Should women have equal prayer rights at the Kotel?
It's a question of profound religious, spiritual and political complexities that a new documentary, "Praying in Her Own Voice," by filmmaker Yael Katzir, dares to ask but doesn't attempt to answer.
As it stands, Israeli law has prevented the organization, Women of the Wall, and other gatherings of women from holding organized prayer groups -- reading Torah and wearing tallit, tefillin and kippah -- in the women's section of the Western Wall's main plaza.
Women of the Wall has been challenging the religious establishment since 1989, fighting for the right to conduct an organized prayer service at the most significant worship site in Israel.
The penalty for defiance? Violators face seven years of prison.
The documentary follows the women as they gather once a month on Rosh Chodesh to form a minyan and pray at the Kotel. Disapproving onlookers have thrown chairs at them, spat at them and disrupted their prayer with verbal and physical assaults.
Sometimes the women huddle tightly together, forming a bulwark against other hostile religious Jews -- and by extension, the chief rabbinate of Israel, which governs the Western Wall. Other times, they give up and retire to their "alternate" prayer site, Robinson's Arch, far removed from the public gathering at the holiest Jewish relic in Jerusalem.
"I have traveled around the world, and I have prayed with tallit and tefillin on trains in Japan, on airplanes going to Prague and to France, and the only place where I'm actually scared to put a tallit over my head and pray -- lest I get hit over the head with a chair or have feces thrown at me -- is at the Kotel, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem," Rabbi Sharon Brous proclaims in the film's opening line.
Excerpt: Praying in Her Own Voice"
Brous is one of six L.A.-area female rabbis interviewed in the film, which includes Rabbis Laura Geller, Denise Eger, Lisa Edwards, Lynn Brody and Naomi Levy, who support the movement for religious freedom in Israel.
After the screening, part of the 23rd Israel Film Festival, was a panel discussion with Edwards and Brody and the film's producers, Dan Katzir and Ravit Markus, which raised issues from the film before an audibly impassioned crowd.
Edwards recounted visiting Israel in 1989, when the first women's prayer gathering took place at the Wall. She said she had to defend her choice to wear a head covering when a self-identified Orthodox woman literally cried out from her seat, "I feel a woman's place is behind her man. I could never put on a kippah. I could never put on a tallis. That is for my husband and my brothers."
Edwards' experience was an unironic echo of the film, and the Orthodox woman a vehemently dissenting voice that cast a dose of reality on an empathetic audience, a minor example of just how uphill this battle will be.
The Israeli government, which has seen its Supreme Court concede turf to the Women of the Wall only to repeal its decision when squeezed by Charedi political parties, appears quite helpless to resolve the swelling religious conflict.
What's missing in the film -- and the movement -- is commentary from Torah scholars who might challenge the law, using halacha not to defend but affirm a woman's place in Jewish religious life.
Democrats for Israel Leader Moves Up
Andrew Lachman has spent the past six months crisscrossing Los Angeles to assure Jewish voters that a Democratic president would be just as good for Israel as any Republican. Lately, he's been helping Sen. Barack Obama's team with Jewish outreach.
Lachman is not a campaign man but a technology-licensing attorney and blue-blooded part-time political junkie. The president of Democrats for Israel, Lachman, 38, was elected this month to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) by the California Democratic Party Executive Board in San Francisco.
When his four-year term begins in August after the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Lachman will be the only elected Jewish male on the California DNC delegation. L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti represents all municipal elected officials; Rachel Binah of Mendocino County and Rosalind Wyman, one of the first Jews elected to the L.A. City Council in 1953, are the only Jewish female delegates.
-- Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer