Jewfem Blog

The slippery fish of news; or gender, politics and the exclusion of women

Gender is like the slippery fish of news and politics. It doesn’t stay in the hand for too long, always slithering away as other issues that are considered “bigger” or “more important” take its place. At least that’s the impression I’m getting over the past few months’ of public activity around the exclusion of women in public spaces in Israel. Certainly the issue of gender segregation has arrived. But it is quickly swimming away as the public moves on. Indeed, even some advocates are bent on shifting the discussion elsewhere. Take, for example, the subject of women singing in the army, and controversy over whether religious soldiers should be penalized for walking out of official events where women sing. Although this particular topic is not exactly highest on my agenda – it bothers me much more that *The Knesset* has not had a woman singer in years in deference to religious politicians; I care much less about a few confused young men than I do about governmental policy that excludes talented artists to appease religious men with power – nevertheless, the legislative activity on this issue has been disturbing. MK Tzipi Hotoveli, the Knesset member who heads the Committee on the Status of Women, recently submitted a bill, along with MK Yakov Katz that would give the IDF rabbinate power to decide on what soldiers should be allowed to do, and ensuring that soldiers will not be penalized for “religious” issues. The bill would effectively authorize the exclusion of women in the IDF. Despite intense pleas by women’s groups, Hotovely came down on the wrong side of this issue. Thankfully, the bill failed to pass today in its initial reading. But this apparently had nothing to do with gender: Defense Minister Ehud Barak said blatantly that his objection had nothing to do with gender but is about his concern about the “damage to army hierarchies”. In shifting the discussion away from gender onto other things, Barak has company. The former chief rabbi of the Israeli Air Force, Rabbi Moshe Ravad, who was connected to the Shahar program to recruit haredi Orthodox men to the army, said in his recent resignation over women’s singing that he “always relied on the fact that I could allow haredi men who enlist to maintain an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and observe their faith.” The army’s decision to allow women to sing, he wrote, fails to “protect the beliefs of God-fearing soldiers”. Ravad, like many others, is trying to turn the exclusion of women into an issue of religious versus secular issues in the army and society. It is almost a veiled ultimatum, as if he is saying that the army has to choose between haredi soldiers and women singers. It’s easy to see where this is going. Women are going to be asked to move aside for the “larger” issue of haredi integration in the army. Thus far, the army has been on the women’s side, but it’s not clear how long the pressure will hold. It...

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SPECIAL EXCERPT of "The Men's Section"

The following is a special excerpt from Elana's new book, The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, released Nov 2011: Prologue One cold Saturday morning, I walked into a synagogue in Jerusalem and did something I had never done before: I led the prayer service. It was January 2002, and my friend Haviva Ner David had called me to let me know that a new prayer group was forming and needed a woman cantor, a hazzanit. This was not a Conservative community, where this is normal, but rather an Orthodox group that was trying to give women as many roles in the service as was possible within Jewish law. Haviva said women would be allowed to read from the Torah, to be called up to the Torah and to lead certain sections of the service. This was quite a coup in a world where such roles for women were until then virtually unheard of. Haviva said that the whole project was about to become academic because no woman was willing to do it. “If you  don’t do it, we may have to ask a man to lead services instead. And that would just defeat the whole purpose.” Despite my then 33 years of dwelling in Orthodox communities, despite the fact that my father is a seasoned cantor and Torah reader, and that his father was a famous cantor, and despite the fact that I had spent hundreds of hours sitting in synagogues listening to others leading the service, the thought of doing it myself was daunting – and, frankly, exhilarating. "Okay, I'll do it," I said. Ignoring my complete lack of experience, and displaying either courage, blind faith, or startling irreverence, I agreed to do it. I called my friend Aaron Frank, an Orthodox feminist rabbi and Carlebach devotee, and asked for help. He taught me some tunes, made a tape recording, and guided me. I practiced for hours, suddenly making explicit what had only been passively understood, paying attention to stops and starts, memorizing melodies that I had heard since I was a child, and taking ownership, for the first time in my life, of a text that had been central to my religious identity for decades. I was ready to become a hazzanit. This particular Shabbat was about to make history, not only for me, but also for the entire Orthodox world. It was the very first Shabbat service of Shira Hadasha, (literally ‘new song’) an Orthodox-egalitarian synagogue that has since become a legendary, world-renowned focus of conversation at countless dinner tables and blogs, and a must-see tourist spot for Jews of all denominations visiting Jerusalem. That first week, Haviva, along with Tova Hartman, a Harvard-educated feminist professor who was the spirit and energy behind the initiative, were nervous that nobody would come.  This was not a lecture hall where people from non-descript backgrounds were taking notes and writing academic papers on feminist theory or researching sources on women in Jewish law. This was an attempt...

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Saudi women, suffrage, agunot, and the slow-ticking clock of change

The news that Saudi women will soon be given the right to vote – if the year 2015 is considered “soon” – is being hailed around the world as remarkable. The BBC called it “groundbreaking”, the White House called it an “important step forward”, and Saudi women’s activists called it “great news”. But this change, which arrived a century late (Finland became the first country to grant universal suffrage in 1906, and a dozen other countries followed suit), is also a troubling indicator about the reality of women’s lives, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. It demonstrates just how far behind Arab culture is from the Western world, and it is a disquieting reminder of just how dangerous the language of “slow change” can be, especially for women – in all cultures.Saudi woman

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The Women of Jerusalem dance in the New Year for health -- and peace

The ancient walls of the City of David have never witnessed such a scene. Over four thousand women gathered outside Jaffa Gate last Thursday for the first ever mass festival of women’s athletics in Jerusalem. Women wearing scarves and long skirts shook their bodies alongside women in tank-tops and Lycra shorts to the overpowering thump-thump of dance-music as instructors shouted out motivating instructions like, “Come on, girls! Move those hips!”

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And Shelly Makes Two: The Forward Op-Ed

With the election of Shelly Yachimovich to head Israel’s Labor Party, two major political parties are led by women for the first time in the country’s history. This is an encouraging development not only because it helps advance gender fairness in Israeli society, but also because it potentially signals a new era for Israeli politics, one that has implications for issues as wide-ranging as the military, the peace process, the role of the Haredim and the movement for social justice.

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Op-ed: Gilad Shalit's Release Restores Heart of Israel

It is impossible to overstate the intensity of emotion felt in Israel at the news of Gilad Shalit’s impending release. Many of us have been glued to the television screen with unrelenting tears in our eyes since we first heard about the imminent deal. It feels like we just let out a collective breath, like a balloon that had been about ready to burst just let out all its air. And I think this entire episode says something profound about Israel as a society and culture.Naom Shalit celebrating Gilad's release

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An Orthodox Jew Leads Toledo to a Women's National Basketball Title From the Hardwood to Halacha

Naama Shafir, a junior guard, poured in a career-high 40 points to lead the University of Toledo to victory in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship. She was crowned the basketball tournament’s MVP. And then she walked about two miles home.

Shafir, an Orthodox Jew from Israel, did not want to break the Sabbath.

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Debbie’s soul

Part cancer story, part memoir, part kabbalistic manuscript, ‘Soul to Soul’ is a story about death and dying, but actually it’s about life, relationships, suffering and God.

It is so hard to read a book written by someone who has recently died. The words on the page echo her voice, bringing her whole being to life in your head, behind your eyes, inside your ears.

You forget for a moment that she is no longer in her body. You mistakenly think she is simply elsewhere, in another spot on the planet, while you are holed away, escaping by yourself with her beautiful narrative.

Maybe she’s not really gone, just far away, your mind toys with you. Memories of conversations you had with her over the years morph in your imagination with the story unfolding in the volume open before you. You sense her presence, filling the room, envisage her sitting in the chair across from you, her soft smile lightening the atmosphere.

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Anger Over Arrest at Kotel Of Woman Carrying Torah

The recent arrest of a woman carrying a Torah at the Western Wall is testing already tense relations between the ultra-Orthodox and other Jewish groups over issues of religious pluralism in Israel. It has also prompted accusations that Israel’s national police force is attempting to reinterpret a Supreme Court ruling on women’s prayer at Judaism’s holiest site.

Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the women’s prayer group Women of the Wall, was detained July 12, as she was leading about 150 worshippers from the Western Wall plaza to Robinson’s Arch, the portion of the Wall where the group is permitted to read from the Torah.

Hoffman, executive director of the lsrael Religious Action Center, was interrogated for five hours, fined the equivalent of $1,300 and placed under a restraining order that bars her from visiting the Western Wall for 30 days. She contends that she was acting within the law, under which women are not permitted to read from the Torah or to wear a prayer shawl as an outer garment within the Kotel plaza.

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What’s in a Name? Choosing ‘Rabba’ Over ‘Rav,’ and Why

Kaya Stern-Kaufman is graduating from rabbinical school this spring, but she says she will not always be called “rabbi.” Instead, the 47-year-old mother of two will also use the title “rabba,” making her the first woman to specifically choose this Hebrew feminized version of “rabbi” as a preferred moniker.

Just what this will mean, however, is unclear. After initially announcing her choice in a press release issued by her school, The Academy for Jewish Religion, Stern-Kaufman said she will use either rabbi or rabba, depending on the circumstances.

“I can’t predict every situation,” she said, in an interview, when pressed to explain. “It will be just sometimes ‘rabba’ and sometimes ‘rabbi,’” depending in part on whether she is working in a Jewish or general setting.

This straddling is a choice that distinguishes her from the first woman to ever receive the rabba title. Sara Hurwitz, who had the title conferred upon her in a 2010 special ceremony, is an Orthodox spiritual leader whose Orthodox mentor devised the term on his own to address objections that he was breaking with the tradition that reserves the title “rabbi” for males.

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