Puah conference pushes medical, halachic advancement

Campaign to destroy institute for medicine and halacha is part of a cultural war between the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

puah 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
puah 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the past 12 years the Puah Institute has hosted an annual conference on Innovations in Medicine. At first, the conference was geared towards rabbinic authorities so they could integrate these advances into Jewish law (halacha). The first conferences took place in a synagogue, and therefore only rabbis and male doctors spoke.
It was clear to us that inviting women to address the rabbis would cause many rabbis to avoid the sessions, thus negating the purpose of the conference.
Eventually, we opened the conference to the general public and moved it from a synagogue to a conference hall. But we maintained the original arrangements, with separate seating and male lecturers only.
For 11 years, this arrangement was accepted by doctors without any problem. Over 1,500 people have attended the conference every year, making it the largest, perhaps the only, conference on Medicine and Halacha.
Over the years, the conference has contributed important advances in both the medical realm and halacha. Rabbis have became more sensitive to the needs of couples, and medical professionals have come to understand the needs and concerns of the religious public.
We have been attacked for bowing to the demands of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector, but by ensuring the haredi sector felt comfortable attending the conference, we in the national-religious community have shown that we are serious players in the modern- day halachic discourse. We have also learned that haredi halachic authorities are not purposely stringent in every instance. In this way, the conference has increased the sense of unity among the Jewish people.
Significantly, women are invited to participate in the conference, they sit next to the men in the audience with a mechitza [partition] in the middle, and the podium is in the middle. Lecturers speak to both groups equally, and there are large screens on both sides so both men and women can watch the proceedings. At the end of each lecture, both men and women have the opportunity to ask questions.
THE ACCUSATIONS thrown at our institute and our conference over the past week have been nothing less than appalling. One person called the sessions “pornographic” because “men get together to talk about women’s bodies, as if they were objects” (as if there were no medical-gynecological conferences in Israel where they discuss the same topics, and as if there are no provocative advertisements in which a woman’s body is exploited).
Another person said “you think women are stupid and not talented enough to lecture and to treat couples,” despite the fact that I routinely encourage women to study medicine, especially gynecology, and the fact that at other Puah conferences women are invited to lecture.
And, of course, there is the Nazi comparison, by now an appalling but routine part of our public discourse in Israel. “You are acting like the Germans did in 1944! They also didn’t allow Jews to speak!,” said one person.
Our attackers have asked Knesset members to speak out against our institute and pressed government agencies to withhold our funding (although the fact of the matter is that we hardly get any such funding).
They even appealed to the prime minister himself to close the Institute, and have called on the public to stop calling in with questions and to stop supporting the Institute.
They have asked doctors to pull out of the conference, linked the issue to the “exclusion of women” that has been in the headlines over the past month and threatened to boycott participants. They also threatened to bar hospital directors from professional medical organizations if they did not agree to boycott the conference.
Unfortunately a number of doctors canceled their participation, some for ideological reasons and others saying they were sorry but “it’s better to be smart than correct.” When things calm down, they said, they would be happy to participate in our conferences since they know that all our motives are pure – we aim to help and not hinder.
THE COMMON denominator among the organizations that have criticized the conference – Kolech (Your Voice), Yisrael Chofshit (Free Israel) and others is that they are funded by the New Israel Fund.
The goal of this campaign is clear: To destroy an important, vital organization that provides free counseling, day and night, to thousands of individuals and couples from all sectors of Israeli society. Our rabbis and counselors regularly answer halachic and medical questions concerning issues of marriage, the laws of family purity, pregnancy and birth, breastfeeding, contraception, genetic problems, arranged marriages for people with special needs, support and counseling on how to maintain fertility for cancer patients, and of course fertility.
It is no exaggeration to say the Puah Institute represents life and the continuity of the Jewish people.
The current battle is no less than a cultural war between the Jewish people and the State, with the Jewish religion being cornered.
It is indeed a tragedy that instead of appreciating the great advances we have merited to see in women’s health in general, and in particular within the religious sector, as a result of our conferences, there are cynical, aggressive elements who try to block us by using the prevailing public ambience.
These elements are riding on the back of the Puah Institute in order to advance their personal agenda, but they are certainly not promoting the welfare of our patients, or of our society.
The writer is the director of the Puah Institute.