(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sectarian clashes over the social exclusion of women simply refuse to go away.
The latest controversy surrounds a Jerusalem conference slated for Wednesday on
“Innovations in Gynecology and Halacha.”
The organizer is the Puah
Institute, run by Orthodox rabbis and spiritual leaders with expertise in
medicine for religious Jews, particularly those suffering fertility
Puah provides counseling on how to perform procedures such as
artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, prenatal genetic diagnosis,
surrogate motherhood and a wide variety of other medical issues while at the
same time adhering to the strictures of Jewish law. The institute serves as an
important bridge among gynecologists, urologists and other experts in the field
of medicine and a religious community that places an extremely high value on
Subjects to be discussed at Wednesday’s conference, which
is open to both men and women (though seating is separate), include ovary
implants, prostate problems, testicular implants, choosing the right
contraceptive, preserving fertility for older single women and gynecological
surgery via the da Vinci robot.
Unfortunately, while many of the issues
to be dealt during the conference have a direct impact on women; and while many
of the leading medical experts in the field happen to be women; and while many
women would feel infinitely more comfortable hearing women discuss intimate
gynecological matters, no females will be permitted to address the conference.
Women will be excluded out of deference to a male-dominated rabbinic leadership
that has determined that it is improper for women to stand before men and
No fewer than 40 feminist and human rights organizations have
taken issue with Puah’s policy of gender-based social exclusion. In a letter
addressed to the “health minister” – technically Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu though haredi Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman runs the ministry
on a day to day basis – the organizations called to denounce Puah, which they
claim receives funding from the Health Ministry and the Religious Services
Ministry. And pressure has been brought to bear on male physicians and
scientists to backtrack on their agreement to speak at the conference.
is easy to understand why these organizations are up in arms. The true
motivations of the late Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, a former chief rabbi of Israel,
and other spiritual leaders who have consistently ordered Puah to prevent women
from speaking before men for the past 12 years since the organization began to
hold it annual conference are unclear. Is it a perverted sort of prurience that
reads into a commonplace intellectual exchange an unconscionable sexual
distraction? Or is it a rabid chauvinism that refuses to consider changing
outdated conventions since a woman could not possibly have something of
intellectual value to share?
Neither possibility is particularly palatable.
Excluding women hinders the free exchange of information, but it is also causes
economic damage to women physicians who will not benefit from the exposure
afforded by appearing at the well-attended conference.
activists for gender equality have every right to protest Puah’s exclusion of
women and to prevent the state from funding a conference that excludes women,
Puah, a self-declared religious organization, has the right to adhere to its
version of religious expression when organizing a private
Infringing on Puah’s right is not only wrong it is unwise
from a tactical point of view. Since it was established in 1990, Puah has made
tremendous headway in exposing the most parochial haredi communities to the
wonders of medical science. Rabbis have been challenged to adapt Jewish law to
the latest innovations.
Puah provides a “safe” framework in which the
most intimate medical subjects can be discussed openly, without fear of
To ensure that this framework continues to be perceived
by extremist segments of the religious community as safe, Puah must signal to
them that it is ready to play by the rules set by the rabbis. Coercing Puah to
allow women to speak at its conference is liable to lead to the cancellation of
the conference altogether, hardly a desired outcome. Puah is not part of the
problem of haredi intolerance; it is part of the solution.