Separate but equal

In national-religious society, segregation and fixation on modesty are becoming more prevalent.

Midrashiya girls’ high school 521 (photo credit: Illustrative photo: Marc Israel Sellem)
Midrashiya girls’ high school 521
(photo credit: Illustrative photo: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbis’ reactions to the IDF’s recent decision not to allow religious soldiers to skip ceremonies at which female soldiers sing was expected to be harsh, yet some of them were surprising in the violence of their tone.
Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh bluntly told his students serving in the army that it was “better to be shot than to listen to women singing.” Later on, he published a clarification, explaining that rabbis would have to instruct their students in the army to leave an event where women were singing, even if there was a firing squad waiting outside, because listening to women singing was a case of gilui arayot (forbidden sexual interaction) – one of the transgressions a Jew must die rather than perform.
For many in the religious community, Levanon went too far. Eliaz Cohen of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, a poet and social-religious activist who helps organize meetings between Jews and Muslims in the Gush Etzion region, called Levanon’s words “blasphemy.”
“Better to be killed than to transgress is the attitude our sages instructed us to hold facing the threat of shmad – of forced conversion,” he says. “We are sovereign, in our State of Israel, this army is our army – how dare he say such a terrible thing?”
Though Cohen is not alone in expressing outrage, in national-religious society things are far from simple when it comes to the issue of women’s exclusion – or women’s status in general. Orthodox feminists and more liberal members of the community have long been concerned about religious radicalization and what they consider an obsessive concern with modesty in the national-religious sector, even if it is considered less extreme than in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community.
Meanwhile, some communities are trying to find solutions to enable greater inclusion of women within the boundaries of Jewish law. A few communities in Jerusalem are trying to promote more egalitarian synagogues, such as Yedidya, which often holds Torah readings for women and where women dance with a Torah scroll on Simhat Torah. Even more has been done in synagogues like the German Colony’s Shira Hadasha and the egalitarian minyan in the Baka neighborhood, which allow women to read from the Torah alongside men. Many women attending these synagogues wear prayer shawls. On a national scale, the introduction of women Halacha (Jewish law) consultants has improved the situation. The Nishmat institution, for instance, offers a website where women can ask such consultants their personal questions on Jewish law.
However, besides these efforts, there is concern about radicalization, aimed particularly at modesty issues, which have changed many things in religious Zionist society.
Most of the complaints are related to growing requests for gender segregation – including in the religious education system as early as elementary school, and in the religious Zionist-affiliated Bnei Akiva youth group. This trend has reached the IDF, to the point that many young religious soldiers now prefer to enroll in haredi units so as to avoid being in contact with female soldiers.
This situation has led many young, liberal and educated women and couples to depart from organized modern Orthodoxy, though they continue to observe Halacha out of a sense of personal obligation. Tamar Biala, a feminist scholar who has taught gender studies and Judaism at the Schechter Institute in the past, says bitterly that the “hardal” stream (an acronym for “haredi leumi,” referring to those who observe haredi standards of religious stringency but have right-wing nationalist political views) has become so dominant that it and the datlash (an acronym for dati l’she’avar, or formerly religious) seem to be the only streams left. She laments that she and her husband have lost hope in modern Orthodoxy’s capacity to survive in this generation.
Biala says she knows of many who have stopped belonging to a synagogue for this reason, though they continue to be religious, and adds that serious issues like women’s sexuality, the Jewish marriage relationship and the quest for equal standing remain without serious and convincing answers.
“It is so easy to criticize haredi society,” she says, “but I believe it is urgent to see what is going on in our own society.”
RABBI RAFI Feuerstein of Tzohar – an organization of national- religious rabbis who work to offer secular people better, friendlier access to religion, particularly when it comes to wedding ceremonies – says that this process did not start 15 to 20 years ago, as many think, but long before, and that it was the result of the religious education system.
Feuerstein believes that he and his generation (now in their 50s) are the first product of the revolution that happened in national-religious society following widespread religious education.
“Over the years, we have produced our own rabbis, our own educators, but we have nevertheless not renounced a certain amount of religious radicalization of our own,” he says. “In other words, we do not need anymore to become ourselves ultra- Orthodox like our former teachers; we have become much more halachically observant, though still in the Zionist stream.”
He remembers the first time Bnei Akiva held separate dancing for boys and girls at its activities.
“It started right after the 1973 war and became even more [stringent] a few years afterward with the appearance of the [settlement-building] Gush Emunim movement,” he recalls. “We realized that we had become totally independent from the ultra-Orthodox, but with that feeling of independence came the need to act with responsibility toward Halacha – we didn’t need our ultra-Orthodox teachers, but we became more observant than our parents’ generation, including the gender segregation. Naturally it focused on modesty issues.”
Still, he believes there is beginning to be a reaction to this trend.
“Some of us feel we’ve gone too far, and I believe that Torah and Talmud studies for women are a strong indication that the status of women in our society is evolving and in the right direction.”
Many agree that religious radicalization is dangerous and changes the face of religious society.
“It has reached a point where even this country has become a conditional state,” MK Uri Orbach (National Union) said recently at the Knesset. “The hardalim say, I will serve in the IDF [only] if you don’t force me to listen to female soldiers singing, and that can’t go on.”
Rebbetzin Malka Puterkovsky, a member of the Takana forum – a group of rabbis and learned women that deals with cases of sexual harassment in the religious community – who teaches Halacha to women at the Matan seminary, says she believes that serious work is being done to address these issues, although nothing is easy to solve.
“On one hand we have the hardalim, who are radical regarding both religious and political issues, and on the other hand we have a large mass of [less stringent] religious people who do not really make an opposition to the hardalim,” she says. “But there is in fact a third stream, with lots of men and women of goodwill, profoundly attached to Jewish life and Halacha, who nevertheless refuse to accept the lack of equality between men and women – especially in regard to the marriage issues, such as the kinyan [purchasing] act that lies at the basis of the Jewish wedding – and who refuse to cave in [in the face of] radicalization.”
The hardal stream makes up less than 30 percent of religious society; the remaining 70% prefer the old National Religious Party way – moderate, democratic, pledged to respect the laws of the state, encourage gender equality and live in peace and full cooperation with the rest of Israeli society. Cohen points out that “this moderate majority feels as if someone has stolen their homes, their traditions, their youth movement and schools, turned them into semi-haredim, and they are frustrated.”
CITY COUNCILLOR Rachel Azaria says that the process began some 20 years ago, as a reaction to the changes in secular society. Back then, she explains, there were not such provocative advertisements (in terms of women’s appearance), nor were there the kinds of TV programs we have today, and as such, “there was no urgent need to differentiate [between parts of] religious society as we see today, both in haredi and in [modern Orthodox] society.”
Azaria believes that extremist ideologies have taken over both communities.
“There are plenty of values and issues on which religious society could have focused, but the fact is that all these concerns found their way [to focusing] almost exclusively on women’s modesty issues,” she says. “I believe it is the result of the process of haredization that national-religious society has been undergoing for the last two decades, and while we, the Zionist religious, used to check what the secular Zionists did, for the last few years, our eyes have been turned toward what the haredim are doing.”
Hannah Kehat, founder of the religious feminist organization Kolech, is more than a little concerned about the fixation on modesty, calling it “the other side of pornography.”
The situation has become so serious that recently, the face of Ruth Fogel, who was murdered in a brutal terror attack in Itamar, was blurred in a religious leaflet released by Jewish studies institute Machon Meir, for reasons of modesty.
According to Kehat, “what should horrify us the most... is that the editors’ answer was that it was a mistake and that in that particular case, this shouldn’t have happened – as if otherwise, it is normal to do such a hilul Hashem [desecration of God’s name] and blur a woman’s face!”
She argues that by focusing on women’s appearance to such a level, the rabbis are in fact creating an atmosphere of immodesty. The leaflet incident was the most severe example of this trend, she says, because “it had nothing to do with real modesty issues – they didn’t blur her body, but her face. It came out of their desire to annihilate her presence as a woman.”
Kehat believes that the radicalization process is linked to the evolving improvement of women’s status in the religious sector. “Women have reached a higher status, and it is threatening, and I can predict that as this process [of women’s advancement] continues, this madness will worsen.”
She adds that the same process is happening within haredi society, where women’s status has been improving as they go out to work and get a more professional education, but she points out that in both societies women are struggling. Recently, she says, at a Bnei Akiva seminar her daughter attended, the girls were sent to wait outside during the third meal on Shabbat because the room was too small.
“This would never have happened in the past,” she says.
Still, she is optimistic, for she notes that there is a struggle, and women are not surrendering in either haredi or modern Orthodox society.
“There is a clear connection between the two,” she says. “The haredim are pragmatic; they will eventually understand and adjust to the feminist revolution, and it will have an impact on the hardalim, too, also thanks to the encouraging uproar in secular society – which, for the first time, is not acting as if what happens in religious society is not its concern.”
AN OFFSHOOT of the trend of safeguarding modesty in the modern Orthodox community, gender segregation, is now becoming more common in its schools and institutions.
Daniele Bernstein, a therapist and member of the Yedidya congregation in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, says she feels lucky that her children are beyond that; “otherwise we might have considered homeschooling.”
Her husband Dennis, a psychologist, is not satisfied with the situation, either, but notes that it is part of any development process: “In every movement, you have a mainstream and margins, which naturally become radical, one way or the other. We always had more rigorous [factions] inside our religious society, and others [that were] more open. Some consider themselves the ‘purest,’ and I believe it is happening as a reaction to what they are afraid of in secular society.”
This situation is perhaps even more difficult for religious female teachers. Hagit Fuchs, who teaches in the city’s prestigious Pelech religious feminist school, says she feels the religious radicalization daily as both a parent and a teacher.
“The elementary schools are by now almost all gender-separated; the same goes for our youth movement [Bnei Akiva],” she says. “It’s as if we do not control things anymore.... It’s all going in the same direction, so different from what I was taught in my youth, and I know I’m not the only one in that situation.”
Fuchs says the tension is particularly high for women, since on one hand there are messages about the importance of women’s achievements, while on the other hand the focus on modesty issues makes her feel as though just being a woman is problematic. The hardal stream’s treatment of modesty issues regarding women in the religious community, she says, is poisoning her and her friends’ lives.
Increasing this frustration is that the vast majority of the community cannot fight this trend as effectively as it would like.
“There are a few important things that have been achieved,” says Rabbi Daniel Sperber, the halachic authority for the Shira Hadasha synagogue. “We have to’anot rabaniot [women trained to represent women at the rabbinical courts], we have yo’atzot Halacha [women Halacha consultants], we even have a woman as counselor to the Chief Rabbinate on women’s issues. But nobody dares to openly disagree with the haredim and express an independent position against their rules.”
Sperber is not optimistic, asserting that “as long as religious issues in Israel are intertwined with the political structures of the state, things will stay blocked. In every topic – conversion, rabbinical tribunals on divorces, etc. – the haredim are leading, because wherever laws are required, they have the power, through coalition agreements, to enforce their will.”
He notes that the marriage process has also disillusioned many national-religious young people. “They do not wish to get married at the rabbinate. [This] has become a real trend. Others decide for themselves what to observe and what not to. As a result, we are divided and even weaker, and the national-religious leadership isn’t sounding the alarm on our behalf.”
National-religious rabbis, he adds, who are afraid to rule differently than the haredi rabbis, are “deep inside their yeshivot, where they don’t see the women and their condition – how could they? There are no women to be found there!”
Bernstein, like her husband, believes that political and religious radicalization go hand-in-hand, but both think that the difficult relationship between the haredi and national-religious communities is a key to understanding the process.
“Too many among the rabbis in the [national-religious] community suffer from a sense of inferiority [vis-à-vis] the haredi rabbis, and they just cave in to them, even though they must understand they represent a society totally different from the haredi community,” she says.
Biala – who, like Azaria, attributes the religious radicalization in part to the growing promiscuity of the secular world – adds that women’s status is the yardstick for assessing religious society, or any society.
“It is clear that rabbis and leaders in the religious community cannot go on ignoring women’s status,” she says, “and while there are a few initiatives, basically there are no serious answers to this problem. Educated women, working, leading, still considered less equal – it just doesn’t work for us anymore, and for young, educated and humane people, religious Zionism has become irrelevant.”
Kehat suggests that in some ways radicalization in the nationalreligious camp “is even harder than in haredi society. The blasphemous act of retouching [Ruth] Fogel’s face is only one terrible expression of this stream. This is a distortion of Judaism, and we have to raise our voices against it, we have to educate the new generations of rabbis and teachers and educators in the light of a Torah of kindness, peace and gentleness, a world in which women are equal, in which it is [halachically permitted] to hear women singing.”
She adds that “we have [distributed] papers from religious scholars on the issue.”
Puterkovsky, too, says she is part of a growing group that looks for solutions.
“We are there for these issues – the to’anot rabaniot, the women Talmudic scholars, the women Halacha advisers – because we cannot accept the inequality between a married man and a married woman. I have not been ordained as poseket [halachic decisor], so I am very cautious about informing people who ask me about halachic issues, but the fact is that people do ask me, and I am not the only one, far from it. So it means something.”
Feuerstein suggests that what is needed today is a return to the old Jewish attitude of making room for all views and positions, like the Talmud did. Women’s Torah study, he says, is key to effecting the necessary changes.
“When women feel strong enough to open a Gemara alone and [issue rulings] alone, that will be the turning point,” he concludes.
Taking the Initiative
Some institutions and organizations that are trying to elevate women’s status within modern Orthodoxy.
During the last 25 years or so, women have been allowed to hold public positions in regard to Jewish law in national-religious society. The first was the introduction of to’anot rabaniot, or rabbinical consultants, in which women who had already studied law were trained in Jewish divorce procedures in order to better represent women at the rabbinical courts. Until the late ’80s, only men held this position, and it required a High Court of Justice ruling in 1989 to allow women to represent other women in divorce cases before male-only rabbinic court panels.
Following the training of well-educated women in Jewish marriage and divorce law came demand for women who could decide halachic practice, especially regarding the laws of family purity. The best example of this trend is Nishmat, an advanced educational institution that has been training women to respond to questions on these issues for about a decade. Nishmat stresses that its advisers do not make groundbreaking legal decisions on such halachic matters; rather, they restrict themselves to quoting previous precedents, and when in doubt, they will always consult a rabbi. Nevertheless, these yo’atzot Halacha (Jewish law advisers) are today at the cutting edge of innovative halachic decision. More importantly, they answer sensitive, intimate questions that many Orthodox women feel uncomfortable asking male rabbis.
SHIRA HADASHA SYNAGOGUE This modern Orthodox congregation, located in the Ginot Ha’ir community center, maximizes women’s involvement in religious services and their administration – within the rules of Orthodox Judaism. The synagogue does not have an official rabbi; rather, it has a Halacha Committee composed of several ordained and learned lay members. Men and women pray separately on either side of a mehitza (divider) that runs down the middle of the hall, with the bima (pulpit) situated in the center, affording equal access from both sides. Women lead the optional parts of the service, such as the Kabbalat Shabbat and Pesukei Dezimra prayers, and girls lead the Anim Zemirot responsive prayer – all from the women’s side of the mehitza – and recite kaddish. Women are called to the Torah to read, and make kiddush. They also participate on Simhat Torah.
Founded in 1998, it is the most important Orthodox Jewish feminist organization in the country, striving to promote greater equality for women in matters of personal status such as marriage and divorce. Its activities include raising awareness within the religious community of the change in women’s status, by means of seminars and international conferences, and encouraging women’s increased participation in community life and in leadership positions. Kolech struggles for women’s advancement in synagogues, and writes curricula for schools. The organization also offers training courses for both male and female teachers and students on subjects of gender equality and the prevention of violence, aiming to foster personal and gender growth and better prepare young people for an egalitarian relationship in married life. Its interactive Internet site is rich in women’s interpretations of traditional Jewish sources.
The association is also active in efforts to prevent get (religious divorce) refusal and the extortionist demands that often accompany this. It advances civic legislation and halachic solutions to the problems of mesuravot get, more commonly known as agunot (women whose husbands disappear without giving them a divorce), and of equal distribution of marital property.
Mavoi Satum was one of the first organizations in the country dedicated exclusively to the plight of women denied divorce. Founded in 1995 by a group of volunteer women, led by Leah Ayn Globe, the nonprofit organization helps individual women while advocating for broader reform. In the personal realm, Mavoi Satum offers a range of legal and social support services, including legal counseling, legal aid, empowerment programs and therapy. On the systemic level, it advocates for reform of the country’s marriage and divorce system through strategic advocacy, networking, public awareness campaigns and, most recently, an initiative to create a viable alternative to the rabbinical courts (though this has not yet been achieved).
Three Jerusalem high schools for girls have shaped the religious feminist stream in education in the last three decades. The first one, Pelech, was founded by Rabbi Shalom and Penina Rosenbluth in 1963 in Pardess Hanna and moved to Jerusalem in 1966, but its formative years as a feministaligned institution occurred under Prof. Alice Shalvi’s term as principal (1975-2009), and after her under Shira Breuer. From its outset, the curriculum included Talmud studies as a compulsory subject, which was a revolutionary step in the country’s religious education system.
The Midrashiya High School for Girls (belonging to the Shalom Hartman Institute), established in 2007, has implemented a coherent educational vision that fuses respect for Jewish tradition and learning with an obligation to Halacha and feminist ideology. The school provides a holistic environment in which Orthodox teenage girls can advance spiritually, physically and intellectually. Its Body-Soul-Consciousness Program has recently been approved and recommended by the Education Ministry for use as an Orthodox feminist curriculum in the state-religious school system.
Tehilla was founded in 2009 by Dr. Beverley Gribetz (who previously headed the Evelina de Rothschild girls’ school) and offers a similarly feminist curriculum that includes Talmud studies.
School officials at Hartman and Tehilla also say they do not discourage girls from serving in the army, whereas many Orthodox schools encourage girls to avoid compulsory military duty and do national service instead. At Midrashiya, a revolutionary new program will bring a sex-education curriculum to both the boys and girls – one of the first among religious schools here.
– P.C.