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Challenging the Religious Establishment

“The problem is that our heritage is very male-centered and male-oriented. I embrace this heritage, but (look at it) through the glasses of the Western world in terms of the place of women in society… there are many conflicts.”

Thus, Leah Shakdiel, an Orthodox woman who has emerged as an outspoken champion of women’s rights in Israel, described the conflict between her commitment to halacha (traditional Jewish law) and her feminist convictions.

As a resident and member of the Town Council of Yeroham, a small development town in the Negev, Shakdiel is petitioning for her right to sei-ve on Yeroham’s Religious Services Council. She was nominated by the Town Council as the Labor Party representative to the nine-member Religious Council in January 1986, the first woman to be nominated to such a position in Israeli history. However, in 1987, a committee of representatives from various government ministries rejected her nomination. Shakdiel then appealed to the Israeli High Court, which will not rule until after the Fall elections.

The Religious Services Council administers local synagogues, mikvaot (ritual baths), cemeteries. Rabbinical Courts (for the larger towns), supervision of kashrut (dietary laws) and shechita (ritual slaughter) licenses, marriage and divorce registrations, and the payment of local officials. The two rather nebulous qualifications for membership on a religious council are adequate representation of the various ethnic groups in the town which make use of religious services, and “suitability,” which is not clearly defined. Members of the ministerial committee that dealt with the Shakdiel case maintained that she was “unsuitable” because of her “views.” They did not raise the fact that she is a woman, as the law does not specifically mention gender as grounds for rejection.

Shakdiel asserted her right to assume a position to which she was legally nominated, and claimed that the rejection of her nomination was discriminatory. In support of her argument, she invoked the Israeli Declaration of Independence which provides for “complete equality of social and political rights to all inhabitants irrespective of religion, race and sex.” Her case was also based upon precedents relating to women’s status and previous decisions regarding nominations to religious councils.

Orthodox opponents of having women serve on the religious councils cite Maimonides’ view that “A woman is not appointed to the kingship,” i.e., women should not hold public office. Others point to the traditional principle of “female modesty,” i.e., that women and men, particularly male rabbis, should not mingle freely in public places or debate in the same forum.

Supporters of Shakdiel, on the other hand, argue that halachic dictates are not applicable in this case, since the religious councils are purely administrative bodies which do not have the authority to make religious law. Moreover, they point out, the religious councils are state-funded entities and secular arms of the Israeli government.

Shakdiel has pointed out that, during the 1920s, many Mizrachi (Orthodox Zionist) rabbis were among the staunchest supporters of women’s suffrage and their right to hold public office. In 1926, the Mizrachi movement voted to grant its women these rights.

Shakdiel regards her current struggle and her feminism as part of her larger commitment to social issues and human rights. Born in Jerusalem, the fourth in a family of four girls, she was strongly influenced by her father, a politician, and her mother, a “pioneer woman.” Widowed at a young age, Shakdiel’s mother combined pioneering with raising her children on her own, setting “a good example” for her daughters.

Shakdiel left Jerusalem at age seven with her family after her father’s death. She was educated in a modern Orthodox high school in Tel Aviv (the environment of which, she said, was “very encouraging intellectually”) and later received a BA in French and English literature from Bar Ilan University, as well as a teacher’s license in Judaica from Kerem in Jerusalem.

Disillusioned with the National Religious Party positions on a number of issues not related to women’s status, Shakdiel moved to the left politically. She left Jerusalem for Yeroham in 1978, along with a small group of like-minded liberal Orthodox Jews calling themselves Mashmia Shalom. The members of the group hoped that in the smaller setting of a development town, they could best effect real, meaningful change in Israeli society.

A teacher of Hebrew and Judaica in Yeroham, Shakdiel also conducts consciousness- raising groups for women in the town. Shakdiel believes that women’s representation is important, as many women make use of the town’s religious services. However, in her view, what is most important is that women begin to occupy positions formerly reserved exclusively for men.

Shakdiel observed that the contemporary women’s movement is based upon two fundamental premises — individuality and rights — both of which are derived from Western culture and are not central values in Jewish tradition. “The Jewish heritage is more collective in its orientation,” she explained. “Individuality isn’t really a pillar of Judaism…. The notion of a right — z’chut — isn’t part of Jewish tradition.”

On the other hand, Shakdiel maintained that the b’rit milah (circumcision) ritual is based on the notion that only as a separate individual can one make a covenant with God. “The Jewish male is seen as a separate individual,” a process which she sees as just beginning for Jewish women.

In her efforts to upgrade the status of women in Judaism, and in Israeli society, Shakdiel believes in the possibility of change within halacha. “I feel we have to be faithful to the past,” she said, “but we also change all the time…. It must be like that because people live the tradition.”

Shakdiel’s case was heard by the Israeli High Court in December 1987. A ruling in her favor would set an important precedent, and would encourage other Israeli women seeking greater political participation, especially on t h e local government level. One woman, Rina Shashua-Hasson, has been elected a member of the Religious Services Council of Ramat Hasharon, and, like Shakdiel, is awaiting ratification of her election.

There has certainly been progress in Israeli women’s participation in local government in recent years. Two female members of the Tel Aviv City Council, Haviva Avigai and Lilly Menaham, recently sought to join the committee that selects the city’s Ashkenazi rabbi. While their efforts ultimately failed, they posed a significant challenge to the existing system.

This commitment to change for the sake of promoting a more just society has always motivated Leah Shakdiel. As she summed up, “We carry our culture with us always, but in a creative way. I am trying to get people to realize that they can change the nature of the Jewish society that they have inherited.”

Reena Sigman Friedman is LILITH’s News Editor.

Late Breaking News: Shakdiel Wins

 The Religious Council of Yeroham has been ordered to seat Shakdiel within 30 days of the Israeli Supreme Court decision handed down May 19. The response to this landmark ruling for women has been “turmoil” in the religious establishment, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The Sephardic and Ashkenazi chief rabbis have issued a joint statement warning that religious men might refuse to serve on these councils if women were members. Shakdiel herself said after the ruling that the decision was “a victory for religious Zionism and for women in Israel.”

The Rising Of The Women

Two female employees of El Al, Israel’s airline, have filed suit in Tel Aviv Labor Court against the airline seeking a temporary injunction in the appointment of a male employee to the position of El Al station manager in Rome. He is scheduled to assume his position in June. The two women, liana Peled and Batya Warman, have almost 20 years experience each with El Al in ground positions. They charge that they were denied access to the station manager preparatory course because of their sex, and thus were ineligible for the Rome position. They claim they have more experience than the male appointee, and have completed all other requirements for the job. In 1973, a class action suit against El Al resulted in female air hostesses gaining access to the ranks of senior flight attendant. The current case is a prelude to another class action suit against the airline on behalf of female ground personnel.