On the way home from my last trip to Israel, I watched a movie I’ve been wanting to see for a while: “The Women’s Balcony.” The movie, set in Israel, is part of a new genre of film that studies Orthodox Jews and actually gets it right. It’s pretty exciting.
The story revolves around what appears to be a Sephardic congregation – Orthodox, but not ultra – and its journey of identity in the aftermath of a tragic accident where the women’s balcony collapses in the middle of a bar mitzvah. The name in Hebrew, Ezrat Nashim, is a clever play on words. Literally, it means “the help of the women” and is what the women’s section is called in an Orthodox congregation, named after its precedent during Temple times in the ancient city of Jerusalem.
The plot thickens with the illness of their rabbi, and the appearance of an ultra-Orthodox – and non-Sephardic – rabbi on the scene to “help” them by rebuilding their synagogue and encouraging them to become more devout by covering their heads and other observances. He also begins to assert financial control of the renovations. Notably, without a women’s balcony. The rest of the story is characterized by the fiery resolve of the women to disallow the rabbi from usurping their congregation.
But the most intriguing thing in the movie, made even more relevant in the wake of the #MeToo campaign, was the focus on the enigmatic and mysterious rabbi who is the villain of the story.
Charisma is a quality that has long fascinated me. Its etymology is from the Latin and Greek meaning favor or grace, and has taken on a sheen of magical and magnetic attraction – “gift of grace,” implying an almost divinely gifted power of favor.
In the wake of political, religious and corporate leaders coming under fire for misusing charisma and power in the pursuit of sexual gain, charisma becomes a red flag unto itself. I am now suspicious of it. As soon as an otherwise lovely person is shown to have charisma, I am watching that person like a hawk. Because charisma is so powerful, it is that much more difficult for its owner to resist using it for his or her own benefit. It’s like having $1 million. You need help to use it responsibly.
Watching the movie as a third-person observer, it’s so easy to see this soft, wise rabbi wield his way in where he doesn’t belong, and it’s a total no-brainer that he’s the bad guy. In real life, though, when it’s your people, your stuff and your boundaries, it’s much, much harder to recognize the pattern. It’s why we have to talk about charisma – whether it’s a rabbi, a movie producer or a politician. No one is immune, and everyone is vulnerable. Let’s keep our eyes open so we can help one another use our $1 million responsibly.