Keep God on the right side

Rabbinic establishment duly backed down, tacitly admitting that the whole matter was more about power than God’s will as expressed in Halacha.

March 7, 2011 23:39
3 minute read.
RABBI AMNON YITZHAk (left) listens to Rabbi Ben Zion Mutsafi as he speaks of the leather strip with

Rabbinical Court 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Religious leaders tend to enlist God on their side when their hegemony is threatened. Rabbis are no exception.

Until the Supreme Court intervened in 1987, rabbis insisted that heavenly inspired Jewish law barred women from serving on religious councils, which facilitate the giving of religious services such as kashrut supervision, the building of synagogues and the registration of marriages in municipalities, towns and settlements.

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The late Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, who served as chief Sephardi rabbi at the time of the ruling, warned that “a woman will do what she wants and not listen to the opinion of the rabbi.” And the late Rabbi Avraham Shapira, chief Ashkenazi rabbi at the time, declared that “religious scholars will not be able to sit with the council [due to considerations of modesty].”

Interestingly, Shapira’s prurient claim that rabbis cannot work with women, which is conveniently trotted out to prevent the advancement of females, had been enlisted to block the appointment of a female director-general of the men-only rabbinical court system, which notoriously discriminates against women in divorce proceedings.

Yet in the case of the religious councils, when the rabbis were forced to choose between either recognizing the opposite sex’s right to representation in religious matters or relinquishing control over religious services, the rabbinic establishment duly backed down, tacitly admitting that the whole matter had more to do with power than with God’s will as expressed in Halacha.

This was clear in the ruling of chief justice Menachem Elon, himself a religious Jew and an erudite scholar of Jewish law, who noted, “The religious council... has no authority regarding Halacha... All that is done on the religious councils is to arrange religious facilities... to spread Torah learning and Judaica among the masses and to take care of kashrut services.”

(Elon’s implication was that if the council did in fact have halachic authority, women should be excluded, though, apparently, men unschooled in Halacha should not.)

STILL, IT takes more than a reasonably open-minded Supreme Court justice to upend deep-seated gender bias, particularly among the traditional-minded. A full 23 years after Leah Shakdiel, an Orthodox woman from Yeroham, won the right to bring a uniquely feminine perspective to her town’s religious council -– including on issues that directly affect women such as the workings and upkeep of the local ritual bath, frequented solely by women – a disappointingly minuscule number of women sit on religious councils; only 22 of the 450 members of 133 religious councils are women, according to data released this week by Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality,

One of these women, Pnina Ziv of Nes Ziona, told Army Radio that it was immensely difficult for her to get appointed.

“The mayor threatened to disperse the entire council if I insisted on remaining on it,” she said.

Eventually, the mayor gave in. “But as a lone woman among seven council members it is no easy matter for me to make an impact on issues important to women,” she said.

This stubborn and irrational opposition to the integration of women into religious leadership cannot be divorced from the blatant chauvinism unabashedly articulated by prominent rabbis. In recent years, these spiritual leaders have said that it is “lascivious” for female teachers to stand before boys older than 10, that it is “immodest” for a girl older than three to sing out loud parts of the Haggada, that it is “unchaste” for women to speak out loud in public on cellphones and that women driving cars “causes accidents” because they “expose themselves.”

Most recently, Rabbis Shlomo Aviner, Tzvi Tau and others publicly supported convicted rapist and former president Moshe Katsav, apparently out of an instinctive empathy for a man facing charges made by women who might have “deserved it” by dressing “improperly.”

Unfortunately, while women have made enormous headway in recent decades, essentialist attitudes continue to pervade large swaths of religious society. International Women’s Day offers a unique opportunity for change, known in Judaism as teshuva.

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