Three Jewish Feminist Conferences in Israel

Israel’s women may seem to fall into two groups: those that shun formal religious life, and those that shun “American-style” feminism for a paltry place at the back of the synagogue. This summer in Israel, however, offered a glimpse of a far more complex and exciting picture.

Each of three emerging institutions held a spirited conference: the Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism at Bar Ilan University; the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, which started the first Master’s degree program in Women’s Studies in Judaism; and the Religious Women’s Forum, masterminded at the Neve Daniel settlement in the West Bank.

The first conference, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women and Judaism and, among others, by Bar Ilan’s Faculty of Law; was devoted to the disadvantages faced by women in Jewish marital law, which is the law of the land for Israeli Jews. Jewish wives who wish to divorce risk being trapped in abusive relationships or blackmailed as the price of their freedom. This plaint has been heard before, but never, I believe, in such force, by such a battery of experts, within a bastion of Orthodoxy. It was surely a historic moment when one speaker after another rose to the podium at Israel’s national-religious university to declare that no modern women in her right mind would or should consent to enter into a marital arrangement in which her spouse is entitled to hold her against her will.

Rabbi Professor Meir Feldman of Bar Ilan’s Talmud Department had a radical proposal: the marriage ceremony itself should be altered so as to expunge the element of kinyan, “acquisition” of the woman. Professor Susan Aranoff and Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, both Orthodox legal experts, attacked the halakhic assumption that women prefer entering into abusive relationships to remaining unmarried. They and other speakers called for a pre-nuptial agreement to provide a basis for court-ordered divorce at the wife’s initiative. Rabbi Dr. Noam Zohar concluded the conference by calling for women to rebel against the system.

Less than a week later, a conference on “The Impact of Women’s Studies on Jewish Studies” held at the Schechter Institute highlighted the academic agenda of Israeli Jewish feminism, and the sharing of that agenda by secular, liberal-religious and Orthodox academics. As women at universities master Talmud, they have an opening both to feast their minds on a rich source hitherto withheld from women, and to crack the hegemony of the rabbinate. Conservative scholar Judith Hauptman and Israeli secular scholar Tal Ilan picked apart the notorious declaration that “to teach one’s daughter Torah is to teach her tiflut“—triviality or obscenity—showing that feminist critique redefines the text’s significance. Historian Paula Hyman and anthropologist Vanessa Ochs went on to emphasize how this dual set of implications, academic and political, will restore lost content to the collective memory of Judaism and establish new rituals in its contemporary practice.

Howard Adelman of Achva Teachers’ College in Israel, allowed a glimpse of how feminist analysis of Jewish texts is penetrating the education of Israel’s teachers. The difficulties of advancing feminist studies in Israel—paucity of textbooks in Hebrew, lack of academic recognition and tenured positions, refusals by publishers— could not dampen the air of celebration of this once-belittled academic field.

The celebration was multiplied several times over at the Kolekh (Your Voice)—Religious Women’s Forum conference held in July in Jerusalem that drew hundreds of participants. Women voiced ongoing frustration over the issue of divorce, and over the barriers that hold women back from assuming positions of religious leadership in the wider community. Still, two firm messages issued from the conference. The first is that the revolution is here, and there is no turning back. Religious women are no longer just demanding change: The change has begun, and the question is where it will lead, and who will guide it.

The second message is that the revolution has been created by the explosion of Jewish learning among Israel’s national-religious women, developing a cadre of talmidot hakhamim (scholars) qualified not only to provide spiritual leadership but also to decide matters of law. From this group come the voices asking for expanded roles for women in the synagogue. One might say that if Jewish feminism in America has led from a demand for rights in the synagogue to more intensified Jewish study for women, the direction in Israel is reversed: from the study hall to the synagogue.

A third message, unspoken but evident, is that Israeli Jewish feminism is Ashkenazic, middle-class and largely middle-aged, and some of its main centers are in the settlements on the West Bank. Judging by this conference, the concerns of the Religious Women’s Forum have not yet spread to the oppression of women in other frameworks. There is no doubt that this movement is on its way to altering the status of women within Judaism; whether it will also take an interest in the status of women elsewhere or everywhere is still a moot question.

Deborah Greniman is managing editor of Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues.