Sisterhood Blog

How Modern Orthodoxy Is Losing Touch With Modernity

By Elana Sztokman

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Women are banned from running for public office, according to Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the Elon Moreh settlement. In a startling regression to 19th century gender inequalities, Levanon responded to a query by a woman requesting permission to run for her local council, with a resounding “no.”

The first problem is giving women authority, and being a secretary means having authority. The second problem is mixing men and women. Secretary meetings are held at night and sometimes end very late. It is not proper to be in mixed company in such situations…..The husband presents the family’s opinion…This is the proper way to prevent a situation in which the woman votes one way and her husband votes another.

What is perhaps most astounding here is that the entire opinion does not even cite anything halachic. In a tone reminiscent of recent rabbinic debates about women’s ordination, this diatribe is purportedly a legal responsa about women’s roles. In fact, it resembles a personal rant.

Kolech chairwoman Ayelet Vider-Cohen in response cited both contemporary and biblical Jewish women political leaders as counter-evidence. “We do not see any reason or justification to revert our society to the dark ages when women were silenced and forbidden from expressing an opinion other than via a man,” she wrote.

“These are severe statements against the democratic character of Israeli society,” Israel Women’s Network Executive Director Nurit Zur also said, and called on the religious community to denounce the ruling.

Despite IWN’s protest, however, religious Zionist leadership has failed to denounce the ruling, and in fact supportive rabbinic voices have surprisingly emerged. Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba, considered by some to be a leading halachic redactor in Israel, wrote in the newspaper Gilui Da’at that not only are women forbidden from running for public office, but they are best off not even working outside the home. Women should be housewives, he said, “because it is important that everyone fulfill the role that the Holy one Blessed be He gave him [sic]”.

Levanon, perhaps emboldened by Lior’s support, explained his position to Ynet: “There is a division of labor, in which the husband takes on the jobs that are external, and the wives take on other jobs, the ones that are internal….Even if all the sages wanted to change the nature of men or women, they couldn’t, because nature is stronger than anything else.”

Justifying women’s exclusion from public life — and for Lior, from the paid workforce in general — based on “natural” differences is a very old argument that I thought had been put to bed long ago. These are battles from the first wave of feminism, when women fought for suffrage and for the right to have an opinion outside the home. It is quite astounding that these arguments are resurfacing, supposedly as Torah opinions, but really as a reinvention of old patriarchal rhetoric.

What strikes me as particularly interesting is that these are voices of religious Zionism in Israel, presumably modern or “centrist” Orthodox and not Haredi. In fact, I would say that no Haredi rabbi today would dare suggest that women should not work outside the home. After all, if Haredi women were to stop working, the entire community may collapse. So this is really quite an interesting twist: In the Modern Orthodox community, where men are encouraged to work rather than sit and learn Torah all day, women are being shoved back to pre-Seneca Falls roles. By contrast, in the Haredi community, where the less men work the more they are revered, women are economically empowered. It’s possible that Haredi women are better off than modern Orthodox women.

Has Modern Orthodoxy completely lost touch with the “modern” part of its vision? Considering the deafening silence in response to Levanon’s and Lior’s outrageous rulings, I would say, well, yes. Modern Orthodoxy, if it still exists, is certainly not a good place for modern women. But it may still be a cushy place for some men.


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