Part of the solution

Puah Institute must signal to extremist segments of religious community that it is ready to play by the rules set by the rabbis.

Haredi 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Haredi 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sectarian clashes over the social exclusion of women simply refuse to go away. The latest controversy surrounds a Jerusalem conference slated for Wednesday on “Innovations in Gynecology and Halacha.”
The organizer is the Puah Institute, run by Orthodox rabbis and spiritual leaders with expertise in medicine for religious Jews, particularly those suffering fertility problems.
Puah provides counseling on how to perform procedures such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, prenatal genetic diagnosis, surrogate motherhood and a wide variety of other medical issues while at the same time adhering to the strictures of Jewish law. The institute serves as an important bridge among gynecologists, urologists and other experts in the field of medicine and a religious community that places an extremely high value on childbearing.
Subjects to be discussed at Wednesday’s conference, which is open to both men and women (though seating is separate), include ovary implants, prostate problems, testicular implants, choosing the right contraceptive, preserving fertility for older single women and gynecological surgery via the da Vinci robot.
Unfortunately, while many of the issues to be dealt during the conference have a direct impact on women; and while many of the leading medical experts in the field happen to be women; and while many women would feel infinitely more comfortable hearing women discuss intimate gynecological matters, no females will be permitted to address the conference. Women will be excluded out of deference to a male-dominated rabbinic leadership that has determined that it is improper for women to stand before men and lecture.
No fewer than 40 feminist and human rights organizations have taken issue with Puah’s policy of gender-based social exclusion. In a letter addressed to the “health minister” – technically Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu though haredi Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman runs the ministry on a day to day basis – the organizations called to denounce Puah, which they claim receives funding from the Health Ministry and the Religious Services Ministry. And pressure has been brought to bear on male physicians and scientists to backtrack on their agreement to speak at the conference.
It is easy to understand why these organizations are up in arms. The true motivations of the late Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, a former chief rabbi of Israel, and other spiritual leaders who have consistently ordered Puah to prevent women from speaking before men for the past 12 years since the organization began to hold it annual conference are unclear. Is it a perverted sort of prurience that reads into a commonplace intellectual exchange an unconscionable sexual distraction? Or is it a rabid chauvinism that refuses to consider changing outdated conventions since a woman could not possibly have something of intellectual value to share?
Neither possibility is particularly palatable. Excluding women hinders the free exchange of information, but it is also causes economic damage to women physicians who will not benefit from the exposure afforded by appearing at the well-attended conference.
Still, while activists for gender equality have every right to protest Puah’s exclusion of women and to prevent the state from funding a conference that excludes women, Puah, a self-declared religious organization, has the right to adhere to its version of religious expression when organizing a private conference.
Infringing on Puah’s right is not only wrong it is unwise from a tactical point of view. Since it was established in 1990, Puah has made tremendous headway in exposing the most parochial haredi communities to the wonders of medical science. Rabbis have been challenged to adapt Jewish law to the latest innovations.
Puah provides a “safe” framework in which the most intimate medical subjects can be discussed openly, without fear of self-censorship.
To ensure that this framework continues to be perceived by extremist segments of the religious community as safe, Puah must signal to them that it is ready to play by the rules set by the rabbis. Coercing Puah to allow women to speak at its conference is liable to lead to the cancellation of the conference altogether, hardly a desired outcome. Puah is not part of the problem of haredi intolerance; it is part of the solution.