Maybe you smoked cigarettes a long time ago. Now? Not so likely. Smoking looks retrograde even in an anachronistic setting like TV’s Mad Men. As the smoking seems retro, so too do the sexist attitudes and sexual harassment of that earlier era. Attitudes change, laws then follow suit. (No smoking in theaters or planes, in restaurants or in many public parks.)
And the Supreme Court of the United States has recognized gay marriage, overturning unjust laws that violated the civil rights of same-sex spouses. The rapid change in attitudes about LGBT issues has been remarkable. From the overt opprobrium during the 1980s AIDS epidemic to social and legal acceptance today? Less than 30 years, and a sea change.
Let’s hope that very soon the attitudes toward women in Jewish divorce law will seem at least as retro as smoking, and that legal succor will follow. As with marriage equality in secular law, attitudes have to shift for new interpretations of Jewish law to take hold. June 2013 was quite a month for attempting such change: women by the hundreds wore tallitot and prayed out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem; a “summit” discussed radical ways of countering divorce injustice; and whole new category of Jewish female clergy emerged.
So why can’t we cheer for these successes, however modest they may seem to some? Perhaps because we’re a little skeptical. In the wake of an Agunah Summit in late June, we’ve done an in-office retrospective on our previous articles about Jewish women “chained” in their marriages. Under Jewish law, only the husband can instigate divorce proceedings. From this inequity springs the fact that many husbands extort money or child-custody concessions from their wives in exchange for authorizing the divorce. Blu Greenberg, a prime mover behind the summit and a Lilith contributing editor, first wrote about this subject for the magazine in 1976! (Track this coverage at Lilith.org, part of the stunning archive of back issues fully searchable at our new website.) Blu’s oft-cited statement on how to change Jewish law: “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.” Yet four decades of activism have until now yielded little to free a woman powerless to extricate herself from a bad marriage.
Glass half empty. Some rabbis who control Jewish rabbinical courts say, with no concern for women in limbo, that change in divorce law must come “slowly.” And the Women of the Wall, praying there on the first day of the Hebrew month of Av, were pelted with eggs, and more.
And yet…the first class of Maharats graduated; these Orthodox women trained as clergy are recognized as having authority to teach, lead, and interpret texts. Women deciding Jewish law? Unambivalently, we can cheer this opportunity and honor the male and female thinkers and teachers who’ve made this dream a reality. All three of the women graduates will be employed in rabbinical roles, though the graduates will be called not rabbi or “Rabba”—the female form of the noun—but MaHaRaT, an acronym for being learned in Torah. It’s possible that with women becoming religious decision-makers in the Modern Orthodox world, they will help move Jewish law toward justice on the agunah issue. Glass half full.
Back to smoking, an unlikely but nonetheless useful marker for other changes. From the days when a lit cigarette was an accessory of elegance we’ve moved on to the New Yorker cartoon showing office workers in business suits sitting on a horizontal construction beam hanging over a cityscape. It’s the last place they can smoke. The approval rating for smoking has tanked.
So…how do we measure these changes—by what has improved, in law and in attitude, or by our disappointments that there’s still so much to be rectified?
In some matters of women’s rights, change has been maddeningly slow. My shortlist includes reproductive justice. The backward motion on abortion rights in many state legislatures terrifies me. In a worsening political climate for women, some states argue for criminalizing abortion after 12 weeks! The state of Mississippi trying to deny abortions to any woman more than six weeks into a pregnancy!
And money. Even if they did have access, poor women often can’t afford to pay for abortions. Or mammograms. All women are still, by every estimate, earning less than men comparably trained. Costs for prenatal care and child care are soaring for all. Single mothers in particular are struggling to feed their families. And wealthy women? Barbara Dobkin, a leading Jewish feminist activist and energetic world-changer, challenged me over breakfast this morning: “Tell me, where are the women who should be funding women’s projects?” With a few notable exceptions, like Dobkin herself and other staunch supporters of feminist causes like Lilith, they are invisible.
Are we being unrealistic about wanting women’s lives to improve during their lifetimes? Are our standards too high as we complain that perfection is not within our grasp today?
One of my daughters, when she was an adolescent, used to tell me that I was quick to notice the corner of her bedroom that was still untidy, and chary with praise for the rest of the room she had put in order. Maybe I really am the cranky, unappreciative person she then thought me to be. But when we express our happiness unreservedly for the real gains, including the gloriously pioneering Maharats, we’ve also got to notice the corners—very big corners now—where the mess is still there.
Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief