but with no less devotion. Judge Sobel’s decision reflects the history and traditions of that holy place, knowledge of or regard for which has clearly escaped contemporary zealots who seek to bar women from praying there collectively—or to dictate how they might pray there or what they might wear while doing so.


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That’s beautiful. You can go on and on about women wearing white shawls, but the simple fact is that those women, unlike those of today, did not, under any definition, wear talliot or tefillin or engage in public prayer. Everyone else is just obfuscation on your part.

Jordan Anderson says:

Fascinating article. Thanks for sharing! and are always excellent, reliable sources for finding articles such as these. Keep them coming!

Jonathan D. Sarna says:

My edition of the Memorandum on the Western Wall (a revised proof) does indeed include illustrations, including one that clearly shows men and women together at the wall on an “ordinary day of the year” in 1914

    Elliott Horowitz says:

    Jonathan’s note allows me to address a bibliographical matter that would otherwise have been deleted by the editors in the (dubious) interest of readability. The original edition of Adler’s Memorandum – copies of which he sent off to Palestine on the Europa in late May of 1930 – was indeed a “revised proof” printed in Philadelphia. In a personal letter to Dr. Chaim Weizmann – who as head of the Jewish Agency had commissioned the report – Adler explained that he had “been obliged” to have the Memorandum “put in type and printed without the opportunity for criticism which i had hoped to get.” Some of that criticism – I might add – has now come belatedly in the form of somewhat heated responses to my Tablet article.

    The edition of the Memorandum printed in Jerusalem in June of 1930 (at the Azriel Press and the Hamadpis Liphsitz Press) does not include illustrations. It also has quite a different title page than the one sent out by Adler some weeks earlier. Whereas the former provided only Adler’ name – followed by his three doctoral degrees, the institutions from which they were received, and his various professional affiliations – the latter did not mention his name at all. Rather it provided the names of the four organizations on behalf of whom the (revised) Memorandum was being submitted to the Special Commission of the League of Nations:
    The Rabbinate*
    The Jewish Agency for Palestine
    The Jewish Community of Palestine (Knesseth Israe)
    The Central Agudath Israel of Palestine

    Who was “the Rabbinate?” An asterisk at the bottom of the page explicated these ostensibly simple words: “A united Rabbinical Board, constituted of the Chief Rabbis of Palestine and of the Chief Rabbi of the Agudath Israel in Palestine, and acting with the authority and on behalf of the Comité Rabbinique Permanent pour sauvegarder les Droits Réligieux des Juifs au Lieux Saints presided over by the Chief Rabbi of France, and of the Unions of Rabbis in nearly every country of the world.”
    With all the problems now faced as a consequence of having two Israeli Chief Rabbis and (at least ) three rabbinical opinions regarding women and the Western Wall, it is at least fortunate that the Chief Rabbi of France is no longer in the picture.

Yehuda says:

There is no doubt that the mechitza at the Western Wall is new in practice, but under Ottoman rule, the Jewish community was not allowed to erect any structure in that space, including a mechitza. If you look at any of the old photography of the site, it is plain to see that there is no mechitza. But the man and women are also separate. The men are standing in one group, the women in another. Further, in the old photos, you will be hard pressed to find anyone (male included) wearing tallit or tefillin at the wall, because this was considered a provocation by the Ottoman authorities.

To identify the devout, pious Jews who prayed there in the 19th century (The ‘old yishuv’) with the ‘Women of the Wall’ would probably outrage them. Ask their grandchildren and great grandchildren– they can be recognized by the gold robes and fur hats they wear on the streets of Meah Shearim. Any coincidental similarity that comes accross in old photos (or worse, sparse literary reference) is due to Ottoman oppression, not their political leanings. I would expect the author to research a bit more, or better yet, exercise a little more common sense before haphazardly declaring some sort to pseudo-historical or political continuity.

    Elliott Horowitz says:

    Dear Yehuda
    I have indeed looked at “the old photography” of the site, and there too one may occasionally see men and women at the wall interspersed with no separation whatsoever. See for example Braithwaite’s photograph published in the revised version of Pitman’s Lady Missionaries (ca 1900), a book admittedly not to be found in every Jewish library.
    One book that may be found in many Jewish libraries is Hillel Moshe Gelbstein’s Mishkenot le-Abir Ya’akov, the first volume of which appeared in Jerusalem in 1886, but was republished as recently as 2000.
    Gelbstein, who had arrived in Jerusalem from Bialystok, was upset about the custom of ” men and women standing together, without a mehitza dividing them, during prayer at the Kotel.” He also believed that the Wall should not to be touched without first immersing in a mikveh – which perhaps suggests that the many women described by 19th century travelers as doing so were married, and had purified themselves as part of their marital obligations.
    Glabstein’s book is cited, albeit with the wrong date and an incomplete title, in the Jerusalem edition of Adler’s Memorandum – concerning which see my response to Jonathan Sarna (below)

      Elon says:

      Men and women can be interspersed except during formal prayer service, which is all the time now. Perhaps they should designate some hours where there is no formal prayers going on. And then they wouldn’t need the segregation at those times.

Marty Susman says:

I can’t think of a more ignorant, stupid thing the religious zealots could do then to stop “anyone” form visiting/praying at the wall…. All across the globe religion is more of a problem them somethng of goodness… The Taliban of the Middle East, the American christian Taliban in the U.S. & YES, the religious Taliban in Israel itself all have one thing in common, they want to seperate people & all of them cause nothing but trouble…. If Bibi had one ounce of guts, one once of backbone he would tell the religious zealots in Israel they have to be drafted into the army, they are off of welfare & have to work & they are NO longer in charge of the wall that female solidiers fought & died to liberate can do whatever they choose and so on…

When my father took me to the Wall in 1968, he snuck me over to the men’s side and blessed me there, and had a picture taken. The divider was a simple metal barrier, not even waist high.

I have seen both artists’ renderings and actual photographs of people at the Wall in the late 1800s, and in all cases, there were both men and women praying at the Wall. They were not standing separately in groups by gender, but each person alone standing along the Wall. There was no mechitzah, and no indication that this was a place where men and women needed to be separate. In recent years, I have seen women relatives (even mothers and grandmothers) having to stand on chairs to see their son’s or grandson’s bar mitzvah over the high mechitzah that is there now.

Stephen Billings says:

Keeping women separate is a way to control them and is wrong I do not care what religion it is. The Catholic system of not allowing women as priests is wrong. Making women where a burka or anything is wrong. When are all of you zealots going to stop controlling women. Women are as equal if not better that men……They may not be as physically strong as men but mentally they are. Allow women to be as great as men. It is the only way to change our world for the better!

    Baba Wawa says:

    Judaism doesn’t see women as equal to men, but better. Women are co-creators with G-d. Which means women aren’t obligated to pray. If men didn’t pray at the Kotel, the Women of the Wall wouldn’t want to pray there either. For all their fight for equality, they missed the point that being equal isn’t the answer – we each have a part to play in Judaism, women especially. If Judaism was such a harsh religion for women, why did the Rabbis establish that Jews are born ONLY from a Jewish woman?

This set of descriptions only attest to the fact that today we live in a time of religious “haxmarot” (severities). As Jews become less “observant” and women seek religious equality, the reaction of those religious Jews who have some spiritual or material interest in a status quo or even a status quo ante that may never have existed, are those in charge of what is today an ultra-Orthodox synagogue and not a national monument as I define the Kotel. It is like looking at the garb of men who dress like the gentry of 16th century Poland as though Moses received such garb on Sinai and came down dressed like a 16th century Polish gentleman. In my humble opinion, it ain’t (and never was) necessarily so.

I love to daven, but if I cannot daven next to my wife for the past 65 years, I can’t daven. So those zealots prevented me from davening when I visited the Kotel.

    Baba Wawa says:

    If praying at the Kotel was that important to you, I think you could have parted from your wife for 1 hour. You kept yourself from davening at the Kotel, no one else.

      cipher says:

      Brainwashed judgmental fool.

      And your remark above about women being considered “better” then men was asinine as well.

Felix Perez says:

This omits to say changing the issue considerably is things that DID
NOT AT ALL appear in this past context (not fair
to omit it) !
a) most controversial fact : these present women were wearing talit and etc
b) at the period mentionned
– the space was absolutely limited by ruling authorities as well as the possible praying slots *
– men and women didnt pray together in the synagogues as requested by the present provocatives women
Hence the motivations of the court are not based on the issues
here mentionned which dont strentghen them since
they omit the previous context…

*a) “They also complained again about the placing of accessories of worship near
the Wall, and a partition between men and women was removed by the
British police on Yom Kippur of 1928. ”
b) “no separation screen allowed between men and women under british mandate”
b) “no separation screen allowed between men and women under british mandate”

herbcaen says:

Why do the women want to daven next to the men anyway? According to conventional wisdom, men are obsolete, sexist, selfish and yucky. Davening next to or among men is probably like davening in a pigsty

Ira Wolff says:

I think it would be helpful if Mr. Horowitz could clarify two questions that other respondents have raised: 1) were there ever formal minyanim at the kotel before 1967; 2) if so, were these minyanim conducted without a strict separation of the sexes?

As a more general observation, I don’t see how the historical record he references support his argument. My understanding is that women never prayed collectively at the Wall. They certainly did not publicly read the Torah or wear tallit and tefillin. If so, it’s hard to see how the current efforts of Women of Wall to engage in this conduct does not represent a departure from the customary practice.

Were there minyanim at the Kotel in Ottoman times? As far as I can tell, the Jews – men and women – were reciting Tehillim but not engaged in formal prayer quora. As such, there is no real halachic reason to have them separate. After all, today, women and men can visit Kotel HaKatan since there are no daily minyanim there (alas) and no one would bat an eye.

To draw an analogy between informal Tehillim recital in Ottoman times and minyanim today seems to be comparing apples and oranges.

Avi B says:

The pictures and drawing of men and women together at the Kotel during the Ottoman Era are accurate, but it doesn’t explain why !

“Although Jews were permitted to pray at the Western Wall until the end of Ottoman control, authorities had gone out of their way to create an onerous atmosphere: Jews were forbidden to bring Torah scrolls, chairs or screens used to separate men from women during prayer. Businesses emanating noxious odors were opened next to Jewish and Christian holy sites. Mosques were built with looming minarets over other houses of worship, and churches and Jewish holy sites could be decreed mosques.[16] The restrictions continued as Britain based its policies on Arab claims that the Western Wall was part of the Temple Mount and thus was Muslim.[17]”
It was NOT by choice that a mechiza was not constructed at the Kotel. It was forbidden by Ottoman Law. They also forbade Jews from bringing chairs/tables or a Torah to the Kotel. I read somewhere else the laws also forbade making loud noises (i.e. shofer blowing or singing).
These rules were continued during the British Mandate time too.
At the same time, shuls in Jerusalem did have mechizas. Thus in my opinion, if Jews were allowed to construct a mechiza during the Ottoman rule, they would have,


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The Women’s Wall

In calling for desegregation of the Kotel, the modern movement is actually reviving 19th-century traditions