Nearly every month, it seems, there is troubling news relating to the status of women in Israel. Late last year it was women forced to sit at the back of public busses, and then Haredim attacking schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh for being insufficiently modest. In October the leader of Women of the Wall was arrested and allegedly mistreated by police for leading others in prayer at the Kotel. And recently, according to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Knesset candidate Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan declared that the agunah issue is caused by women’s groups trying to besmirch the rabbinical courts, rather than by husbands who refuse to divorce their estranged wives.
JOFA brought together some of the women involved in confronting these issues, both in the U.S. and Israel, for a roundtable discussion on November 28 in midtown Manhattan.
Israeli feminist leaders Hannah Kehat, founder and executive director of Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum and Susan Weiss, founder and executive director of The Center for Women’s Justice participated, along with Americans Nancy Kaufman, director of the National Council of Jewish Women; JOFA founder Blu Greenberg and Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner.
Jewish women’s head covering is once again in the news, a heated topic among rabbinic men who are obviously not afraid of a little invective when it comes to women’s bodies.
The latest item is an incendiary letter by a Canadian Haredi rabbi named Shlomo Miller. Miller was responding to a scholarly article by Rabbi Michael Broyde in the journal “Tradition” that demonstrates that head covering is not a commandment written in stone, as it were, but “merely” a rabbinic prohibition that evolved over generations and therefore has room for interpretation and flexibility.
Miller, in response, said of Broyde’s article that “all the lengthy diatribe therein is nothingness and an evil spirit,” and proceeded to compare him to “Acher,” a notorious heretic in Jewish history. So much for reasoned debate.
Broyde’s article was actually written more than a year ago, making Miller’s reaction a bit late in coming. Nevertheless, whether because Miller is a religious celebrity or because his language was so harsh, it seems that Miller’s letter is buzzing the Orthodox Jewish blogosphere.
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.