Jewfem Blog

Two new midrashim about agunot ("chained wives") for International Agunah Day

International Agunah Day, the day dedicated to remembering the plight of agunot, women denied divorce, falls on March 7, the Fast of Esther. This year, some feminist activists have written new midrashim about this important milestone: Longtime agunah activists Rivka Haut and Susan Aranoff, have written the following midrash: When Esther, the courageous queen, was charged by her uncle/cousin/adoptive father/husband to act to save her people, she first turned to the community for help, asking them to fast to support her efforts to save them. Fortified by their backing, she risked her life on their behalf, even exposing her Jewishness, hidden until then. Today our halakhic way of life is degraded by having the agunah disgrace exposed to the scrutiny of the secular public, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The Epstein/Friedman agunah situation is in the public eye as no other case has been, thanks to new media capabilities and instant publicity. Like the Jews of Shushan, the community has done all it can to help. But unlike Esther, the rabbis who have the power to free not only Tamar but every agunah as well, remain in hiding. Despite the outpouring of community support, they are unwilling to risk possible censure by their peers, by acting to remove male power over women in marriage. They lack Esther’s courage. The foolish King of the Purim story feared that if Vashti's defiance were known, every husband’s power to be master of his household, his wife, would be weakened. So he issued a decree that every man should be "sorer" in his house. We laugh at that. Yet our rabbis have enshrined that edict by allowing every Jewish husband to be "sorer b’veito" to have power over his wife. Esther provided leadership. If only the rabbis would act as boldly and implement one of the various halakhic solutions and free agunot, to bring about La Y’hudim Ha-y’tah Orah V’Simchah V’Sason Vi- kar, Kein Tihyeh Lanu. Feminist scholar and activist Bonna Devora Haberman also wrote a midrash for the occasion, with a slightly different emphasis: Esther's courage to face the bombastic king and save our people from decimation inspire us in these pre-Purim hours. In the feasting and celebrating, however, the sublime savvy of her strategy has long eluded us. At the outset, Vashti's bold refusal to be humiliated at the king's bidding triggers a royal backlash. The court decrees, the enforcement of patriarchy men are to rule firmly over women and households (Esther 1:22), and the trafficking of women from throughout the empire into male custody and sexual servitude in the capital city. (Esther 2:3-4)In a similar way, Mordecai's defiance of Haman's power invokes his edict to kill the Jews. Then as now, racism and misogyny join hands and clink cups at sumptuous tables. Supported by capable Mordecai and her people, Esther risks her life and succeeds to convince the bumbling ruler that the murderous plot must not proceed. At the peak moment when the policy is to be decided about how to deal with...

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After Divorce, Mom Should Not Be 'Default Parent'

  I heard on the radio news that “women’s groups are furious” at Thursday’s announcement by Israel’s Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman that from now on women will not be automatically granted custody of children under the age of six in divorce settlements. Women’s groups are apparently planning on fighting to retain the current law that recognizes a mother as the default parent in early childhood. But I’m not sure that all feminist groups are of one mind on this issue. Some feminists may even welcome the decision; I know I do. I had an intense argument with some feminist colleagues a few months ago about this issue. We were discussing Neeman’s deliberations around the 2005 Shnit Committee on divorce and parenthood that led up to today’s announcement. The committee had proposed eliminating the gender bias in favor of women, arguing that every case should be judged according to its own merit. A friend of mine who is a rabbinic pleader was very upset about this. She has witnessed enormous suffering of women in the divorce process in Israel, and has spent most of her career defending agunot, or women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce. “Custody in early childhood is one of the few areas of leverage that women have in the divorce process,” she said, “and now the government is taking that away, too.” Read more:

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Siddur: 'Thank God for Making Me a Woman'

Equality for Jewish women is not a 20th century invention. A siddur, or prayerbook, from the year 1471 contains an alternative text to the much abhorred “shelo asani isha” blessing that thanks God for “not making me a woman,” a text that is not only misogynistic in content but assumes that the person holding the prayerbook is male. In this 15th century book, the text reads, “Baruch she’asani isha v’lo ish,” “Thank God for making me a woman and not a man.” According to Professor David Kraemer, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the “siddur was produced by the scribe and rabbi Abraham Farissol for a groom to give to his bride in 1471.” Farissol lived in Italy from 1451–1525. The siddur, housed in JTS’ library archives, can be viewed here. This is a significant discovery for several reasons. First, it demonstrates the flexibility and ongoing evolution of the prayer texts, even when it comes to issues of gender. It is perhaps obvious that prayers are not fixed in stone — after all, there are so many variations in “nusach,” or version, that it would seem difficult to make the opposite argument. Yet, the staunch opposition in even the most liberal Orthodox circles to the slightest textual changes can be astounding. In one partnership synagogue that I wrote about in my new book, “The Men’s Section,”* when a woman made a one-word change to the liturgy for the purpose of gender equality, replacing the Hebrew word for husband “ba’al” (literally “owner”) that appears in Lecha Dodi for the less degrading “ish” (literally “man”), she was effectively ostracized from the congregation. Similarly, the opposition to changing “shelo asani isha” is confounding. Indeed, when a young Orthodox rabbi recently wrote about his own decision to stop saying that blessing, the attacks on him were fierce. At least he now has some support from at least one like-minded rabbi, even if he’s been gone for a while. Read more:

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Adina Bar Shalom: Courageous Haredi Leader

Adina Bar Shalom is often introduced as a rabbi’s daughter or a rabbi’s wife, but it’s really her own mind that makes her so extraordinary. A pioneering leader within Israel’s tight-knit Haredi community, the 66-year-old Bar Shalom has been making headlines by espousing courageous views about religion and state in Israel. She is emerging as a woman to be reckoned with, one who is not afraid to speAdina Bar Shalomak her mind and who promotes a powerful vision with a determined will in the face of some difficult realities in Israel.

Bar Shalom’s most recent news story involves the growing gender segregation in Israel’s public spaces. At an economic conference this week, titled “Women Talking Women,” she criticized the gender segregation of buses as an attempt to “exclude women from the public domain,” and said that it “violates Torah.” Bar Shalom, who is the eldest daughter of Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardic chief rabbi, said that she understand Halacha as a system that “treats women with the utmost respect.”

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How Pesach Divides the Community Along Class Lines

If you want to be a religious Jew today, you have to have money — a lot of it. There’s no way around it, and it’s especially obvious at this time of year.

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Why Shira Hadasha is Orthodox

[Significantly, I submitted this essay to the AJN and was ignored. It’s probably in their slush pile, along with I would bet most of their submissions by women]

The greatest myth in the Jewish world is that there is such a thing as "the way things have always been".

Over the past few weeks, the communal debate around Melbourne's new minyan, Shira Hadasha – which, significantly, in the Jewish News, has thus far been a male-dominated debate about women's roles – has offered glimpses into the multiple ways that this fallacious assumption creates erroneous if not absurd dialectics.

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On Hats and Hindrances

The day I took off my hat I felt liberated. After four years of marriage, during which time I accumulated an extensive array of berets, caps, scarves, snoods, and other popular and not-so-popular designs for hair-hiding, I walked out of my apartment with my own long brown mane completely exposed. I felt ten years younger. And I had the tingling sensation that I could actually feel who I was, once again -- rediscovering that part of me, that fresh and vivacious young woman who had somehow gotten lost beneath layers of cloth -- on the head, the arms, and the legs. I didn't even realize how missing I had been until I found myself again.

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Book Review: Remarkable Jewish Women, by Emily Taitz and Sondra Henry

[Published in the Australian Jewish News in 2003]

The most invisible members of society are sometimes among the most interesting.

It is perhaps with this idea in mind that publishers have recently put out books exploring "remarkable" or "thinking" Jewish women, including many fascinating, though almost unknown personalities.

In Remarkable Jewish Women, veteran authors Emily Taitz and Sondra Henry have compiled an encyclopedic tome of interesting women from Biblical to contemporary times. This collection is cleverly organized around intriguing categories such as "Struggling for change," "Pious women: from rebels to rebbes" and "Heroines of the Holocaust." The book is also beautifully laid out, with over 100 photos, diagrams and manuscripts enhancing the text.

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Sukkot, simplicity, and sleeping outside (and of course gender)

As a parent, I love the holiday of Sukkot, which begins Friday night. It’s a great family time – lots of al fresco dining, sleeping
outdoors, enjoying fresh air, singing, cooking favorite foods, and experiencing a welcome escape from the weightiness of an
excessively material life. There’s nothing like spending eight days inside four walls of canvas to remind us of the value of simplicity.
As a woman, though, I find Sukkot to be one of the most difficult holidays we’ve got. It is laden with messages about gender
differences and where women truly belong, and these messages seem to intensify each year.

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