Votes for women

“Rav Kook truly thought that total equality of the sexes was not only a halachic [Jewish law] problem, but even more so a historical, social, and moral mistake"-Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun

BRITISH SUFFRAGETTE Christabel Pankhurst takes part in a procession, 1911. (photo credit: LSE LIBRARY/FLICKR)
BRITISH SUFFRAGETTE Christabel Pankhurst takes part in a procession, 1911.
(photo credit: LSE LIBRARY/FLICKR)
With elections approaching on April 9, we take it for granted that Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jewish women will be voting for Knesset and that in the Orthodox Bayit Yehudi Party, women will be elected as representatives to the Knesset. But almost 100 years ago, on the eve of the first election in Mandatory Palestine, the issue of women’s suffrage and participation in public life was a contentious one. It came before Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Jerusalem, and Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Uziel, chief Sephardi rabbi of Jaffa, for resolution.
In 1918, as the Jewish population of Palestine began to organize itself toward political representation under the British Mandate, the Second Constitutive Assembly gave women the right to vote. In response, the Ashkenazi haredi community in Jerusalem protested, and 40% of the Jerusalem population boycotted the first election in the summer of 1920. As Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun noted in his article, “R. Kook’s Public Position on Women Voting,” published in Tradition (49:1), this move ended up having severe repercussions for the newly elected Knesset Israel, giving more power to the secular Socialist parties and shifting the balance of power for 50 years away from the haredim.
The modern Orthodox Mizrahi Party, however, was split on this question and its members went to ask Rav Kook, the newly installed chief rabbi of Jerusalem. He responded that the matter was prohibited first and foremost based on Jewish law, for as it is written in the Talmud, “It is a man’s nature to dominate and not a woman’s.” Women must thus be prevented, as a result, from occupying any positions of office, judgement and testimony.
Furthermore, he added, any situation that would lead to the mixing of sexes was also prohibited by Jewish law. Finally, women engaging in public life perverted the ideals that Torah represents for a just and moral society when it guards and protects the holy and pure nature of the wife and mother in the home.
Less than a year later, in April 1920, on the eve of the elections for the Assembly of Representatives, “Knesset Israel,” he was again asked about giving women the right to vote.
His overall position reflected his commitment to the family as sacred to the Jewish people in a deeper and different way than in the modern world. He felt that the family was at its foundation.
WHILE OTHER nations were not distressed by cracks in family life or the potential damage from such cracks to national life, the Jewish family could not tolerate such harm to its structure.
Rav Kook wrote (translation: Zvi Zohar), “The psychological basis for calling for public participation in elections by the name of ‘women’s rights’ arises fundamentally from the unhappy position of the mass of women amidst these nations. If their family situation had been as peaceful and dignified as it is generally in Israel, the women themselves, as well as men of science, morality and high ideals, would not demand what they call ‘rights’ of suffrage for women, in the common fashion, a step that might spoil domestic tranquility [shalom bayit] and ultimately lead to a great deterioration of political and national life in general.”
He continued to explain that the exposure to the many political and electoral opinions and disagreement would sully the “splendor of our sisters’ lives.” He wrote that while the nation “has always been willing to listen to women’s opinion on social and political questions, the accepted opinion must come specifically from the home, from the family in its wholeness; and the one whose duty it is to bring it into the public domain is the man, the father of the family, on whom is placed the obligation of making known the family opinion.”
Finally, he expressed concern that if women “become entangled” in expressing their political opinions and deciding on whom to vote, one of two things would happen: “Either she will learn through this flattery to flatter the man and to cast her vote according to his, not according to her conscience, thereby spoiling her morality and inner freedom; or raging differences of opinion will destroy domestic tranquility, and the rifts in the family will fracture the nation.”
In his article, Rabbi Ben Nun explained, “Rav Kook truly thought that total equality of the sexes was not only a halachic [Jewish law] problem, but even more so a historical, social, and moral mistake that would undermine the close partnership of the traditional family. This breakdown would have severe repercussions for family and society, for morality, and for religious community.”
While Rav Kook was correct in anticipating the tremendous change suffrage represented both to the family and greater society, he was incorrect in assuming that his position could stem the tide of such change. In the end, the Mizrahim decided to conform to the secular Zionists and give women the right to vote. Rav Kook paid a heavy personal price for misreading the situation. As we will see in the next column, Rav Uziel was more insightful of the unfolding reality and his halachic ruling would reflect the changing religious, social and political landscape more accurately and with greater acuity. ■
The writer teaches Contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish Tradition.