Religion and Revolution (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A decade after its establishment 'no one is laughing at Kolech or at Orthodox feminists anymore' "When the revolution comes, we want to be ready," says Dr. Chana Kehat, a 49-year-old mother of six, teacher of Jewish bible studies and resident of Neve Daniel in the Etzion bloc in the West Bank. Clad in a colorful purple shirt and floral culottes, a white hat modestly covering her naturally gray curly hair, Kehat is an unlikely revolutionary. And yet this friendly, cheerful woman has started more than one revolution here in Israel. The first was in 1998, when she founded Kolech-Forum for Religious Women. She started another one in 2002 when the organization, under her leadership, publicly accused a popular, revered rabbi of sexual harassment. And she's planning quite a few more. "Only women who are committed to halacha and feminism can challenge abuses in the religious Zionist camp," she tells The Jerusalem Report Inspired while attending a conference organized by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) in New York in 1996, Kehat found herself wondering, "Why don't we Israeli women have an organization of our own?" Returning home, she convened a group of friends in her living room. It was the first time that Orthodox Israeli women had organized to publicly question their role in their own community. She remembers the anger and frustration as they acknowledged that they had "no voice in the religious world." Many of the founding women were neighbors affiliated with the political right but Kehat says today the membership is composed "of Israelis from every walk of life." Looking back, Kehat observes, "I suspect that many religious women were empowered by the settler movement when it started in the 1960s and 1970s because it was the only avenue of expression open to us. And these feelings carried over "into their struggle for equality." At first, there were plenty of debates among the founding members over the attempt to square its feminist agenda - equal rights for women - with the rigors of patriarchal Orthodoxy. Founding member Prof. Tova Cohen, who teaches in the Department of Hebrew Literature at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, where she is also director of the Program in Gender Studies, says it took much "fine tuning" until Kolech organizers were able to agree on the organization's identity and purpose. Today, Cohen says, the organization "aims to improve the status of women within Orthodoxy and in general, while adhering to the strictures of Jewish law." In this way, Kolech - which means "your voice" in Hebrew, and is a deliberate reference to the various religious rulings that a woman's voice should not be heard in public - differs both from movements which use a liberal interpretation of halakha to create gender-equal ritual and from traditional Orthodox women's organizations, such as Emunah, the women's auxiliary of the National Religious Party, which have long eschewed the feminist label. Challenging time-honored roles of women, pushing the boundaries of rabbinic authority, adopting terms borrowed from secular feminist ideology - a decade ago, these were truly revolutionary thoughts for women who had grown up in traditional Orthodoxy. Yet Kehat fervently believes that at its core, Judaism treats men and women equally. She contends that religious texts are egalitarian but are often interpreted to discriminate against women. A liberal, egalitarian interpretation of these texts does not put Kolech in the same category as a non-Orthodox Jewish group, she insists. "There is enough wiggle room within Orthodoxy to remain committed to the dogma while being a feminist." Dr. Noam Zohar, professor of philosophy at Bar-Ilan University, agrees and argues that some Orthodox groups persist in the "mistaken belief that piety is defined by how effectively women are excluded. Discrimination is a false measure of piety," he tells The Report. "By saying that feminism is possible within Orthodoxy, Kolech is invoking eternal Jewish concepts of change and reinterpretation of texts." Within a decade, Kolech has grown to a membership of approximately two thousand dues-paying men and women. Operating on a budget of some $350,000, most of it from private donations, the organization is based in Jerusalem and employs one salaried office manager. Volunteers maintain branches across the country and the organization sponsors an international conference every two years. Prominent members of the movement are sought out by the media for comment and are regularly invited to participate in panels and public forums. The first few years of activity were fruitful, but quiet and largely confined to efforts to advance women's status within the Orthodox community, without challenging the superior role of men. Kolech helped raise awareness of the plight of agunot and mesuravot get, or chained women, who are unable to finalize their divorces and helped craft halakhically acceptable legislation, some of which has been translated into law; it battled to end gender discrimination in Orthodox schools and society; and lobbied to educate for equality in home life via numerous courses. The general public first heard about Kolech in 1999, when over 1,000 men and women attended their first conference on Israeli Orthodox feminism, proving that Kolech was, indeed, giving voice to a groundswell of dissatisfaction among Orthodox women. The founders also distributed pamphlets on the weekly Torah portion in local synagogues. Written by women, these pamphlets discussed homiletics, Torah issues and halakha, emphasizing the female point of view. For some in the Orthodox community, publicly placing women in the role of teachers and commentators on Jewish texts, while overtly promoting "a women's point of view," was going too far. Then-Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who was opposed to women studying Talmud, the codex of Jewish law, ruled that it was forbidden to bring the pamphlets into the synagogue or even to read them and the ruling was widely published by right-wing and religious newspapers. To Kehat this attitude reflected "deep misogyny" - which, she observes, is still prevalent in parts of the religious-nationalist camp. "If Talmud study is open to women," she explains, "men can no longer claim superiority based on the religious commandments to study it." In 2002, the organization catapulted itself into public awareness. In a feature article published in the Hebrew daily, Ma'ariv, two women from Beit El, one of the larger and most established of the religious settlements in the West Bank, accused Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, rabbi of the settlement, of sexual harassment and inappropriately fostering emotionally intimate and dependent relations with him. The women said that they were forced to turn to the press because the rabbis to whom they had turned had refused to even take their complaints seriously. Aviner claimed that his comments to the women were taken out of context. Indeed, French-born Aviner was not an easy target. Also head of the Ateret Yerushalayim (formerly Ateret Cohanim) yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, Aviner had frequently counseled religious married couples in the settlement community on family purity laws. Rabbi of Beit El since 1981, he was a leading rabbi of the movement. Followers called him "the rabbi's rabbi," and the "holy of holies." Angry rebuke followed. Over 120 rabbis signed public petitions condemning the women as liars and suffering from hallucinations. Street signs urged the public not to read Ma'ariv. Children enrolled in modern Orthodox schools arrived home with letters defending Aviner. "I felt we had to respond," says Kehat. Kolech was the only voice in the Israeli modern Orthodox world to break the silence and defend the women. Kehat says she "was appalled" by the lack of debate within Orthodoxy to "even investigate the charges" made by the women. Kolech published letters defending the women in local media and helped them initiate a lawsuit against Aviner in rabbinical courts, asking for a public apology but not for damages. In the ensuing years, both women have left the settlement; one of them has dropped her case, saying she became worn down by the length of time the suit has taken. Aviner continues to proclaim his innocence but has agreed to a rabbinical panel's request that he cease counseling women in matters of family purity. Later in 2002, ten women complained to Kehat that they had been sexually harassed by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen of the midrasha at Bar- Ilan University, a women's seminary offering courses in religious studies. Cohen denied all charges; Kolech, however, brought the matter to the attention of the university, which tasked a special committee to investigate the allegation. The committee recommended that Cohen be dismissed - he was; his subsequent petition to a Labor Court asking that he be reinstated was also rejected. Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.