The Human Spirit: Let’s hear these ladies out

Women who signed statement urging Jewish girls not to date, marry non-Jewish men should come forward on variety of other women’s issues.

311_jewish women learning (photo credit: Lydia Polimeni)
311_jewish women learning
(photo credit: Lydia Polimeni)
A recent letter sent to the press by a group of slightly more than two dozen rabbis’ wives and daughters (in a country with thousands of rabbis) urges Jewish women not to date or marry non- Jewish men.
Because of the timing, the so-called rabbaniot letter is perceived, correctly or not, as a followup to the ill-conceived, infamous announcement by a group of rabbis endorsing housing discrimination. Nearly all public comment has linked the two, eliciting condemnation as a dangerous “wave of racism” from bloggers and media commentators here and abroad, as well as our Defense Minister and Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak.
The letter specifically warns Jewish women to be wary of contact with non-Jews in the workplace. Supermarket cashiers and National Service volunteers who work in our hospitals – all of which are integrated – are cautioned that they are in danger of falling in love with Arab men who will at first pretend to be Jews.
Such a courtship will begin with romance, but will lead to subjugation and abusive marriages in impenetrable Arab villages, the letter warns. Just ask women who have been there, done that.
Remember, this is not what your grandmothers would expect from you.
The proposed solution is to keep out of harm’s way and avoid employment and volunteer service where you might become friendly with non-Jews. Such segregation would, of course, further restrict women’s employment opportunities and make impossible much of the sacred work done by National Service volunteers.
WHAT COULD be the motivation for such a bizarre letter to the media? The women who signed it had to have realized they would be connected to the international condemnation of the rabbinic call for housing discrimination.
They had to know they would be hounded by the press. Signer Strena Druckman of Kiryat Motzkin was picketed in her community.
In an Internet interview, signer Esther Levanon from Elon Moreh insisted that she couldn’t understand the media commotion, that the letter was a sincere response to a troubling situation.
Certainly, it was not racism. She believes that 90 percent of Jewish parents don’t want their children to intermarry, so no racism can be involved.
She’s right about the public’s attitudes toward intermarriage. It’s fair to say most Jewish Israelis prefer their children to marry other Jews, most Christian Israelis prefer their children to marry other Christian Israelis and most Muslim Israelis prefer their children to many other Muslims. Indeed, many Muslim Israelis don’t even want their children to intermarry with another family; they opt for consanguineous marriages, joining first cousins despite the much-publicized risk of recessive genetic diseases. Marrying within the family is a strategy to preserve family resources and cultural values, as well as to maximize the chance of stable marriages by bringing together those with similar backgrounds.
Seducing Jewish women, getting them to convert and entrapping them in a miserable home life doesn’t sound like a plausible form of terrorism, as suggested by those calling intermarriage here a “second intifada.”
Not that such cases don’t exist. I’ve heard heart-rending stories of purgatory and flight by women whose lives follow exactly the terrifying scenario described in the rabbiniot letter. But how many of these tragic cases are there? In a Channel 7 interview, Bentzi Gopstein, who heads Lehava (the organization under whose auspices the letter appeared), spoke of a woman from a supermarket in Bnei Brak, another case in Beitar, a third in Gush Etzion. Maybe 10 in all. Activists in an organization that reportedly “rescues” such women say it receives hundreds of calls a year. Each of these is calamitous, but for every account of nightmare marriages between Jews and Arabs, I’ve heard of 10 women trapped in abusive marriages to Jewish men, not a few of whom are bearded and wearers of skullcaps.
If I’ve heard dozens of such stories, how many more must the wives and daughters of rabbis have heard? THESE RELIGIOUS women had to know they would be easy targets for criticism. You have to admire their courage in stepping into the spotlight of media they knew would be hostile.
One can only guess that they felt sufficiently worried about the stories they have heard.
Which is why I’m hoping they’ll come forward on other women’s issues. They can use their historic role of rabbi’s wife to protect women who are the majority of those frustrated with rabbinical conversion courts, stuck for years in rabbinical court divorce proceedings, counseled to return to abusive husbands. Certainly women who are brave enough to take on world media can stand strong in the familiar environment of the rabbinical world.
At least one columnist questioned the conferred status that comes with being married to a rabbi. Why does being a rabbanit/rebbetzin qualify a woman to be either an educator or arbiter of values? Within traditional Judaism, women have long taken advantage of the elevated stature of being a rabbi’s wife to become important partners in working for the Jewish people through teaching, counseling and community work. In the Orthodox world, where women are not yet ordained as rabbis, women need to use both formal and informal status as leadership opportunities.
Ideally, any Jewish woman with a religious commitment, intelligence and educational opportunity can achieve the highest levels of Jewish scholarship and community service, but in our transitional generation many of the scholars and social leaders have been either rabbi’s wives or daughters.
Recha Freier, who thought of sending young people to pre-state Israel, was a rabbi’s wife; Henrietta Szold, who organized their settlement, was a rabbi’s daughter. Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis can pack a stadium with young people interested in Judaism. Rabbanit Adina Bar-Shalom has revolutionized women’s educational opportunities in modern Israel.
Think of modern Jerusalem’s cadre of internationally lauded women Torah scholars – among them Malka Bina, Gila Rosen, Deena Weinberg, Tzippora Heller, Aviva Zornberg, Judy Klitsner, Holly Pavlov, Tova Hartman, Channah Henkin – all either (or both) daughters of and wives of rabbis who have used this in-house advantage to become role models in Jewish education and Torah study. Our most effective outreach movements – Chabad and Aish HaTorah – are built on service by both rabbi and Mrs. rabbi taking responsibility and risks for ministering to the Jewish people. The late Rivka Holtzberg, murdered while serving in Mumbai, was a co-leader with her husband Gavriel.
Some may be surprised to know that at a recent brainstorming meeting of feminist religious educators in Jerusalem to determine the best title for a woman Orthodox rabbi (should they be ordained), a strong contender wasn’t the modern rabba, but the long-venerated “rabbanit.”
To retain this veneration, rabbaniot must be judicious in their statements, and careful not to be manipulated by politicians. Just as they showed they were willing to go public, that they wanted their voices heard, they cannot urge other women to cloister themselves or circumscribe their opportunities for expression. I call on them to step forth and make themselves heard on the shameful extortion of Jewish women. I don’t know about your grandmothers, but that’s what mine would demand.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel.