Thoughts of a religious feminist
An Israeli woman can be president of the Supreme Court, but not a rabbinical court judge.
A secular woman walks by a religious woman on the street in Jaffa. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
When I turned 18, and was fresh out of Bnei Akiva and the Israeli state
religious school system, Alice Miller had just triumphed in her struggle in the
High Court, paving the way for other women who aspired to be pilots in the
Israel Air Force.
My generation has grown as a result of struggles like
I am grateful to these feminist women who led
groundbreaking efforts, who struggled so that we as women could benefit from
greater freedom and improved lives.
On a personal level, I am also
grateful to God that I was born after the feminist revolution.
I am well
aware of the fact that in the past women did not have the options available to
them today – to study and get a higher education, to work and make money, to
have control over our bodies, to leave an abusive husband, to work in whatever
field we desire, to be a community representative and carry out measures for the
benefit of the community, the right to vote, and the right to be
And yet, despite all of these rights, as a religious woman, the
feminist conflict is doubly difficult.
Ten years ago, a good friend of
mine who is religious and was a medical student, attended a 10-year-old child’s
She and the doctor prepped the patient for surgery.
The second before the doctor was to make the incision, his cellphone rang and he
left to answer it, motioning to my friend to go ahead and make the
Since it was very simple, she did not think twice and made the
After she left the operating room, she realized that she had just
performed a circumcision.
Wait a minute – is she, as a woman, even
allowed to perform a circumcision? Would it be considered kosher? Had the boy
been circumcised according to Jewish law? Was she required to inform the
parents? These questions were making her uneasy.
She approached a rabbi
and asked him whether a woman was allowed to perform a circumcision. The rabbi
responded that although in principle women are not supposed to perform
circumcisions, if it had already happened, the child was properly circumcised.
Phew! This same friend later specialized in neurosurgery and is now a
We are delighted that in the State of Israel a woman can be
a neurosurgeon, a heart surgeon, transplant organs, and perform lifesaving
surgeries. But the simplest surgery in the world – circumcision – religious
women are not allowed to perform.
This is where the complexity arises for
us as religious women. Over the past few years, the gap has been widening
between what is available to us as women in Israeli society, compared with the
limitations of being Orthodox women in the religious community, in our homes and
in our synagogue.
Think about it: An Israeli woman can be the president
of the Supreme Court, but she cannot become a simple rabbinical court judge. A
woman can be a heart or brain surgeon, but she cannot perform the simplest
surgery in the world – a circumcision.
A woman can be a civil servant in
the Knesset representing thousands of people who had voted her into office, but
she cannot lead a quorum of Jews in prayer in a synagogue.
This gap is
making it increasingly difficult for us to feel like we are part of the
My generation has managed to come to terms with this
complexity. We have grown as a result of this struggle; it was not a given that
women could do anything they wanted. But I have no doubt that this situation
will no longer be tolerated in the next generation.
I look at my three
daughters. On TV they see women leading political parties, female High Court
justices, Nobel Prize winner Ada Yonath, and Ben-Gurion University President
Rivka Carmi. Whereas I celebrated when the Israel Air Force opened its doors to
women, my girls are growing up knowing that there is a religious woman
It will be harder for them to accept this reality. How will we
justify this vast gap between their lives in the secular, day-today world and
their lives in the place dearest to us – our traditions, the synagogue, and our
community? These are the questions that as religious feminists we are asking
ourselves on International Women’s Day. But it is clear that these questions
should also concern the entire religious community, including the rabbis who
lead it. The challenge can and should be dealt with, and there is no doubt this
will happen sooner or later.
And the sooner the better! Translated by
The writer is a member of the Jerusalem City Council.