So, while in Israel with my congregation this past December, I had many phenomenal experiences. But one that took a little time to rattle around in my head was our Shabbat evening in Jerusalem. As we made our way through the Jewish Quarter after Kabbalat Shabbat at the Western Wall, we were overtaken by a a group of two-score Dati (Orthodox) school girls. And these teens were singing. Beautifully. Sounds like no big deal to the uninitiated, but sadly, the first thing I thought to do when I realized who the singers were was to look around at the mass of Dati men flowing around them and gauge their reaction. There were, without question, sneers and hostile looks, but mostly there was indifference; men chatted with men, seemingly unaffected. What a sea change. Twenty years I ago when I lived and moved among the Dati, I never heard women seminarians sing, under any circumstances. A revolution had started between then and now. It was, in retrospect a hopeful highlight of my trip.
So I was excited to discover a great 2006 Israeli film, Sodot, or in English, The Secrets, that captures the struggle for women's spiritual equality in Orthodoxy. Set in a woman's yeshiva, it's the story of two girls: a brilliant but emotionally closed down daughter of a rabbi, and a disaffected wild-child sent to Safed the way we send troubled children to military school. As you can tell, forbidden (sort of) love blossoms between the two, but that really isn't the most compelling element of the story. As the film truthfully reveals, these kinds of relationships, self-discovery for some, transitional for others, are pretty commonplace in such same-sex institutions for the young. This is not a film about Lesbianism (not that there's anything wrong with that).
For me the real meat of the story is the involvement of the two girls in helping a terminal woman, recently released from prison, seeking absolution for her past transgressions. Too out-of-the-box for the Orthodox community to embrace her, she finds solace in these girls guiding her through a series of rituals of teshuvah and kabbalistically flavored tikkunim ("soul repairs"). I can't vouch for the pure authenticity of these scenes, but what I loved was the reverence shown to the process. It was genuinely moving. Unlike many Hollywood portrayals of the Ultra-Orthodox world, the script and director showed not only a serious respect for the culture of Dati Judaism, but were able to capture much of its beauty on film. The director had a discerning eye for the spiritual power of Dati life, even as he offers a strong (but not brow-beating) feminist critique. I'm sure many Orthodox viewers would find plenty to object to, from the naked women shown in a mikvah to the repeated, uncensored speaking of Elohim and Adonai, but as someone who bridges the religious ans secular world, I found this movie both compelling and, at times, inspiring.