Lifting The Yoke

Is There Hope for Ending Jewish Legal Discrimination Against Women?

Thousands of Jewish women from across the entire religious spectrum convened on Chanukah 5747 (December, 1986) at the First Jerusalem International Conference on Women and Judaism: Halacha and the Jewish Woman. Their objective: to improve their position in halacha, Jewish law, which, in matters of personal status (marriage, conversion, divorce) is also the law of the land in Israel.

The conference was officially, if gingerly, sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Justice, and primarily organized by Pnina Peli, a vocal and innovative feminist of traditional bent. Lawyers and rabbis were present in some number, but academics—vanguards of experimentation and change in Jewish and Israeli life—carried the day.

Women are chafing under Orthodox Jewish law, and they gathered in Jerusalem to figure out what to do about it, and how. There were, of course, those who were determined to break the authority of the Israel Rabbinate by, for example, establishing secular marriage and divorce in the country. There were others who urged relief by calling for the government to enfranchise alternative authorities, the more liberal branches of Judaism (Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative), which are more responsive to the demands of feminists.

But the majority of the participants wanted something much more difficult to obtain: the legitimization of women’s rights by the Torah Sages themselves— equality as part of the great unbroken chain of Judaism from Sinai itself.

Not only are they unwilling to throw out the baby with the bathwater, they are determined to find some way to drain the tub before the baby catches pneumonia.

Women’s role in traditional religious life was widely discussed. Women’s prayer groups, an issue that has inflamed the Orthodox world, are a matter of extreme importance to at least 1,000 women who daven (pray) regularly with other women (see Kol Ishah #14). Orthodox feminists, for the most part, eschew the goal of equal opportunities in a mixed synagogue, and have been experimenting with praying-as-women. While there are no true halachic barriers to such groups, said Rivka Haut, director of the New York-based Women’s Tefila Network, established shuls have put up stiff resistance to the practice.

Many of the women at the conference were singularly moved by the experience of praying together with their sisters at the thrice-daily, women-only services.

Equally moving—and illuminating— was a paper by Dr. Susan Sered of Bar llan University. Sered had studied a group of impoverished old women in a Bukharan neighborhood in Jerusalem. These women had found a surprising freedom after the death of their husbands to develop their religious and spiritual natures.

How about women as Orthodox rabbis? Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, formerly spiritual leader of Lincoln Square Synagogue, and now rabbi of the West Bank township of Efrat and head of its various Torah institutions—a very influential modern Orthodox rabbi— sees no reason not to train and ordain them. Alas, he fears that doing so would invite an immediate backlash—to the detriment of more basic and widespread improvements in the Jewish education of women.

A number of scholars used their research in Talmud to light the way for greater rights and participation for contemporary women. Jewish Theological Seminary Talmud Professor Judith Hauptman, and JTS student Susan Grossman—both of whom intend to become Conservative rabbis—showed that women in the Talmudic period were neither as oppressed nor as silent as one would believe from modern interpreters.

The historians shed new light on the women of our past, and gave hope and ammunition to those in the present.

• Assyriologist Tikva Frymer-Kensky of Ann Arbor showed how Hebrew monotheism destroyed the old system in which sexuality and sex differences were paramount. The result was a Biblical age in which women enjoyed public office and personal prominence. Unfortunately, the Greeks, in their time, influenced the Talmudic rabbis to fear women and their supposed sexual powers.

• Professor Livia Bitton-Jackson of the City University of New York emphasized the negative effect of Christian culture in its influence on the halachic view of women.

• Professor Leila Bronner of the University of Southern California reviewed historical precedents in which Jewish women acted as prophets, judges, and financial, spiritual, and political advisors to Jewish communities.

• Dr. Sara Reuger of Brooklyn College, in a paper submitted but not delivered, proposed the theory that the raw needs of survival in a hostile Diaspora forced the Jewish woman to retreat from a position of independence to one of enabler and supporter of males.

Alice Shalvi—head of the Israel Women’s Network, an influential professor at the Hebrew University, founder of a radically advanced religious girls’ high school, and mother of six— told the women to demand that men become the enablers of Jewish women, as the women have long been theirs. Author Blu Greenberg urged women to fulfill the destiny of strong family life along with that of leadership.

The issue that demanded most of the conference’s time, energy and attention was that of get, Jewish religious divorce. In Israel, get is the only form of divorce permitted to Jews. Because halacha stipulates that a man must grant the get, when the husband refuses to do so, a woman becomes an agunah, an “anchored wife” (plural: agunot). Conference participants were told that there are 7,000 agunot in Israel today.

New York lawyer Rabbi Irwin Haut presented a halachic model for a takana, a universally accepted amendment to the body of Jewish law, to enable a religious court to decree a divorce over the objections of the husband. A taknna in halacha is rare but vital (see Blu Greenberg’s “Women’s Liberation and Jewish Law” in LILITH #1).

Other mechanisms, as well—such as the annulment of a marriage by a rabbinical court when the husband refuses to grant the get—were discussed in the course of the three days. Feminist therapist Joyce Rosman Brenner, chairperson of the Status of Women Committee of the Social Workers Union (Igud), expressed the feelings of many in the audience when she said:

“I feel frustrated, angry and disappointed that, if all these mechanisms exist why have we waited so long to have them put into effect?”

Masha Lubelsky, President of Na’amat (the largest women’s organization in Israel, one with clout because of its connection with the Histadrut national labor union), warned that the sluggishness of the Rabbinate in dealing with the get problem was souring the Israeli population to such an extent that its political position was seriously threatened. The polls show that a majority of Israelis now want marriage and divorce removed from rabbinical jurisdiction, she said.

Rabbi Eliakim Getzel Ellenson, author of the three-volume Woman and the Commandments (to appear in English shortly), adjured the assembly to approach the G’dolei ha Torah (preeminent Orthodox rabbis), despite the distance at which they seem to be from contemporary women’s needs and interests. To give up in disgust and bypass these sages, as Conservative and Reform Jews had done, would be to doom the movement.

Tikva Frymer-Kensky took him to task. Women had come from overseas to hear Ellenson’s advice and encouragement, not to be sermonized, she protested sharply. Ellenson apologized.

Rabbi Ezra Basri, Chief Justice of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court, seemed stunned by the hostility of some in the audience. By all accounts one of the finest judges on the rabbinical bench and a man of exceptional kindness and sweet temperament, he counseled the women to patience and absolute trust in the Law of Israel, which had proved so wonderful for so long.

What Rabbi Basri did not take into account was the Charlie-the-Tuna Effect: the women weren’t looking for a more compassionate interpretation of the halacha, they were looking for interpretation of a more compassionate halacha.

The climax of the program was the appearance of the halachic women’s hero of the day, Leah Shakdiel. Shakdiel is embroiled in a landmark case: her right to serve on the Religious Council—the governmental fiscal and regulatory body in charge of religious agencies’ services— of the development town of Yeruham. The right of a woman to hold such a post has put the political and religious establishments in Israel in a major tizzy.

Shakdiel looks like a caricature of the meek and modest Orthodox woman. But the moment she opened her mouth, righteousness and Tightness rang forth, as if from the mouth of a prophet.

“We have changed in the past century,” she said. “We live within our time. And now we must inform the rabbis.”

Shakdiel called women to arms. Despite the fact that we can’t know what the consequences of direct action will be, she said, we must nevertheless take such actions for ourselves. “We must step ahead into the beginning of (what will be) an ongoing struggle. “The assembly gave Shakdiel a long standing ovation.

The end of the struggle, Shakdiel’s words intimated, was beyond the right of women to stand equal to men in the Law. The end of the struggle is the full development of the Jewish people. As the Sages said of the Exodus from Egypt: Because of the women, Israel was redeemed and because of the women Israel will be redeemed.

Late in the evening after the end of this conference, a group of us met at the home of Alice Shalvi to discuss how the work of this conference could be continued. On the political front, there was a sense that there was an urgent need to keep the problem of the agunah before the public.

Several suggestions were made: one, that a series be prepared on the “Agunah of the week” (or month) in which a profile of an individual “anchored wife” would be given so that these women became people rather than statistics; and 2) that a list be distributed of the names of these women (like the lists of Soviet refuseniks), so that the situation could be inquired about. Anybody who can help in this, or who has some other ideas, should contact Alice Shalvi, the head of the Israeli Womens’ Network.

On the scholarly front, there was a great wish to keep the discussion going. It is hoped that a new journal can be started, on “Women and Halachah”, as a forum to discuss these issues and a stimulus to research on these topics.

A newsletter to keep people informed about research and writing about Women and Judaism will be edited and disseminated by Hananiah Goodman (editor of a Kabbalah newsletter).

Anybody who would like to receive such a newsletter, or who would like to inform others of articles being published and papers presented, should contact him at 41 Palyam St., Tsameret HaBirah, Jerusalem. —Tikva Frymer-Kensky 

Gila Berkowitz, author of The New Jewish Cuisine (1986) and numerous articles for American magazines, served as a war correspondent in Israel, taught journalism at Stanford University, and is presently writing a novel in Haifa.