Sisterhood Blog

Why Do Men's Voices Lend Credibility to Jewish Women's Issues?

By Elana Sztokman

  • Print
  • Share Share

As a woman, I sometimes feel like I’m in a catch-22. I want to bring attention to issues concerning women, but I also want men to pay attention. When women are doing all the talking, we run the risk of marginalizing ourselves, of turning our ideas into “women’s stuff.” By inviting men to speak about women’s issues, we may gain credibility and breadth, but we contribute to the problem by having men speak on our behalf, muting our voices once again.

I found myself in this frustrating predicament the other day. I was speaking on a panel at a conference organized by Rabbi Marc Angel’s Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah. The conference, titled, “Is Modern Orthodoxy an Endangered Species?” examined mostly theoretical issues facing Modern Orthodoxy today, but included also a discussion of conversion as well as a panel —the one I participated in — on the issue of agunot and mesoravot get, women denied divorce. The panel consisted of Susan Weiss, founder of the Center for Women’s Justice, and me, representing Mavoi Satum, the organization that provides a package of legal and social services to agunot.

While I fully applaud the inclusion of this critical issue in the conference, I confess that I had mixed feelings about the fact that we were effectively two women on stage.

Certainly, this is an issue that affects primarily women, and women are undoubtedly the leaders in the field working for change. According to statistics collected by the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status of Bar-Ilan University, an estimated one out of every seven women going through divorce in Israel is at high risk of becoming a mesorevet get. Then there is the Haifa University research showing that one out of every seven women in Israel is abused. Thus a clear picture emerges: Recalcitrance is the last stage in an abusive relationship, where men who have been hurting their wives seek ultimate control by permanently denying their freedom.

Jewish women are thus at greater risk of becoming an agunah than, say, of getting breast cancer (statistically one in seven versus one in eight). This is not a marginal issue that affects a small, irrelevant segment of the community. This is a huge issue that not only affects those one in seven women but can also affect the other six out of seven who know the story and are often pressured into extortion — that is, paying off their husbands in exchange for the divorce — because they are petrified of the system. I would like to say that all married women in Israel are affected by this, living a life that can, potentially, leave them “chained” and bound to unwanted marriages and unable to live their own free lives.

It is not a marginal issue, but it is still basically a women’s issue. Although some people like to argue that men can become “chained” as well, the two issues are hardly parallel. Men have options: They have a halachic loophole called the “signature of 100 rabbis” through which they can divorce even against their wives’ wills, a loophole unavailable to women; moreover, men who ignore civil and religious law and live with another woman while still married to the first face no consequences whatsoever. Women, by contrast, risk turning any future children into “mamzerim”, communal bastards, forbidden from being part of the Jewish community for 10 generations. So, yes, this is very much a women’s problem.

Given this reality, I’m thrilled to be in the company of women like Susan Weiss who spend their lives fighting for women’s freedom and justice. Yet, at the end of the session, several members of the audience came up to me with the same remark: Too bad there were no men on the panel. As if to say, if men were on the panel, it would have had more effectiveness, more influence, and more power.

Men’s voices on behalf of women — even if they are artificial, patronizing, or overpowering — still give women’s issues a “gushpanka”, a seal of approval. I really hate that. I want society, which means men AND women, to listen to women’s voices and relate. And yet, if the men’s voices will increase the chance of bringing women to freedom, who am I to argue? Shouldn’t I be willing to work within the system — chauvinistic as it is — in order to strengthen the cause? I don’t know. This is the dreaded catch-22 of women’s activism.

Ultimately, I want to send the message that women’s suffering is a problem for the entire community. When there is even one agunah in our midst, this is a problem for anyone who cares about Jewish life. Because as long as Jewish law — our Jewish law — can cause human beings this much pain, we are all responsible.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Modern Orthodoxy, Mesoravot Get, Marc Angel, Domestic Violence, Divorce, Agunot, Susan Weiss

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.