One on One: By virtue of her sex

Orthodox feminist on her mikve boycott and rabbinate's demise.

Batya Kahana-Dror (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Batya Kahana-Dror
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'Behind every feminist lies a mother who wasn't one,' quips Batya Kahana-Dror when asked about her upbringing. "But seriously, I think that much of what I am today is motivated by the relations between my parents." Raised in what she describes as a "very Orthodox, Mizrahi stream, classical National Religious Party, very right-wing" Haifa household, Kahana-Dror chose an unconventional path for a girl in those days. Not only did she serve in the IDF - as opposed to doing national service, like her female peers - but she went on from there to complete three undergraduate degrees: the first in political science and history from Bar-Ilan University, the second in psychology and philosophy (also from Bar-Ilan) and the third from the Ramat Gan College of Law. Today, the 43-year-old Jerusalemite mother-of-four is the legal affairs adviser for Mavoi Satum (Dead End), an organization that provides support for agunot (women stuck in marriages due to their husbands' whereabouts being unknown) and mesuravot get (women whose husbands refuse to divorce them). She is also a leading member of the Orthodox-feminist Kolech [Your Voice], through which she made "sexy" headlines earlier this month, due to an opinion piece she wrote that was posted on the organization's Web site. Taking her cue from the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, in which the play's female characters withhold sex from their husbands, Kahana-Dror called upon her fellow women to refrain from going to the mikve [ritual bath, following menstruation, required before conjugal relations can take place] - amounting to the same thing. Unlike the aim of Aristophanes's character, however - to bring about an end to the Peloponnesian War - Kahana-Dror's purpose in employing a similar tactic was to protest the fact that hundreds of state-employed mikve attendants have not been paid their salaries for months. "Let's drive them crazy, all those who wait restlessly for the night that their women go to the mikve," she wrote. "All those who make up the majority of the religious councils, the Treasury, the Religious Services Ministry and the Knesset, the rabbis and the leaders. Stop. No more sex..." until this issue is straightened out. Which, by the way, it was this week, as Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Cohen [Shas] said it would be. Whether or not it had been, though, Kahana-Dror continues to receive oral and moral support from many women, as well as from her own husband - a hi-tech engineer - for her stand in backing the mikve attendants, whom she refers to as "righteous women" who are being "taken advantage of." Bedroom politics aside, this particular issue is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Kahana-Dror's more comprehensive battle against the religious establishment in general, and its treatment of women in particular. "The Torah today seems to be more disconnected from our lives than ever," she repeats several times during our hour-long (Hebrew) interview, stressing the need for an alternative to the current rabbinical court system that not only draws upon great halachic scholars of yore, but also creates an environment conducive to the emergence of new ones. You don't look like a married Orthodox woman. Your hair isn't covered, and you're wearing pants. You are also an outspoken feminist. Someone else with your views might have become Conservative, Reform or completely secular. Why not you? I consider myself completely Orthodox, and my religious identity is an integral part of my Jewish and Zionist identity. But throughout my youth, when I studied in ulpana [religious girls' school], I found it difficult to reconcile with the attitude of those around me toward women. In fact, I was the only one in my graduating class who went to the army instead of opting for national service. And you would have thought that I was becoming a prostitute or something, even though I was a teacher in the IDF - just about the most goody-two-shoes job you can have. I mean, I taught Jewish identity and bar-mitzva programs in schools. What I discovered there was the huge divide between the army and the ulpana. Suddenly I was exposed to a different way of thinking and different attitudes. What perhaps had an even more profound effect in this respect was studying at the university, where I was exposed to a very different kind of critique of ideas and texts than what I had been used to. But isn't talmudic discourse extremely critical, in both the spiritual and the intellectual sense? Absolutely. But religious education has taken on a defensive posture. Defensive in what way? In the sense of "guarding the walls." As though we have to be extra vigilant to guard against our youth leaving the fold. Now there's a degree of justification to this concern, because the youth is indeed leaving. But there is no real theological confronting of modernity or with the status of women. So, though the feeling among the religious Jewish leadership is understandable and based in reality, the solution they have adopted is not only wrong but counterproductive. Instead of responding by being more vigilant in holding on to patriarchal attitudes, they should be dealing with the issues and making the inevitable changes. Acting from a position of feeling threatened doesn't allow for tackling problems that could be solved easily - even halachic problems like those of women denied divorces by their husbands. All they have to do is collect the halachic solutions that have existed for at least 1,000 years. After 60 years of statehood - when there should have been genuine Torah renewal - the Torah today seems to be more disconnected from our lives than ever. We're lawyers and engineers and politicians. We're also religious. But it some way, it's as though the Torah hasn't infiltrated our daily lives. Isn't adapting Halacha to modern times a slippery slope? Could that not lead to arguments in favor of, say, gay marriage - as has happened in the Conservative and Reform movements? That's a perfectly legitimate question, but what I'm saying is that it is not being confronted. The Conservative rabbinate is confronting it. Yes, but the Conservative rabbinate is not part of the consensus in this country. What I want is for the Orthodox rabbinate here to confront such questions. I also want to see women Orthodox rabbis and women rabbinical court judges. This is possible from a halachic perspective. The fact that the rabbinical court is devoid of women is unthinkable in a democratic society. Doesn't this have to do with the lack of separation between "church" and state in this country? And don't most Orthodox women accept this, due to their religious beliefs? I'll answer that by giving you some background. In April 2006, a ruling by Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia [in the case of Sima Amir versus the rabbinical courts] caused a stir, because it said that rabbinical courts were forbidden from arbitrating civil disputes. As a result, one of the conditions Shas laid down to Kadima as a condition for their joining the coalition was that the law be amended and that the rabbinical courts have their authority expanded. This has been at the root of one of our recent battles against a government bill to expand the rabbinical courts' authority. The point is that separation of "church" and state doesn't interest anybody. Women are sold for coalition agreements. We've been working with the Justice Ministry on this and we constantly announce the dangers involved in such a law. We keep being told that the women agree to [arbitration] and arrive at the rabbinical courts by consent. But I ask: What kind of consent is it? When a woman wants a get [Jewish divorce], she's willing to forfeit everything. And I'm not even talking here about those who are refused divorces. Another point has to do with the rights of women in the rabbinical courts. I'll give you an example having to do with inheritance laws. In the rabbinical courts, only male children can be heirs. Girls cannot. So, [when dealing with inheritances,] the judges request of the heirs that they give their sisters their fair share. But, what happens when there are brothers who aren't willing to give their sisters anything? Halacha that can't deal with such issues is worth nothing, as far as I'm concerned. Look, Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi [Rabbi Judah the Prince], in 200 CE, decided to compile and write down the Mishna [oral Torah], even though the law was supposed to be handed down orally. He understood that if it weren't written down, we'd lose it all. I feel that today we are at a turning point like this. Is there any great sage alive today who you see as spurring such a turning point? It might be a woman. But, though there is a revolution going on in the study of Torah for women, there still hasn't emerged a female Torah scholar of that magnitude. This makes sense, since we women also are having children and building careers. As I said, I want women to become rabbinical court judges. But it takes seven years of intensive study. How many women have that luxury while raising children and having to make a living at the same time? The larger trouble is that today we are living a Halacha that halted way back. We're living the Shulhan Aruch [the written codification of Halacha from the 16th century]. We're stuck in a religion that doesn't deal with modernization. And it's like the chicken and the egg in terms of the environment from which a great thinker can emerge to change that. Someone listening to you might imagine that you're talking about Iran or some other religion-dominated country. Aren't you going too far? Are you not taking into account that there is total freedom to choose how to live here? If a person doesn't believe in the authority of the rabbinical court, he doesn't have to go before it. He can get married outside of the country, for example, and his marriage will be recognized by the state. A woman can have her marriage annulled by a Reform rabbi elsewhere, too. So, why not allow those people who want to live according to what you call an outdated Halacha do so? You can't deny that the law here says that you cannot get married or divorced here by anyone but the Orthodox rabbinate. This is crucial, because the state really did grant power to the religious establishment. And with all its power and defensive posture, it hasn't managed to connect itself with today's modern reality here. Let's face it - the religious establishment has exhausted its role. It has lost its relevance. Not long from now, we'll be establishing alternative Orthodox rabbinical courts. I am about to start a forum for women who want to make this happen. Will men be able to be involved, as well? Of course. This is part of the renewal that must take place here. And there are rabbis who care deeply about it, and who want it very much. The thirst is enormous. If you really manage to establish an alternative Orthodox rabbinate, do you think it will bring secular Israelis closer to their Judaism? Yes. I think it will bring about a genuine Jewish revolution, and a return to the relevance of the Torah. I'm not sure what will then happen to the existing religious establishment. But, you know, once upon a time there were kohanim [descendants of Moses's brother, Aaron, who served as priests]. They have disappeared, or at least are no longer significant. It's possible that this is what will happen to the rabbis [in the current establishment]. And Judaism might become something else - less establishment and more private, perhaps. You say that we are "living the Shulhan Aruch." According to it, a man is required to satisfy his wife sexually as many times a week as his profession allows. Your "strike" that involved boycotting the mikvaot until the attendants were paid their salaries would indicate the opposite: that it is men who will feel most deprived by the move, and as a result, will pressure the authorities. No, no - we women want sex no less than our husbands. In any case, my call to refrain from going to the mikve was a statement of protest. My aim was to emphasize the moral side. It might be viewed as Levinasic [based on the thinking of French philosopher and talmudic commentator Emmanuel Lévinas] - according to which the meeting between oneself and the other has to give birth to responsibility. And where is there a more intimate meeting of the self and the other than that which takes place between me and the mikve attendant? After that, how could I rest knowing she's going home without a salary months on end? These women are not only state-employed, but they are dedicated to holy work. Indeed, the subject of family purity is very dear to me. Contrary to what some people who misunderstood my protest think, I am wholeheartedly in favor of going to the mikve. For me, it is a spiritual experience, and I certainly don't want to give that up. But the minute it involves having a woman work really hard and get trampled on, I can't live with that. Especially since the mikve attendants themselves do not protest out loud. They are such tzadikot [righteous women], and they attach such importance to family purity - and to their part in it - that they would continue to open the mikve and do their job without getting paid. And this is taken advantage of. So, though I don't think it's nice to apply pressure in the bedroom, I still think the alternative is immoral. You know, those poor women were reduced to placing tzedaka [alms] boxes at the mikve. That's how I discovered that all this was going on. I went to the mikve, and aside from paying the regular NIS 20 fee to the local authority, I saw the boxes. It's inhuman. Why should those women have to ask for charity when they are working? Would privatizing the mikvaot be a solution? Well, I personally know many women who would love to have the mikve be a kind of holistic spa. Here, again, this goes back to the institutional issues. I mean, they established a new religious affairs ministry to regulate all this stuff within the religious councils. Luckily, Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Cohen [Shas] kept his promise that by April 15, right before Pessah, this would all be straightened out. How does all of this tie in to your work at Mavoi Satum? My job there is being responsible for legislation and halachic solutions. And it's important to stress that there are solutions. Anyone who grew up in the religious educational system knows this well. The Rambam [Maimonides] said specifically that it is possible to force a man to give his wife a divorce. He said that it is enough for a woman to say that she can't stand living with her husband; she doesn't have to be a victim of domestic violence or have a husband who cheats on her. But this halacha is not implemented in the rabbinical courts, and the fact that it isn't is appalling. On the other hand, isn't it true that the rabbinical courts here will not force a woman to give her husband a divorce either? Yes, that was a ruling by Rabbeinu Gershom [960 -1028]. But the difference is that men have ways of getting around it. A man can live with another woman and have children with her, for example, and they won't be considered mamzerim [bastards, in Jewish law, are children born to a married woman and fathered by a man who is not her husband]. A woman who doesn't receive a divorce and lives with another man is an adulterer, and her children are mamzerim. This has great significance in Israel, because mamzerim aren't allowed to get married here. Then there's a solution from Rabbi Haim Palagi [1788-1868] according to which it's enough for a man and wife not to live together for 18 months to disband their marital union. And there's Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg [1915-2006 - a leading judge on the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem], who said that the function of the rabbinical court in every generation is to find solutions for women who are refused divorces. Today, our rabbinical court sees its function as exactly the opposite of this. It isn't there to solve the problem, but rather to guard the Halacha, so that there should be no divorces extracted from men by force - to ensure that it's kosher. Interestingly, the Mishna lists all kinds of reasons to impose a divorce on a man, including if he has bad breath or suffers from a chronic skin ailment [and therefore may be repugnant to his wife]. Other rabbis came along and said that these things may not be relevant in our society today, so the list has to be adjusted. But our rabbinical establishment doesn't accept this. How is it determined which rabbis in Israel may make make such decisions? This very issue of rabbinical court appointments is the focus one of our main battles. There is a committee for the appointment of rabbinical judges. The chairman of the committee is the justice minister. But, the haredi parties make sure to have as many representatives in the committee as possible. The appointments then, of course, reflect this. So, you walk into the rabbinical court, and it's like entering the medieval period. This is why it is so crucial to have an alternative rabbinical court system. What will happen when there is such an alternative court, and two lesbians come before it demanding marital rights? After all, the organization "Orthodykes" has a branch in Israel, and claims that lesbianism is not in violation of Halacha... I don't know what will happen, nor do I know how I would want the court to answer it. What I do know, however, is that this kind of question has to be dealt with. Such issues can't be brushed aside if they exist in our world. The Conservative and Reform movements deal with such issues all the time. Correct. But I want the Orthodox to look deep into Halacha and deal with these issues as well. Is there a difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis where halachic stringency is concerned? My gut tells me that there is, though I wouldn't go so far as to make such a broad assertion. One thing is certain. Whenever we receive a panel of judges headed by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, we are very happy. He isn't afraid to make independent decisions, the way so many other rabbis are. For example, a couple comes before the court, and the rabbis' decision is that the couple has to reach an agreement. But, if the couple could have done that, they wouldn't have come before the court in the first place. And then another year passes, and when they still are unable to reach an agreement, they have to go through the whole process all over again. How do you explain the spate of child abuse cases among haredi women, and the phenomenon of the women in Beit Shemesh who wear burkas? These are horrifying examples of using religion for the opposite of moral purposes. This goes back to everything we have been talking about the need for incorporating the Torah into our daily lives. The phenomena you mention indicate a total loss of moral intuition, and the use of religion to indulge in it. We feminists are all guilty of not seeing the writing on the wall. We have seen the way our haredi sisters live - in a closed patriarchal society, with no independence. They are victims of a system that is breeding them to raise the next generation of males. In our struggle for our own liberation, we have failed to generate the solidarity necessary for liberating those women from their chains. We were too quick to remove them from our dialogue. Indeed, we are guilty of this in all sectors, including the Arab sector and development town communities. We need to start providing all women with an alternative.