Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

The Women’s Wall

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

Elliott Horowitz
April 30, 2013
“Jew’s Place of Wailing, Jerusalem” from William Bartlett’s Walks About the City and Environs of Jerusalem, 1844.(Wikimedia Commons)
“Jew’s Place of Wailing, Jerusalem” from William Bartlett’s Walks About the City and Environs of Jerusalem, 1844.(Wikimedia Commons)

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.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Elliott Horowitz, a resident of Jerusalem, is the author of Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton) and co-editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review.

Elliott Horowitz, a resident of Jerusalem, is the author of Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton) and co-editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review.