A recent letter sent to the press by a group of slightly more than two dozen
rabbis’ wives and daughters (in a country with thousands of rabbis) urges Jewish
women not to date or marry non- Jewish men.
Because of the timing, the
so-called rabbaniot letter is perceived, correctly or not, as a followup to the
ill-conceived, infamous announcement by a group of rabbis endorsing housing
discrimination. Nearly all public comment has linked the two, eliciting
condemnation as a dangerous “wave of racism” from bloggers and media
commentators here and abroad, as well as our Defense Minister and Labor Party
chairman Ehud Barak.
The letter specifically warns Jewish women to be
wary of contact with non-Jews in the workplace. Supermarket cashiers and
National Service volunteers who work in our hospitals – all of which are
integrated – are cautioned that they are in danger of falling in love with Arab
men who will at first pretend to be Jews.
Such a courtship will begin
with romance, but will lead to subjugation and abusive marriages in impenetrable
Arab villages, the letter warns. Just ask women who have been there, done
Remember, this is not what your grandmothers would expect from
The proposed solution is to keep out of harm’s way and avoid
employment and volunteer service where you might become friendly with non-Jews.
Such segregation would, of course, further restrict women’s employment
opportunities and make impossible much of the sacred work done by National
WHAT COULD be the motivation for such a bizarre
letter to the media? The women who signed it had to have realized they would be
connected to the international condemnation of the rabbinic call for housing
They had to know they would be hounded by the press.
Signer Strena Druckman of Kiryat Motzkin was picketed in her
In an Internet interview, signer Esther Levanon from Elon
Moreh insisted that she couldn’t understand the media commotion, that the letter
was a sincere response to a troubling situation.
Certainly, it was not
racism. She believes that 90 percent of Jewish parents don’t want their children
to intermarry, so no racism can be involved.
She’s right about the
public’s attitudes toward intermarriage. It’s fair to say most Jewish Israelis
prefer their children to marry other Jews, most Christian Israelis prefer their
children to marry other Christian Israelis and most Muslim Israelis prefer their
children to many other Muslims. Indeed, many Muslim Israelis don’t even want
their children to intermarry with another family; they opt for consanguineous
marriages, joining first cousins despite the much-publicized risk of recessive
genetic diseases. Marrying within the family is a strategy to preserve family
resources and cultural values, as well as to maximize the chance of stable
marriages by bringing together those with similar backgrounds.
Jewish women, getting them to convert and entrapping them in a miserable home
life doesn’t sound like a plausible form of terrorism, as suggested by those
calling intermarriage here a “second intifada.”
Not that such cases don’t
exist. I’ve heard heart-rending stories of purgatory and flight by women whose
lives follow exactly the terrifying scenario described in the rabbiniot letter.
But how many of these tragic cases are there? In a Channel 7 interview, Bentzi
Gopstein, who heads Lehava (the organization under whose auspices the letter
appeared), spoke of a woman from a supermarket in Bnei Brak, another case in
Beitar, a third in Gush Etzion. Maybe 10 in all. Activists in an organization
that reportedly “rescues” such women say it receives hundreds of calls a year.
Each of these is calamitous, but for every account of nightmare marriages
between Jews and Arabs, I’ve heard of 10 women trapped in abusive marriages to
Jewish men, not a few of whom are bearded and wearers of skullcaps.
I’ve heard dozens of such stories, how many more must the wives and daughters of
rabbis have heard? THESE RELIGIOUS women had to know they would be easy targets
for criticism. You have to admire their courage in stepping into the spotlight
of media they knew would be hostile.
One can only guess that they felt
sufficiently worried about the stories they have heard.
Which is why I’m
hoping they’ll come forward on other women’s issues. They can use their historic
role of rabbi’s wife to protect women who are the majority of those frustrated
with rabbinical conversion courts, stuck for years in rabbinical court divorce
proceedings, counseled to return to abusive husbands. Certainly women who are
brave enough to take on world media can stand strong in the familiar environment
of the rabbinical world.
At least one columnist questioned the conferred
status that comes with being married to a rabbi. Why does being a
rabbanit/rebbetzin qualify a woman to be either an educator or arbiter of
values? Within traditional Judaism, women have long taken advantage of the
elevated stature of being a rabbi’s wife to become important partners in working
for the Jewish people through teaching, counseling and community work. In the
Orthodox world, where women are not yet ordained as rabbis, women need to use
both formal and informal status as leadership opportunities.
Jewish woman with a religious commitment, intelligence and educational
opportunity can achieve the highest levels of Jewish scholarship and community
service, but in our transitional generation many of the scholars and social
leaders have been either rabbi’s wives or daughters.
Recha Freier, who
thought of sending young people to pre-state Israel, was a rabbi’s wife;
Henrietta Szold, who organized their settlement, was a rabbi’s daughter.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis can pack a stadium with young people interested in
Judaism. Rabbanit Adina Bar-Shalom has revolutionized women’s educational
opportunities in modern Israel.
Think of modern Jerusalem’s cadre of
internationally lauded women Torah scholars – among them Malka Bina, Gila Rosen,
Deena Weinberg, Tzippora Heller, Aviva Zornberg, Judy Klitsner, Holly Pavlov,
Tova Hartman, Channah Henkin – all either (or both) daughters of and wives of
rabbis who have used this in-house advantage to become role models in Jewish
education and Torah study. Our most effective outreach movements – Chabad and
Aish HaTorah – are built on service by both rabbi and Mrs. rabbi taking
responsibility and risks for ministering to the Jewish people. The late Rivka
Holtzberg, murdered while serving in Mumbai, was a co-leader with her husband
Some may be surprised to know that at a recent brainstorming
meeting of feminist religious educators in Jerusalem to determine the best title
for a woman Orthodox rabbi (should they be ordained), a strong contender wasn’t
the modern rabba, but the long-venerated “rabbanit.”
To retain this
veneration, rabbaniot must be judicious in their statements, and careful not to
be manipulated by politicians. Just as they showed they were willing to go
public, that they wanted their voices heard, they cannot urge other women to
cloister themselves or circumscribe their opportunities for expression. I call
on them to step forth and make themselves heard on the shameful extortion of
Jewish women. I don’t know about your grandmothers, but that’s what mine would
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous
stories of modern Israel.