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Film Review: Deconstructing The Women’s Balcony

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

I recently saw Israel’s #1 film of the year, an independent film, The Women’s Balcony. For those who haven’t seen it, I will give you a brief plot overview. (The plot overview has no spoilers but the article does).

The film takes place in Jerusalem and centers around a small, traditional Israeli community. During a Bar Mitzvah service in their old, beloved shul, the women’s balcony collapses. The elder Rabbi’s wife, the Rebbetzin, lays in the hospital unconscious while the Rabbi becomes delusional.

In comes the light in shining armor: a young, charismatic “ultra-Orthodox,” Rabbi, Rabbi David, who takes it upon himself to help the community rebuild its shul, in hopes that he will inspire them to increase their Torah observance. The issue: there isn’t enough money to get a new Torah scroll for the community (which was destroyed in the accident) and build a women’s balcony. Through this conflict, the film explores the relationship between the traditional and the right-wing religious communities, as well as gender issues in Judaism.

Like most good films, this film has a lot of emotion and is not black and white. I want to go through some of the film’s main plot points and try to shed some clarity on them from a Torah perspective.

The Collapse of The Women’s Balcony and Teshuva

After the women’s balcony collapses, the basic shul itself is rebuilt without a balcony. Instead, there is a modest women’s section attached to the shul on the main floor. The women eagerly approach the shul after months of construction on Purim night, not realizing that the balcony was not rebuilt. When they arrive at the shul to find a small women’s section attached to the main shul, they are devastated. 

Rabbi David takes this opportunity to give the women a lecture. He tells them that perhaps the balcony collapsed as a punishment from G-d because the women in the shul do not observe all the Jewish laws of modesty, particularly married women covering their hair. He encourages the woman to do teshuva, to repent.

As I discussed in a previous article, there are many reasons why “bad” things happen. If something we perceive as bad happens to us, it is a healthy spiritual reaction to look at our behavior as a potential spiritual cause. If we are inspired to change for the better, that is great. However, we can never really know why G-d does things. We just can’t. For a Rabbi to insist that the women’s balcony collapsed because the women do not cover their hair, especially in a more traditional community where the women typically do not cover their hair, is wrong and insensitive.

One woman takes Rabbi David’s words to heart and increases her observance. When another woman from the shul tries to give her homemade leftovers, she says that she will not eat her food anymore and then rebukes her for not doing teshuva herself. This “righteous” woman’s behavior is obviously not what the Torah means when it instructs us to “Love your fellow man as yourself.” We are meant to show kindness and respect to others, even if we privately disagree with their behaviors. The laws between men are considered just as important as the laws between man and G-d.

The Priority of a Torah Scroll vs. A Women’s Balcony

This is perhaps the most sensitive issue in the film.

After months of feeling discouraged, some of the women finally raise the thousands of shekels needed to rebuild the women’s balcony. Elated, their joy is short-lived when Rabbi David insists that under Jewish law, the funds must be used for a Torah scroll first. The women are outraged and refuse to enter the shul until the matter is resolved in their favor. 

When I first began to explore Judaism, I balked at the smaller women’s sections at the Western Wall and in Orthodox synagogues. I didn’t understand then that the women’s section is smaller for a practical reason: women are not obligated to pray in shul in a minyan of ten, like men are, so there are typically less women praying on a consistent basis in these places. Now, that didn’t seem fair to me either. Why shouldn’t women be counted in a minyan?

One of my teachers Rebbetzin Heller explains, “Our tradition tells us clearly that women need more flexibility in their spiritual paths than men do… Women are not given more freedom because less is expected of them; on the contrary, Judaism assumes that women are capable of finding equally growth-producing outlets for their energies on their own…”[1]

Specifically, regarding prayer, Rebbetzin Heller teaches, “Women have the choice to attend or not attend synagogue. If a woman finds that synagogue prayer answers her spiritual needs, she should go. If not, she should pray at home. Not praying is not an option- women’s prayers are just as needed and important as men’s.”[2] Since women do not have the obligation to pray in a minyan, they are not counted as part of a minyan even if they do attend shul because “Jewish practice [unlike American law], is based on obligations, not rights.”[3]

Growing up in school, I was taught that aside from physical differences, men and women are essentially the same. The Torah does not take this view. G-d created men and women differently so that they can complement each other in fulfilling the purpose of creation. In Judaism, men are considered more external beings, whereas women are more internal by nature. This is expressed in our respective sexual organs. It is also expressed in the many external laws that men have, which women don’t. For instance, men must wear a kippah on their head, an external sign that there is Someone above them. The tzitzit, the strings that hang from the four corners of a man’s shirt, are an external reminder to keep the commandments. Men need the external structure of praying three times a day, in a shul, with a minyan. Women don’t need this external structure.

Yet because we live in a culture that prioritizes what happens outside the home, in the public arena, men are perceived to be more important. This may be the perception from outside the Torah community, but as someone who lives in a Torah community, I can say that this is just not true. The women in my community are valued and respected by the men. In fact, a Jewish man is supposed to respect his wife as much as himself and honor her more than himself. If this ideal is not manifest (and unfortunately it’s not always), it is the fault of individual men, not the Torah.

Rabbi David was right that in Jewish law, a shul does need a Torah scroll before a nicer women’s section. To read from the Torah is an integral part of a shul. That being said, Rabbi David should have been more sensitive to the women in this situation. Instead of insisting that the shul use the funds that the women worked hard to raise for their balcony, he could have encouraged a separate campaign for the scroll. Of course, such problem-solving only works in real life, and not in a film that needs conflict.

Misappropriating the Funds for a Torah Scroll

Rabbi David crosses the line when he decides to take matters into his own hands and forge two signatures on the check earmarked for the women’s balcony and use it for a Torah scroll. Not only are his actions illegal, but what blessing will come through a Torah scroll written in this devious manner? Obviously, his actions here were dishonest and not at all in alignment with Jewish law.

View From The Balcony

Overall, all parties ultimately had good intentions. The women wanted a beautiful space to pray in. Rabbi David wanted to help a struggling community rebuild its shul and grow in its Torah observance. The poor men, who were stuck in the middle, wanted both.

However, the women did not acknowledge the priority of a Torah scroll for the shul. At the same time, Rabbi David did not properly acknowledge the importance of a beautiful women’s balcony to the women in this community. If both had, perhaps all parties could have taken a more sensitive, problem-solving approach. Of course, this is a movie. And while there are moments where the film shows Jews putting aside their differences to come together, ultimately each community remains separate. It would be refreshing to see a film that shows how we Jews can seek to understand each other and unify, rather than focus on what sets us apart.

[1] Jewish Women Speak, Rebbetzin Heller, “The Jewish Woman’s Path to Spirituality,” p. 26.

[2] Id. at 27.

[3] Id.

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