Women's Passover blessing at Jerusalem's Western Wall curtailed
First-ever 'women's priestly blessing' conducted under heavy police guard as ultra-Orthodox men harangued them
A bid by a group of Jewish women to challenge tradition at Jerusalem's Western Wall with a blessing usually conducted by men was curtailed Sunday after a decision by Israel's attorney general.
The plan was the latest by the group, Women of the Wall, to push for equal prayer rights at the site, the holiest location where Jews are currently allowed to pray.
Around 50 women gathered on the plaza leading to the wall amid Passover celebrations and held prayers, though without carrying out the full blessing.
They prayed under heavy police guard as a crowd of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and boys in dark suits looked on and harangued them.
A decision from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday prohibited the first-ever "women's priestly blessing" at the wall because it did not conform to local custom.
The ultra-Orthodox establishment that oversees the Western Wall strongly opposed the bid, viewing it as a desecration under their strict interpretation of Jewish law.
It had been unclear whether the women would defy the attorney general's ruling, but on Sunday they said police asked them to sign a document committing to not conduct the blessing, which they did.
They were also kept in a cordoned-off area around 50 meters (yards) from the wall itself, with police telling them it was necessary for their safety.
Previous prayers by Women of the Wall have led to harassment and abuse by ultra-Orthodox worshippers.
"In order to get our buses in, we signed that we will not raise our hands in the air, we will not bless the people of Israel and we will not put our (prayer shawls) over our heads," Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall told AFP at the site.
"It's pretty demeaning, and it shows I think how grotesque and absurd the system is."
Israeli police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The traditional benediction sees men who are descendants of the Cohanim priestly caste gather to bless crowds. It is to be held on Monday at the Western Wall to mark Passover.
It involves the raising of hands in a form similar to the "Vulcan salute" which Leonard Nimoy borrowed from Judaism for his "Star Trek" role as Mr Spock.
Those conducting the blessing also cover their heads with prayer shawls.
Women participating in the prayer on Sunday wore pins in the shape of the hand gesture. At least one woman could be seen making the sign discretely during prayers.
The rabbi who oversees the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitz, called the gathering a "provocation" and argued that the blessing they wanted to carry out had never been done "by any (Jewish) community in the world."
He said their actions "hurt feelings and desecrate."
Women of the Wall has also been pushing for the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the wall, where men and women are required to pray in separate areas.
An agreement to create such a space was approved by the government in January, but ultra-Orthodox parties have since come out strongly against it and further discussions are being held.
The Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, is believed to be among the last remnants of the second Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.