A Spiritual Artist Examines ‘Praying In Her Own Voice’

Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar begins the movie: "I’ve traveled all over the world and I’ve prayed with talit and tefillin in trains in Japan in airplanes going to Prague and to France and the only place I’m actually scared to put a talit over my head to pray lest I get hit over the head with a chair or have feces thrown at me is at the kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem."

Rabbi Denise L. Eger of the gay-friendly Reform temple Kol-Ami on Sunset Blvd: "The women of the wall are the prophetesses of our time because they are challenging injustice in sacred space. There isn’t anything more prophetic than that."

Rabbi Laura Geller: "This movement began because Jewish women want a relationship to God and a relationship to Jewish tradition."

The women of the wall make a powerful case for equal access to the Western Wall to pray in the way they seem fit, only their case comes from feminism and other secular notions, and not from Judaism.

When I watch this movie, I feel like I’m watching Martin Luther King marching in Selma, Alabama.

Unless you are rooted in tradition, these women seem like civil rights activists.

I’ve watched this movie three times and I’m looking forward to seeing it again, to watching it with people from all perspectives.

This is totally a movie to catch a wife with, even if she’s a lesbian who wants to wear tefillin and blow a shofar.

I feel like you can tell what every character is going to say simply by looking at how they dress. The traditionalists vs. the moderns. It goes down the line. The Reform and Conservative Jews look like moderns and take modern positions. The traditional Orthodox women carefully cover their hair while the women of the wall tend to be more free with theirs.

The Women of the Wall says: "We stand far from the Wall so as not to offend anyone."

I like that. It’s just the thing you say when you know you don’t have much power and that you could get into big trouble. I’ve said the same thing myself many times. "Just let me stay. I’ll be real quiet. I’ll just sit over here. I won’t disturb anyone."

A leader of the Women of the Wall says: "I don’t know why we’re such a big threat. Why are women raising their voice in prayer supposedly undermining the Jewish tradition?"

Tens of thousands of Jewish women raise their voices in prayer at the kotel without disturbance. The problem is that this group deliberately violates the norms of a sacred space by taking on practices traditionally reserved for men. If I went to a NOW convention wearing a right-to-life t-shirt, I couldn’t expect a friendly reaction.

A Modern Orthodox girl is asked if she wants to pray like a man.

She responds: "A Jew doesn’t do what he wants or feels like doing. The Torah says what’s forbidden or allowed, what we must do."

"If my husband says something, he knows what’s best for me because he studies Torah."

Q: "You don’t know what’s best for you?"

A: "No."

Rabbi Daniel Sperber at Bar Ilan says: "Nothing prohibits women from reading the Torah. Anyone may be one of the seven customarily called to the Torah. Namely, anyone may read from the Torah on Shabbat, the seven sections, including women and children."

This is not the normative Orthodox view.

Rabbi Samuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall, says the normative Jewish position: "People can’t just do what is right in their own eyes."

The late Shinui politician Tommy Lapid weighs in on the side of the Women of the Wall as does Shulamit Aloni. So when the anti-religious are choosing the side of the Women of the Wall, it makes you wonder how normatively religious these Women of the Wall are?

Rabbi Andrew Sacks of the Conservative movement says the Orthodox have driven away "most Jews who want to pray differently."

If he means that most Jews in Israel want to pray differently from the Orthodox, then he’s saying something absurd. The people who the overwhelming amount of formal davening in Israel and around the world are the Orthodox. They are the ones who show up to shul every day to daven and learn Torah.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have never gained much of a following in Israel.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef says, according to a newspaper: "Bury the Refom women wrapped in prayer shawls."

Anat Hoffman, a founder of Women of the Wall and a leader of Israel’s Reform movement, says: "We want to show other women and girls that women can read Torah."

Well, when Anat and company do that by the Wall, the other women beat them up. It doesn’t seem they wanted to be educated in modern ways.

Anat: "There is no reason that this group, observing Jewish law, can’t be in the women’s section at the Kotel."

Well, few Orthodox rabbis would say this group’s aims are in line with Jewish law, which mandates separate roles for men and women.

Rabbi Samuel Rabinovitch: "It is inconceivable that everyone should do as they see fit."

Haviva Ner-David is throughout this documentary. She’s presented as "Dr. Haviva Ner-David, Post-denominational Rabbi, Women of the Wall, Orthodox."

Here’s Steven I. Weiss’s interaction with her from May 2006:

Haviva Ner-David Thinks She Got Semicha

I got a voicemail from R’ Aryeh Strikovsky this week wanting to follow-up on our conversation last week about Haviva Ner-David’s certification [1,2]. Maybe he’ll have something vastly different to say this time around, but it was pretty surprising to receive this letter from Ner-David this morning:

Subject: Thanks a lot!!!
Steve, I don’t know what your agenda is, but I smell something fishy. Why did you want to prove on your blog that what I got from Rav Aryeh Strikovsky is not smicha? You asked me to forward you the smicha document, and yet, you did not put it in on your blog, at least not that I could see. Is that because it would show that it is indeed smicha? What are you trying to prove? Are you some right-wing reactionary? Do you have something against the idea of women rabbis? I’m trying to understand what makes you tick. I am not sure what Rabbi Strikovsky actually told you, but I am sure you must have misquoted him or misunderstood him. Either that, or you scared him away from saying the truth. He signed the document I sent you. His only reservation was about giving me the title of Rav because he felt the Orthodox world was not ready for that yet. But the more people like you hound him, the more he will feel threatened and scared and reluctant to admit the truth.
So what is your agenda exactly? Why didn’t you include the document or at least quote from it?
I know I learned one thing from this, which his not to trust people who pose as reporters, I should have checked your credentials before being helpful.
I try to live by the ideal of dan lekaf zechut, but it is getting harder and harder these days.
Haviva Ner-David

My response:

Haviva –
I did post the document, and I quoted R’ Strikovsky precisely on what he told me — and it was he who called me, gave me the quotes, and ended the conversation; I’m not being selective. He did leave a message on my answering machine asking to do some follow-up, which I will do.
I have no agenda as to whether or not you’ve been given semicha; I don’t know you and don’t know much about you (though your letter certainly reveals a tendency toward paranoia, overstatement and hyperactivity). I was simply seeking the truth, and the quotes I got from Strikovsky are not only real and complete — they echo his statements to the Jerusalem Post that what he gave you was not semicha. Indeed, I find it pretty curious that you’d be so angry at what the rabbi said; this would seem to indicate the two of you are not exactly on the same page.
I certainly did not “hound him.” I left a message for him, he called me back, and I quoted him on what he said. It’s not my job to put your words in his mouth, just to quote him accurately.
As to my credentials, I don’t know what you checked up on, but here’s my standard bio:

Steven I. Weiss is an award-winning religion journalist in New York City who has written for such publications as New York Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Radar. He is currently the New York correspondent for the London Jewish Chronicle, and is a former staff writer at the Forward.

keep it good,
Steven I. Weiss

Haviva says about the Women of the Wall: "It is in accordance with Jewish law."

"We have to be confident that what we’re doing is for the sake of Heaven, even if it is a bit new and revolutionary."

People who are confident that what they are doing is for the sake of Heaven don’t need to tell themselves to be confident that what they’re doing is for the sake of Heaven.

I was struck that one of the opponents of the Women of the Wall has a hyphenated last name, "Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt."

She tries to take the Torah scroll from the Women of the Wall when they’re davening and an amusing fight breaks out.

Jonathan Rosenblum writes Feb. 9, 2005:

Mrs. Shira Leibowitz Schmidt heard about the planned demonstrations on the Monday night English-language news. Unlike most Torah Jews, who have long since learned to filter out such news items or convinced themselves that they are helpless, Mrs. Schmidt has become something of a one-woman truth squad.

When she hears or reads such a news item, she starts with the assumption that something has been misunderstood and does not rest until she gets to the bottom of the issue. So when the story of Rabbi Abergil’s psak broke, the first thing she did was to call Rabbi Abergil, whom she did not know. He told her that no one from the press or Machon Hoda’a had ever contacted him, and that he was very disturbed about the way his words were being distorted and misquoted. He faxed Mrs. Schmidt his psak.

Next Mrs. Schmidt contacted the Maariv reporter. He admitted to her that he had not contacted Rabbi Abergil. Worse, he had never even seen Rabbi Abergil’s actual psak, but had only learned of it from an informant. The only thing he could offer in his defense was that Rabbi Abergil’s failure to respond after the story was already published proved that it was accurate.

After that, Mrs. Schmidt contacted the op-ed editor of the Jerusalem Post and offered to write a piece placing the entire hullabaloo in perspective. Her lengthy response was prominently featured in the paper’s Friday magazine.

Even then, Mrs. Schmidt did not rest content. She proceeded to track down every news outlet that had carried the story of Rabbi Abergil’s psak and the subsequent demonstrations to inform them of the inaccuracies and politely suggest that an apology to Rabbi Abergil was in order.

All in all, Mrs. Schmidt provides a remarkable example of how much each of us could do if we only set our minds to it and did not leave the task for others.

If similar news items come to your attention, please contact amechad@bezeqint.net.

Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt responds to a different item by Jonathan Rosenblum: "Sometimes, Jonathan….
…the situation is vice versa- people from the national religious (knitted kippa) stream “take the rap” for something that characterizes the haredim. A group of knitted-kippa wearing yeshiva boys from a hesder yeshiva where the boys alternate periods of study and army service went on Israel’s Memorial Day to fallen soldiers to say Psalms in an army cemetery. To honor the fallen they donned white dress shirts. While they were there I saw a woman (from her dress probably not observant) go over to them and lambaste them for not serving in the army, mistakenly identifying them as yeshiva students with deferments. They tried to gently explain that they do serve in the army. But in her rage she couldn’t listen and shouted, “I bet your rabbis tell you not to serve” “why don’t you at least guard kindergartens” etc. (Eventually her husband, who did realize they were yeshiva-student-soldiers-dressed-in-white-shirts calmed her down.) After witnessing this I understood why many from the national-religious sector are particularly vehement against deferred yeshiva students. The non-haredi yeshiva students are often grouped along with haredim in the mind of the public, just as in Jonathan’s case (of the spitting) the haredim may have been grouped along with non-haredi yeshiva students."

Here is an online bio of Shira: "Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. "That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered," he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Shira acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. She remarried Dr. Baruch Schmidt, and they live in Netanya where she currently works as a translator and writer, and does volunteer work for the Shas Ha’maayan Torah day schools."

Shira has co-authored a couple of books on Judaism and science.

Here’s another online bio of this woman: "Shira Leibowitz Schmidt has six children and eight grandchildren … so far. She is a lapsed engineer and co-authored Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition (New York, 1997) with Nobel chemist Roald Hoffmann. She is currently affiliated with the Haredi College in Jerusalem and writes polemical articles on controversial issues for The Jerusalem Post."

Danielle Bertsin of WOW says about her critics: "How are they so sure that their way is the right way?"

Well, Danielle seems pretty sure her way is the right way.

The documentary ends: "The Women of the Wall continue their struggle to give women’s prayer a voice."

Director Yael Katzir is Dan Katzir’s mom.

Filmmaking is in his genes.

She has a long resume:

 YAEL KATZIR – Director
Filmmaker, college professor , wife and mother,     Yael Katzir was born in Tel Aviv  in 1942  After completing the required training in the Israeli army, Yael served as an officer in the IDF until 1962. Studied at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, at UCLA, Los Angeles, California and received her Doctoral Degree in History. She completed a Masters at Boston University, MA, in Broadcasting and Film.
Director of Beit Berl College Communal Cable Television Center, broadcasting regularly on Cable TV Channel 25, and Sattelite Channel 90 aired country wide. Previous head of History Department at Beit Berl College, she is now a lecturer on film and history as well as independent documentary filmmaker, director and producer; she is also a published author.



The Jewish Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe, 1987 / (13 min) 16mm; Harvard University. Cambridge, MA, US

Jews in Uniform in world War II – 1988 / (26 min) Video, Beit Berl College, Israel

Open Door – A Meeting Between Arab and Jewish Children – 1991 / (26 min) Video, on behalf of the Ford Foundation

To Brave a Dream -The Story of the American Colony in Jaffa,1992 / (30min) Video, Israel Broadcasting Authority, Channel 1

Jerusalem Spirit and Matter 1993 / (13 min) Video, on behalf of Land of Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

There Is A Place For Every One Elijah’s Cave on Mt Carmel – 1995 / (26min) Video, Haifa International Film Festival; Israel Channel 1 TV

Lake of Galilee from the Window of Rachel – 1996 / (16 min) Video, for Tourist Center, Kinneret, Israel, Channel 2 TV, 2001

It Is Hard To Choose ¬ – 1998 / (25 min) Video, Cable Television, Israel

Company Jasmine, Women Officers School – 2000-1 / (55 min) Video, Israel Channel 1 TV 2001-2 and Channel 2 TV 2003

Shivah For My Mother, Seven Days of Mourning (55 min) Video, 2004 / Israel Channel 8, September 2004


Women of the Wall (WOW) is an organization in Israel, with members and supporters around the world, who have organized a series of Women’s prayer groups at the Kotel (Western Wall) each month on Rosh Hodesh. The groups have included women reading from the Torah and wearing tallit, tefillin, and kippah.

The Kotel is a central Jewish holy site, part of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount on which the Second Temple stood before the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE.

The Kotel is in the control of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Based on a decision of the Israeli Government, security personnel have prevented the Women of the Wall from holding organized prayer groups in the women’s section of the main public area of the Kotel plaza. In addition, members of the Women of the Wall have reported that their efforts to assemble in the women’s section in the plaza in front of the Kotel have been met at various times with violent and abusive behavior from Haredi worshipers.[1]

Since its founding in 1989, Women of the Wall has fought a legal battle asserting a right to conduct organized prayer at the Kotel and challenging government and private intervention in its efforts, which ultimately led to two Israeli Supreme Court decisions and to a series of debates in the Knesset. In its first decision, on May 22, 2002, the Supreme Court authorized Women of the Wall to hold prayer groups in the women’s section of the main Kotel plaza undisturbed. Four days later, Haredi political parties introduced several bills to overturn the decision, including a bill that would have made it a criminal offense for women to pray in non-traditional ways at the western wall, punishable by up to seven years in prison.[2] Although the bill did not pass, the Israeli Supreme Court reconsidered its earlier decision. On April 6, 2003, the Court reversed itself and upheld, 5-4, the Israeli government’s ban prohibiting the organization from meeting at the main public area at the Wall, on the grounds that continued meetings represented a threat to public safety and order.[3] The Court required the government to provide an alternate site, Robinson’s Arch.[4] The Robinson’s Arch site was completed by October 2003.[5]

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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