Praying in Her Own Voice documents the courageous struggle of Women of the Wall for the right to wear prayer shawls and read aloud from a Torah scroll – acts that Jewish religious law permits women to perform but is fiercely objected by the orthodox establishment in Israel . The film follows the group for 2 years during their services, hearings at the Supreme Court and violent confrontations with their ultra-Orthodox opponents. The story of Women of the Wall is a test case for the deprived status of women in Israeli public life. The film is an outcry protesting religious coercion and the violent silencing of women at the Western Wall, a public space and a national symbol, a place that should have room for everyone.
Women of the wall (WOW), a group of women who have asserted women’s right to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, have struggled against personal violence public opprobrium since 1988. Though the group is small in number, it has garnered considerable international support, especially for its lengthy struggle in Israel’s Supreme Court of Justice.
The latter has expressly the Western wall as a site of great symbolic significance for Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora, not only as a holly place but also as historical, national and cultural symbol. On this historic stage, the struggle between enlightenment and fundamentalism and between patriarchy and feminism is being acted out. Its outcome is important not only for the Women of the Wall themselves but also for the future of human right in Israel.
WOW’s manner of prayer is in a group, wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah Scroll-a manner of prayer for men but not for women which is a subject of controversy amongst Orthodox Jewish authorities. It is considered by many Orthodox rabbis to infringe prohibitions on Jewish halakhic law or, even if it does not, to constitute an impermissible deviation from the custom of the place at the Western Wall. However it is fully condoned by some well-respected Orthodox authorities. In this it is from the mode of prayer of Reform and Conservative Jews. The grounds for the distinction is that the Women of the Wall do not pray in mixed prayer groups of men and women but pray separately from men in the ezrat nashim, so women’s section, at the Western Wall. Nor do they attempt to pray in minyan (a prayer quorum), which requires at lest ten men for prayers. Rather the pray in a group which is not a minyan and do not recite those prayers which require a minyan.
In short, it is within the limits of Orthodoxy that the WOW are seeking to pray in a group in the same manner as men, wearing prayer shawls, holding the Torah Scroll, and raising their voices in prayer. They seek to pray as full partners in Orthodox Jewish tradition and not as silent, passive shadows of men.
The women’s prayer in this manner has been greeted with violent opposition from other Orthodox worshippers, both male and female. They have been physically attacked and verbally abused. Similar violence has met Reform and Conservative congregations of Jews, which have attempted to pray near the Western Wall in mixes prayer groups of men and women. Scenes of spitting and even throwing of excrement at these groups have appeared on television screens around the world. The violence is orchestrated by small groups of fanatics, mostly seminary students who live in the vicinity of the wall. However, its importance exceeds the number of its perpetrators. Many people who would not identify with the fanatical violence nevertheless openly condemn the participants in women’s or mixed groups as provoking the violence. Officialdom has not banished the violent fanatics from the Western Wall Plaza; instead it has banished the WOW and the Reform and Conservative congregations.
The violence against the Women of the Wall is a manifestation of the attempts of fundamentalist religious activities to preserve their patriarchal hegemony. This attempt is unique neither to Judaism nor to Jerusalem. The use of spiritual symbolism by traditionalist religious leaders to preserve patriarchy is a form of patriarchal politics. More than that, it is most virulent form of patriarchal politics in our era. Religious fundamentalism has the subjugation of women high on its agenda. Religious institutions not only preach but also proselytize patriarchy, linking up with pockets of resistance to feminist change legitimizing them.
The WOW represents a new kind of activism struggling for feminist expression within the religious context. In all the aspects of the WOW’s mode of prayer there is a challenge to the patriarchal hegemony of religion. The reasons why each of the attributes of the WOW’s mode of prayer is considered offensive are richly symbolic of patriarchy in feminist discourse. It is this that explains the violent opposition by fundamentalist forces to their manifestation. The objection to WOW’s prayer is an objection to women’s “official” group prayer with tallit or Torah Scroll and not to the idea of number of women praying together. The latter is perceived as permissible provided that it has none of the trappings of “official” group prayer. In the eyes of the opponents of the WOW, the different aspects of their mode of prayer, although they do not pray in minyan, are all linked to public participatory prayer in minyan and are hence linked, directly or indirectly, to the performance of positive time-bound commandments (mitzvoth ase shehazzman grama). Women are exempt from performing such duties and there is conflicting opinion as to whether they may waive this exemption if the exemption is to their disadvantage, rather than to their advantage.