Member of the religious group 'Women of the Wall,' during a prayer marking the first day of the Jewish month of Iyar at the Western Wall on April 11, 2013 in Jerusalem's Old City, Israel. Five members of the organisation 'Women of the Wall' were detained by police during the group's monthly prayer at the Western Wall, after covering themselves with prayer shawls in contradiction to the holy site's custom.
Credit: Uriel Sinai

LONDON — The three Abrahamic faiths were created in patriarchal cultures. But recent events have shown that none of these faiths can survive in the 21st century as expressions of patriarchy.

Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are all being tested by the comparatively recent — and not entirely secure — advances of women to full equality. Western Christian churches are seeing a rise in controversies over female priests and bishops. Fundamentalist Islamic cultures are being challenged by women's desire for education.

In Judaism, whose liberal branch has long ordained women as rabbis, women are fighting for the right to pray equally at the religion's holiest site: the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple in Jerusalem. Leading this challenge to tradition is a group called Women of the Wall

A feminist group closely linked to American Reform Judaism, Women of the Wall want to be equal participants in prayer at the wall, including the right to read aloud from the Torah and wear tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, when worshiping at the wall.

It may seem a comparatively small fight, but it cuts across another, profound, fault line in modern Jewry: the relationship between the global Jewish community and the Jewish state of Israel.

Founded 25 years ago, Women of the Wall operated in obscurity for a long time. But as Israeli society has become more and more polarized by the growing power of ultra-Orthodox Jews, the group has come under increased police pressure. The first arrest of a member of Women of the Wall was in 2009.

Earlier this month, five women were arrested for "conducting a religious ritual contrary to local custom."

The group's leader, Anat Hoffman, told Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, "I have been going there for the past 24 years. I am the local custom. Women of the Wall is the local custom … "

Prayer, like so much else in modern Jewish life, is a flexible thing, as any outsider visiting Jerusalem and watching Jews pray at the Wall (known in Hebrew as the kotel) can tell you. Prayer has no real form or shape. It can be a private or a group activity. It can be ecstatic or tearful. It can take the form of dancing and singing or teaching.

This reflects the huge changes in Jewish life since the end of the Ghetto Era two centuries ago. 

As Jews were given citizenship in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century and allowed to move freely, Jewish identity underwent seismic shifts. Massive aftershocks — including the Holocaust — means the ground still hasn't settled under Jewish feet.

Gender segregation at services is long established within the Orthodox tradition. Since the end of the Ghetto Era, Conservative, Reform and other liberal forms of Judaism have formed, which allow men and women to pray together.

In 1948, when Israel was founded, Jews could not even pray at the Wall, and the Old City of Jerusalem was part of Jordan. In 1967's Six-Day War, Israeli troops seized the Old City and immediately created a massive prayer space at the Wall. The Orthodox community was put in control of the area, and prayer at the Wall was segregated.

Forty years later, in 1988, a group of Jewish feminists wearing prayer shawls went to the wall carrying a Torah and read from it. A small gesture was a major provocation, and the women were physically attacked by ultra-Orthodox worshippers.

As the decades wore on, the women gathered once a month for a service at the Wall. The event was important to them but not to the wider Israeli society, according to Shira Pruce, spokesperson for Women of the Wall.

"Israelis have literally and actively given up on the kotel," explains Pruce. "Many Israelis tell me, let the ultra-Orthdox have it."

In addition to the conflict with the Palestinians, another conflict that occupies Israelis today is between the secular Jewish majority and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish (known in Hebrew as Haredi) minority. This conflict has perpetuated the Jewish identity crisis in an Israeli setting.

Women of the Wall accuse the ultra-Orthodox of enforcing gender segregation in a public space. Other groups have made the same argument, as the ultra-Orthodox have tried to separate women from men elsewhere, including on busses.

In 1948, Israel had around 30,000 Haredi Jews (about 4 percent of the population at the time) and the state's character was secular. Now ultra-Orthodox make up 10 percent of the population and increasingly domestic policy debates pivot on their demands. 

Some, who seem like they would be natural allies of Women of the Wall, think the issue the group has decided to fight is the wrong one.

"I find it hard to embrace this particular issue as number one on my agenda," says author and Ha'aretz columnist Lily Galili. "I know it's important as part of human rights and freedom of religion. But in our miserable situation you just have to set your priorities."

Galili adds, "I suspect it's of greater importance to Jews in the Diaspora who find it offensive, and rightly so."

Many of the group's leaders and much of its financial support comes from Jews in North America. Pruce, who moved to Israel from the US in 2004, says that online sales of Women of the Wall prayer shawls are an important source of funding. 

The issue of equal women's praying rights at the Wall has landed on the desk of Natan Sharansky, former Soviet dissident who now heads the Jewish Agency. He is trying to find a way to please all sides.

Meanwhile, the dispute over praying rights - and what it means to be a Jew and an Israeli - continues. Two weeks ago, a female judge threw out the case against the five women arrested in March. The police appealed that decision. Judgment on the appeal has yet to be rendered.

More from GlobalPost: Israel: Women reclaim Judaism's holiest site

Related Stories