This year’s conference of Kolech, Israel’s Orthodox feminist forum, grappled with cutting-edge issues around homosexuality, the place of transgender women in Orthodoxy and the shared lifestyles of Muslim and Jewish religious women.
At the conference, which took place in Jerusalem earlier this month, the panel on homosexuality included an Israeli lesbian who was raised Orthodox, a woman who was born male into an Orthodox family and an Orthodox woman whose son is gay. Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner David, who has written extensively about her family’s journey with her gay brother, said “I was pleasantly surprised to see that this session was included in the conference and was afraid because of its relatively radical nature that it would not be well attended. I was even more pleasantly surprised to see that the room was packed when I got there and that the audience was supportive, sympathetic, and respectful to the panelists.”
It seems that the community is working to put an end to issues that have been silenced in the past.
“They talked about everything,” Irit Glanz reported, nearly blushing, as she walked out of the session on sexuality, “and I mean everything.” I missed that session because during that time I was chairing a session on transformations in mikveh practice, which actually had the same basic message: we are here to unpack everything. Panelists talked about the problems that women have with going to mikveh, relating to body image and regimented sexual practice, and initiatives attempting to create a better experience.
The most startling panel I attended was the one in which Leah Shakdiel brought Muslim feminist women from the Negev who are part of a dialogue group of religious Jewish and Muslim women. I was riveted by the conversation comparing sharia courts with the beit din system, and the discussion of how women in both communities wrestle with covering their heads and bodies. The witty banter among women who are not afraid to speak their minds was refreshing.
Dr. Hannah Kehat, Kolech’s founder, said when she attends Muslim-Jewish dialogue groups she assumes she’ll be pegged as ‘the enemy’ because she lives in Gush Etzion, a long-established West Bank settlement. But as soon as they start to talk, she discovers that “the religious Muslim women often see me as their natural ally in the group. Because I understand – better than secular Muslims, better than secular Jewish feminists, and better than men – what their struggles are. I am in the same place that they are, living a religious life as a woman of the world among people who don’t always understand what I’m about, struggling against the imposition of secular culture. We often find that we have a common language that transcends a lot of the rhetoric of war and ethnicity that surrounds us.”
Religious women creating a new discourse about religion, state, and gender have the potential to cut across borders and realign conflicts and alliances. It requires women to be able to take a very broad view of their experience and understand that what guides us is perhaps less about a strict, unbending obedience to Jewish legal precepts and more about a deep, profound commitment to living a spiritual life.
This is a brand new direction for Orthodox women, and can, in my opinion, change the world.