Jewfem Blog

How Ruth Calderon Inspired me

Dr. Ruth Calderon is starting a revolution in Israel. The new Knesset member on Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is a Talmudic scholar who built two secular batei midrash (houses of learning), Elul and Alma, both of which are among the most significant educational institutions at the center of the Jewish secular renewal in Israel. And this week, in her introductory speech at the Knesset, she did something astonishing: She taught a passage of Talmud. This was remarkable for several reasons. First, Israeli society has been trained to associate traditional Jewish sources with the ultra-Orthodox community, whose entire belief that only elite orthodox men can truly understand Talmud is at the heart of some of the most heated debates about social and economic issues in Israel. Suddenly, we had a secular feminist breaking all of the molds and expectations by owning the text. Moreover, she taught the text — a passage from Ketubat 62b about Rabbi Rechumei, who forgot to come home to his wife on Yom Kippur. And she taught it with the tenderness and care of someone who deeply loves the text. The ultra-Orthodox community is already terrified at this reality. “She is challenging our entire way of life,” the Kikar Shabbat website wrote this morning, as if to say that a secular woman to be embracing Talmud this way goes against many of their sacred assumptions. What’s more, Dr. Calderon brilliantly wove the text into a message about these very secular-religious rifts in society. Using the finesse of a movie director, she likened Rabbi Rechumei and his wife to secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, each one living a different life and not understanding the other. It was an interpretation that used the Talmud as a source of wisdom and insight for contemporary issues. The very presence of an incredibly brilliant female Talmudic scholar teaching a (still) predominantly-male group, with her grace, virtuosity and erudition, was an arresting sight. But it’s not just what she taught but also how she taught. Her reading of the text was enlightened, inspired and real. She brought the story to life, connecting it to the human condition, making it relatable and present. Her reading of the words was literal, which clearly troubled the Shas Speaker of the Knesset, who rudely interrupted her and offered a much more midrashic, “traditional” and, in my opinion, stretched, reading. In one of the greatest moments of the talk, while Knesset members loudly chastised the Speaker for interrupting, Dr. Calderon gracefully turned to him and said, “That’s okay. I’m always happy to share words of Torah.” That kind of gentility is not something that is often seen in the Knesset. It was at that moment when I realized the enormity of the change she is ushering in. This is not just about teaching Talmud but about challenging the entire social discourse in Israel. Dr. Calderon is a great rebbe, now Knesset member. The possibilities are captivating. Read more:

  9243 Hits

Women in Israel Fight for Their Voice

When asked at a JOFA panel about the status of women in Israel and what can be done to protect women’s basic rights, I replied that I would first make it illegal for a political party that has no women on its list to run for the Knesset. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this sentiment. In fact, a new movement is beginning to form of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women fighting against the exclusion of women from religious political parties. Esti Shoshan, a haredi journalist, recently started a Facebook page called Lo nivharot, lo boharot, which means “If we can’t be elected, we are not voting.” As of this writing, the group has over 800 likes — perhaps not the stuff of a Steve Jobs fan page, but signs of movement nonetheless. And it comes at a particularly significant time in the development of religious politics. The legality of religious parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism is currently being debated by the Elections Council, under the leadership of Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, based on a petition filed by a coalition of seven organizations led by Jerusalem city council member Laura Wharton contesting the systemic exclusion of women from party lists. “The sad situation of women’s under-representation in the Knesset, is imminent,” the petition states, adding that, “an absurd situation has been created in which the country subsidizes bodies that discriminate against women.” Women have a “different role” than men, Shas and United Torah Judaism wrote in their response. “The parties function, as demanded by the halakha (Jewish law), with clear segregation between men and women for reasons of modesty. Men have one role and women have another. This segregation does not exclude women, discriminate against them nor deem them less worthy than men.” Read more:

  4835 Hits

Women excluded from the New York Times!

Here is the letter I wrote to the New York Times about the absence of female voices from their aritcle on the exclusion of women:  Dear Mr Bronner and Ms Kershner, While it’s nice for you to take interest in the exclusion of women among haredim, your own exclusion of women in the process is nothing less than outrageous. I refer to your article "Israelis Facing a Seismic Rift Over Role of Women", in which exactly one woman was quoted in the article., out of eight interviewees, and she was left to the end. One woman! You interviewed and quoted one man after another, some of whom really have nothing to do with the issue, have done absolutely nothing about the problem, and have no real expertise in gender issues  (Moshe Halbertal? Jonathan Rosenblum? Who are they other than religious men with opinions and status? They have done NOTHING on the issue and know NOTHING about gender!) Meanwhile, the dozens of women's organizations, researchers and activists remain hidden and subsumed -- no less so than women sitting behind a partition in synagogue. The women who have put their blood, sweat and tears into this issue, as well as their scholarship, wisdom and reputations, are silenced. By no less than the NY Times. By you! What the men in black coats do to women on the bus, you have done to professional women leaders and activists. Hanna Kehat, Lili Ben Ami, Tammy Katsabian, Rachel Azaria – these are some of the women on the frontlines who you silenced. It’s the exclusion of women’s professional voices from the New York TImes. It's easy to point fingers, isn't it. It's very convenient to say that "they" have a problem, those "strange" ones who wear odd clothing and abide by their own set of rules. But it's much harder to look inward at one's own culture, where discrimination is more subtle, not because of official "rules' but simply because of an absence of a social or cultural consciousness. Because you don’t care. Because it’s easier for guys to play the power game with each other – “Hey, Halbertal’s in my smartphone, I’ll just get a quote” – rather than to see the women doing the real work and give credit where credit is due. I ask which is a more troubling issue -- women sitting in the back of the bus, or women's voices, expertise and professional leadership being completely ignored in the media. Not such a simple answer, is it. The Times would do well to analyze the representation of women on its own pages, and for reporters to ask themselves who they see and who remains invisible. Sincerely,Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman