Jewish “Women of the Wall” Defy Law to Pray

“A woman at the Wall is like a pig at the Wall.” This was the statement made by Yehuda Getz, the late Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, following one of the most shocking demonstrations of violence at one of Judaism’s holiest shrines—the Kotel (Western Wall)—on a bleak December morning in 1988.

What had happened? Rivka Haut, an Orthodox Jewish woman from Borough Park, Brooklyn, had decided to organize the first women’s Rosh Chodesh (welcoming of the new month) Torah reading at the Western Wall, complete with a Torah scroll and wearing tallitot (prayer shawls).

Calling themselves “The Women of the Wall,” the group of 70 Jewish women assembled quietly on the women’s side of the wall at 7 a.m. and began to pray. By 7:20, they were gone; driven away by Ultra-Orthodox men, who caused a near riot. When the women opened the Torah scroll, the men began to throw chairs, hurl verbal abuse, and spit on them, and the police did nothing to curb the violence. Haut was injured when she was hit over the head with a chair.

The incident was the first of its kind, but it wasn’t the last. Over the past two decades, the Women of the Wall’s efforts have been met with attacks by both Orthodox men and women at the Kotel, ranging from throwing chairs and feces to attacks by Israeli police with tear gas.

Twenty years later, Yael Katzir’s powerful documentary, Praying in her Own Voice, takes an up-close-and-personal look at the ongoing struggles of the Women of the Wall as the group continues to seek the right to read from the Torah at the Western Wall. It’s a battle that has seen the group take their case all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court.

Thanks to Katzir’s film, the Women of the Wall have achieved more exposure, recognition, and discussion in the last 20 months than the movement itself has in the last 20 years. Katzir, a secular Israeli, has spent years following these women and documenting their plight; and her film has finally managed to put the issues of feminism, equality, and the status of Jewish women front and center.

Anat Hoffman, a prominent Israeli activist, notes in the film, “Israel markets the Kotel as a symbol of unity… how can there be unity when half the population is silenced?” And, she adds, a Supreme Court ruling states that if a woman dares to read from the Torah or wear a tallit at the Kotel, she can be imprisoned for seven years.

The Women of the Wall are still continuing their fight, and now the issue is gaining more traction in Jewish communities outside of Israel thanks to Katzir’s film. It also helps that six prominent American female rabbis (Laura Geller, Lisa Edwards, Sharon Brous, Lynn Brody, Naomi Levy and Denise Eger) are all interviewed in the documentary.

Katzir had no way of knowing when she started to film that in 2008 Eger would conduct California’s first same-sex marriage on the steps of the Beverly Hills courthouse, and in 2009 be appointed as the President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. Yet Eger’s rise in prominence has surely helped boost the plight of the Women of the Wall.

Dan Katzir is Yael’s son and a documentary filmmaker in his own right who lives in Los Angeles. Together with Ravit Markus and their company New Love Films, Katzir produced Praying in her Own Voice, and has been touring the film festival circuit around the country with the movie. He says it was extremely important to include the rabbis in the film to help clarify to American audiences how important the film’s issue is.

“We had one man come to the Los Angeles Israeli Film Festival screening last year and say, ‘Who cares about this film?’ But when he saw that Orthodox women came to the screening and started screaming and calling the film a ‘disgrace’ and had to be escorted out of the theater, the man suddenly realized [the film’s] importance. This [incident] took place in West Hollywood in the 21st century and it still caused a stir,” Katzir notes.

Reaching out to an audience beyond Israel is key for several reasons, Katzir says. “In Israel the film didn’t really resonate with anyone, because there you’re either Orthodox or secular. The Orthodox don’t question anything and the secular hate the Orthodox, so they see the film as just another example of how primitive Orthodox Judaism is.”

Most important, Katzir says, are the comments made in the film by Rabbi David Hartmann of Jerusalem’s Shalom Institute. “He basically says the future of Judaism rests on the issue of the Women of the Wall,” says Katzir. “The Judaism of today is not the Judaism of 3,000 years ago, but the role of women hasn’t changed in that time. If Judaism doesn’t change its attitudes and adapt to the 21st century, then according to Hartmann it will stop being a relevant religion.”

“The Women of the Wall are a very clear and precise metaphor for this battle,” Katzir notes, adding that even Reform Judaism, which has the most liberal attitudes towards women in Judaism, still only began to allow the ordination women rabbis in the last 30 years.

And yet, it’s only in the past year that the film has really gained a strong following. It took time, Katzir says, because many film festivals felt the documentary was too controversial to be screened. “I spoke to the head of one festival and said, ‘You show films about Palestinian causes, Jewish causes, homosexuality, lesbianism, rape, and incest, but a film about the role of women in Judaism is too controversial?’”

Katzir says he hopes that the film will make people become more proactive in helping the Women of the Wall with their plight; even if Jewish women who now travel to Israel simply make a point of going to the Kotel and praying with them (they currently pray in a designated space away from the main section of the Kotel).

“I also hope people come away from this film with an understanding that Judaism still has a lot of places where things need to change.”