Thoughts of a religious feminist

An Israeli woman can be president of the Supreme Court, but not a rabbinical court judge.

Secular and religious women Jaffa 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Secular and religious women Jaffa 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When I turned 18, and was fresh out of Bnei Akiva and the Israeli state religious school system, Alice Miller had just triumphed in her struggle in the High Court, paving the way for other women who aspired to be pilots in the Israel Air Force.
My generation has grown as a result of struggles like Alice Miller’s.
I am grateful to these feminist women who led groundbreaking efforts, who struggled so that we as women could benefit from greater freedom and improved lives.
On a personal level, I am also grateful to God that I was born after the feminist revolution.
I am well aware of the fact that in the past women did not have the options available to them today – to study and get a higher education, to work and make money, to have control over our bodies, to leave an abusive husband, to work in whatever field we desire, to be a community representative and carry out measures for the benefit of the community, the right to vote, and the right to be elected.
And yet, despite all of these rights, as a religious woman, the feminist conflict is doubly difficult.
Ten years ago, a good friend of mine who is religious and was a medical student, attended a 10-year-old child’s circumcision surgery.
She and the doctor prepped the patient for surgery. The second before the doctor was to make the incision, his cellphone rang and he left to answer it, motioning to my friend to go ahead and make the cut.
Since it was very simple, she did not think twice and made the cut.
After she left the operating room, she realized that she had just performed a circumcision.
Wait a minute – is she, as a woman, even allowed to perform a circumcision? Would it be considered kosher? Had the boy been circumcised according to Jewish law? Was she required to inform the parents? These questions were making her uneasy.
She approached a rabbi and asked him whether a woman was allowed to perform a circumcision. The rabbi responded that although in principle women are not supposed to perform circumcisions, if it had already happened, the child was properly circumcised. Phew! This same friend later specialized in neurosurgery and is now a neurosurgeon.
We are delighted that in the State of Israel a woman can be a neurosurgeon, a heart surgeon, transplant organs, and perform lifesaving surgeries. But the simplest surgery in the world – circumcision – religious women are not allowed to perform.
This is where the complexity arises for us as religious women. Over the past few years, the gap has been widening between what is available to us as women in Israeli society, compared with the limitations of being Orthodox women in the religious community, in our homes and in our synagogue.
Think about it: An Israeli woman can be the president of the Supreme Court, but she cannot become a simple rabbinical court judge. A woman can be a heart or brain surgeon, but she cannot perform the simplest surgery in the world – a circumcision.
A woman can be a civil servant in the Knesset representing thousands of people who had voted her into office, but she cannot lead a quorum of Jews in prayer in a synagogue.
This gap is making it increasingly difficult for us to feel like we are part of the religious community.
My generation has managed to come to terms with this complexity. We have grown as a result of this struggle; it was not a given that women could do anything they wanted. But I have no doubt that this situation will no longer be tolerated in the next generation.
I look at my three daughters. On TV they see women leading political parties, female High Court justices, Nobel Prize winner Ada Yonath, and Ben-Gurion University President Rivka Carmi. Whereas I celebrated when the Israel Air Force opened its doors to women, my girls are growing up knowing that there is a religious woman pilot.
It will be harder for them to accept this reality. How will we justify this vast gap between their lives in the secular, day-today world and their lives in the place dearest to us – our traditions, the synagogue, and our community? These are the questions that as religious feminists we are asking ourselves on International Women’s Day. But it is clear that these questions should also concern the entire religious community, including the rabbis who lead it. The challenge can and should be dealt with, and there is no doubt this will happen sooner or later.
And the sooner the better! Translated by Hannah Hochner.
The writer is a member of the Jerusalem City Council.