T O P I C
STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
JEWISH WOMEN IN JUDAISM
All those describing themselves as Christians don’t have the same belief. The first question is ‘What kind of Christian’. The answer might be Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthdox. If the answer is ‘Protestant’ you then which of the 30,000-plus Protestant denominations deenominations do you belong to? (Go to http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/a106.htm for help in understanding the answer).
Judaism isn’t so complicated but it again it is divided into groups. For a comparison Pew in A Portrait of American Orthodox Jews states
The 2013 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews focused primarily on those who fell into two main categories. They are:
Orthodox Jews More Likely to Be Jews by Religion. These two groups constitute, for the purposes of this analysis, the “net” Jewish population. Virtually all Orthodox Jews (99%) are Jews by religion.
To identify Orthodox Jews, the survey relied on two main questions.
Pews’s 2016 Israel analysis states in Israel’s Religiously Divided Society that
Deep gulfs among Jews, as well as between Jews and Arabs, over political values and religion’s role in public life
Nearly all Israeli Jews identify with one of four categories: Haredi (commonly translated as “ultra-Orthodox”), Dati (“religious”), Masorti (“traditional”) or Hiloni (“secular”).
Although they live in the same small country and share many traditions, highly religious and secular Jews inhabit largely separate social worlds, with relatively few close friends and little intermarriage outside their own groups. In fact, the survey finds that secular Jews in Israel are more uncomfortable with the notion that a child of theirs might someday marry an ultra-Orthodox Jew than they are with the prospect of their child marrying a Christian. (See Chapter 11 for more information.)
Moreover, these divisions are reflected in starkly contrasting positions on many public policy questions, including marriage, divorce, religious conversion, military conscription, gender segregation and public transportation. Overwhelmingly, Haredi and Dati Jews (both generally considered Orthodox) express the view that Israel’s government should promote religious beliefs and values, while secular Jews strongly favor separation of religion from government policy.
This means that when talking about a ‘Jewish Woman’ we ned to know which country we are referring to, then which group of Jews and then where an individual fits into that group. As ideas and concepts change with time we also need to know about the period we are referring to
The examples below relate to the group who follow Jewish Law relating to the Jewish woman.
THE JEWISH WOMAN
From ‘The Second Book of Jewish Why’ by Alfred J Kolatch, 1990
Society in biblical times was patriarchal. In that world the Jewish woman occupied a position subordinate to that of the Jewish male. The function of woman, it was thought was to serve man. When a woman married, she became the property of her husband. In fact, the original word for marriage was kinyan, meaning “acquisition,” while the word used today is kiddushin, meaning “sanctification.” Jacob may have loved Rachel when he married her, but he had to buy her from his father-in-law, Laban, by working for him for seven years (Genesis 29:18). A family in biblical times was called bet avot, a term literally meaning “house of the fathers” (Exodus 12:3). The Bible states clearly (Genisis 2:18) that woman was created to be a helpmate to her husband. 1
During the days of the First and Second Temples (the first millenium B.C.E.), women did not participate in Temple rituals. Unlike men, they did not sing in the Temple choir nor were they permitted to enter the inner court of the Temple when they brought a sacrifice. A woman had to hand the animal offering to the Priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Moed in Hebrew); the Priest would take the animal and offer it up for her.
The status of Jewish women improved in post-biblical and talmudic times, especially as compared with the lot of men in society at large. Nevertheless, the Jewish woman is far from equal with the Jewish man. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, in Against Apion (2:24), notes, “Woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to men. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for humiliation, but that she may be directed; for authority has been given by God to man.” Throughout the Talmud we find this same attitude expressed.
Despite the deprecatory statements that are found, it must be emphasized that although considered inferior, women were nevertheless respected and were not abused, this is reflected in statements such as, “Israel was redeemed from Egypt through the merit of its righteous women”; “Women are endowed with more intelligence than men”; “A man should love his wife as himself and respect her more than himself.”1 _
The status of women in Jewish life continued virtually unchanged for centuries, through the talmudic and post- talmudic periods, until Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz, Germany, a leading rabbi of the tenth and eleventh centuries, convened a synod of prominent rabbis in the year 1000 which enacted legislation prohibiting a man from having more than one wife at one time and from divorcing a wife without her consent. (She could refuse to accept the get, the divorce document.) But despite this monumental change in the law, little new legislation was enacted over many centuries to improve the status of women. Even the liberal pronouncements of Reform Judaism in the middle of the nineteenth century and Conservative Judaism at the end of that century resulted in no practical change in the status of women.
In 1846, at their conference in Breslau, Germany, Reform rabbis favored the granting of religious equality to women, yet it was not until 1972 that a Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, ordained a woman as a rabbi. By 1984 it had ordained a total of seventy-two women rabbis. The Conservative movement, which also aspired toward greater equality, did not grant women the right to be candidates for ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary until 1984. In 1985, it ordained the first woman rabbi. Henrietta Szold, who later founded Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, had been permitted in 1903 to attend classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but only on condition that she would not be ordained and that she would not use her knowledge to function as a rabbi. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1968 by disciples of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, stands for granting women full equality with men “in all matters of ritual.” In 1974 it ordained its first woman rabbi.
Today, Jewish feminists, many of whom are Orthodox, have become vocal protagonists for change in Jewish law so that women may share with men the privileges and obligations of Jewish living. The manner in which the desired changes should be accomplished is being grappled with by all branches of Judaism. Many of the problems and issues being confronted are discussed in this chapter.
He then goes onto answering questions such as .
Why are women not required to observe the biblical commandment pertaining to the wearing of fringes (tzitziot) on their garments? (p294)
Why are women kept separate from men at Orthodox weddings and other social gatherings? (p295/6)
Why are women traditionally not counted along with men as part of a Quorum for Grace After Meals? (p297)
Why are women traditionally not permitted to officiate at religious services? (p297/9)
Why were girls traditionally given less Jewish education than boys? (p303/4)
Why is the woman given a marriage contract by her husband? (p305)
THE LIFE OF OBSERVANT JEWISH WOMEN IS CHANGING.
THERE ARE NOW MANY WOMEN’S ORGANISATIONS SO THAT THEY COME TOGETHER
MEDIEVAL JEWISH ATTITUDES TOWARD WOMEN
My Jewish Learning by Alexandra Rothstein
In the Middle Ages, a Jewish woman's social well-being was considered important, but her life was strictly guided by Jewish law.
A discussion of Jewish attitudes toward women in the Middle Ages is limited by the sources about women’s lives that survive. There are almost no extant books written by women or specifically for them.
Instead, women’s lives are reflected primarily in legal writings, including codes of Jewish law, responsa literature (rabbinic questions-and-answers), contracts related to betrothal, marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and business correspondences. The nature of these sources itself suggests that women were not viewed as participants in Jewish legal discourse, nor did the rabbis feel the need to provide women with literature that would allow them to make study a part of their religious life. At the same time, the rabbis felt that women were within the jurisdiction of Jewish law and felt themselves obligated to protect what they perceived as women’s rights and interests.
THE RIGHT TO A RESTRICTED SOCIAL LIFE
These two impulses may be seen in the writings of the Maimonides (1135-1205), one of the greatest legal scholars and philosophers of the Middle Ages, who lived in Egypt. Chapter 13 of Hilkhot Ishut, Laws concerning Marriage, in his major legal code, the Mishneh Torah , deals with a woman’s entitlements within a marriage. The 11th paragraph speaks about a woman’s right to leave the house, a privilege that was restricted–at least by custom–in many Muslim lands.
According to Maimonides, a Jewish woman has the right to leave the home, and he lists the places he considers appropriate for her to go: to celebrations, houses of mourning, her parents’ and relatives’ houses, and to do charitable works. Maimonides emphasizes that every woman has the right to come and go freely, because a wife should not be treated like a prisoner.
At the same time, he feels that men should discourage their wives from leaving the house too frequently, because it is a disreputable practice for women to go out constantly, an attitude reflective of the practice in the larger, non-Jewish society in which Maimonides lived. This ruling suggests that Maimonides viewed women as persons in the eyes of the law, with certain inalienable rights, but also with a restricted role in society. Furthermore, women are to receive moral guidance about their behavior from their husbands, rather than through the study of the law.
A WOMAN’S HAPPINESS WAS VALUED
There is a great deal of information available about the Jewish community in Egypt from the 10th century on, which survived in the Cairo Geniza, a storeroom for papers that the members of the community used to dispose of religious texts and other documents written in Hebrew characters. There are many marriage and betrothal contracts, which show that families spent a great deal of money in outfitting their daughters for marriage.
Beyond the financial provisions for their daughters, they also attempted to provide for their emotional well-being, by writing in clauses to the betrothal contract to aid the wife in dissolving the marriage if she was unhappy. These contracts show that women were not treated solely as property or a medium of exchange and that their personal happiness was an important consideration.
JEWISH WOMEN IN EUROPE
Much less is known about the everyday life of Jewish women in Europe, because the most studied material about the Jews of medieval Europe originates from the rabbinic class, rather than from a large cross-section of society. These writings contrast strikingly with the Cairo Geniza documents on the subject of a woman’s freedom to exit a marriage.
The Talmud establishes that a woman who claims that she despises her husband is entitled to have the Jewish courts compel her husband to divorce her. While the Geniza contracts make financial provisions for the dissolution of a marriage at the wife’s instigation, the tendency of the European rabbis was to restrict the wife’s ability to demand a divorce.
The Spanish authority Rabbenu Asher (1250-1337) explained his rationale for these restrictions. A wife might claim to despise her husband simply because she desired some other man, and this was not a sufficient reason to compel a husband to divorce his wife. In this view of marriage, while the wife remained entitled to financial and other privileges, her feelings about her husband were not considered as important as his happiness with the marriage. This ruling may also reflect characterization of women as inconstant in their affections.
The French rabbis also restricted women’s permission to perform commandments that are obligatory for men, but not for women. In particular, they argued that women should not wear phylacteries, because they were not as able as men to maintain physical purity. This ruling seems specifically connected to a concern about purity, rather than a desire to discourage women from performing the commandments, because the French rabbis ruled that women could recite blessings when performing commandments that are only obligatory upon men.
WOMEN AND MYSTICISM
In many religious traditions, mysticism provided an arena in which women had the same access to the divine as men, but this does not appear to have been the case in medieval Europe, the center of the two medieval Jewish mystical movements, the Hasid ei Ashkenaz and the Kabbalah. There are no famous female Jewish mystics associated with either movement.
The Hasidei Ashkenaz were extremely careful about fulfilling the commandments and also practiced acts of extreme piety, such as voluntary fasts, as well as magic rituals, to allow them to achieve a special perception of the divine. One of their major works, Sefer Hasidim (written by Rabbi Judah the Hasid in 12th century France), speaks of the importance of marrying a woman who is Hasidah, the feminine form of the term for an initiate, hasid. However, women do not seem to have been involved in the magical practices or divine contemplation, and this hasidah may simply be a woman who is scrupulous in her ordinary religious observances.
The better known of the movements, the Kabbalah, included a great deal of speculation about the nature of God. One of the earliest kabbalistic works, the Sefer ha-Bahir–which first appeared in France in the 12th century–is the first to have emphasized that the Shekhinah, a word used to describe God’s presence, is feminine, and to speak about a female aspect of the divine being. The Torah, in the abstract, also is viewed as a feminine offshoot of the divine, sent into exile in the physical world.
However, the inclusion of the feminine in the divine realm did not extend to an inclusion of human women among those who interact with the divine. The Zohar –which appeared in 13th century Spain, but claims to be the teaching of Simeon bar Yohai, a rabbi of 2nd century Israel)–is the kabbalistic work with the greatest impact on Jewish mysticism. In its commentary on the Torah portion of Shelah in the book of Numbers, the Zohar describes the arrangement of the afterlife.
Whereas men ascend to God regularly on Sabbaths and festivals, the women are arranged in six halls. Each hall is presided over by a woman who is religiously important, either because she gave birth to or aided a religiously significant man. These women praise God and study the Torah which they could not study while alive, and like the men, they wear garments of light, but ones that are less bright. In two of the halls, the women see the images of the men they helped, and bow to them. At night, the men and women are joined for sex that is infinitely more pleasurable than in the physical world. While women are included in this afterlife, and even allowed to study Torah, their relationship with God is always mediated by and inferior to that of the men, and their sexual and procreative functions are emphasized.
Women were certainly viewed as part of the Jewish community during the Middle Ages, but were frequently peripheralized, especially in religious matters. To some degree they were seen as equally entitled to the protection of the law, but they were viewed as naturally suited to a different social role than men, and at times as inferiors.
‘WHEN WESTERN WOMEN STOP BEING OBJECTIFIED, THEY CAN CRITICISE US.’
Orthodox Jewish women fight back
When news broke of women being banned from driving, the position of females in ultra-orthodox Jewish society came under scrutiny. We go inside a closed world
Telegraph (UK) Sally Howard, 21 June 2015
The Hebrew phrase “chillul hashem” translates as bringing shame upon one’s community in the eyes of the outside world. It can be invoked by anything from double-parking to failure to observe the complicated latticework of laws that circumscribe orthodox Jewish life, dictating everything from hairstyles to behaviour.
These days chillul hashem is as likely to spark a trending hashtag. Recently, a leaked letter sent by school leaders in the north London Belz sect condemned mothers for their “immodesty” in driving their children to school. Social media was inflamed, while women’s groups drew comparisons with Saudi Arabia.
A few months earlier, a scandal was ignited when an Instagram post of a street sign from a Hackney Torah procession went viral. It read, in English and Yiddish: “Women should please walk along this side of the road only.”
“It was boring,” says Ilana Freedman of the furore, sitting in the flat she shares with her rabbi husband and four young sons, above a west London synagogue. “That sign was intended to make our women feel comfortable,”she says. “But it became part of that tired narrative about Haredi [ultra-orthodox Jewish] women being oppressed.”
Freedman’s pet hate is Western feminists’ reading of an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman’s lot as, “All about wigs, menstrual rites and being downtrodden,” she says. “Belz rabbis themselves don’t drive. But it’s easy to wheel out that tired old story about Haredi women being oppressed.”
Freedman – who migrated from traditional to ultra-orthodox Judaism – is a biology teacher and has written online about issues facing Jewish women. She is “a Facebook-hip Haredi woman”, as she puts it. “A sign our world is changing, I suppose.”
It is a troubled time for women in Britain’s more than 40,000-strong (and growing) Haredi community, and not just because of a rise in anti-semitic attacks. Their lives of strict observance are being assailed as never before, by the pressures of caring for large families in an era of benefit cuts; by rising house prices in the community’s north London enclave of Stamford Hill; and by the emergence in Israelof a reformist brand of “orthofeminism” that is questioning the doctrinal basis for traditional Haredi gender roles.
Haredi – literally “one who trembles before God” – is an umbrella term for the most strictly observant among the modern Jewry. In Britain Haredi communities range from the largely Hasidic, or Jewish mystic, Haredi Jews of Stamford Hill, to Lithuanian diasporic groups in Golders Green and Gateshead, and other communities in Edgware and Salford.
Shared by these groups is a fundamentalist interpretation of the Torah, a physical separation of the genders in certain situations and strictly defined roles for men and women that prescribe an ideal of male religious scholarship and female worldly service.
‘Why do we need women rabbis? Women can talk to their male rabbis. These are silly, insulting women’
The ‘orthofeminist’ Anat Hoffman holding the Torah during a prayer service near the Western Wall. Photo: Reuters
These models, in which women shoulder the twin burdens of housework and household income, are derided by outsiders for their construction of women as, in the Jewish social scientist Nurit Stadler’s words, “polluted providers”. Although there are no reliable figures for the UK, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics indicates that 69 per cent of Haredi women are in paid work, but only 44.5 per cent of Haredi men.
Freedman sees her coming to Haredism as a moment of emancipation. Raised in a secular Jewish family in north London by a liberal mother, who instilled in her “a relaxed attitude to dress and sexual intimacy”, she traces her decision to become more observant to an incident in a nightclub while she was at university in Manchester.
“A man I’d never met slapped me on the bottom,” Freeman recalls. “I was livid. I thought, ‘When did this supposed feminist revolution happen that someone thought it was OK to do that?’ For a long time, I’d felt that goyish [non-Jewish] culture had become over-sexualised and Western women objectified. I looked at Judaism and I didn’t see that.”
At 22 Freedman began withdrawing from secular life. She gave away her TV, switched from jeans to long skirts and sleeves and – when her strictly kosher lifestyle became incompatible with that of her friends and family – moved in with a group of fellow ultra-orthodox women.
Freedman met her “empathetic and gentle” husband when he was lecturing at an orthodox Jewish conference. “In my earlier guise, I might have pursued him,” she says. “Instead, I held back and let him come to the realisation that we’d be perfect together.”
‘Belz rabbis themselves don’t drive. But it’s easy to wheel out that tired old story about Haredi women being oppressed’
Like most modern Haredi women, Freedman works: as a teacher at an orthodox Jewish seminary (theological school) and as a marital advisor to those in her husband’s congregation who are preparing for shidduch, a form of arranged introduction that typically takes place when a couple are in their late teens.
Freedman teaches young newly-weds that Haredi marriage makes its highest demands of the husband. “In Oral Law [the legal commentary on the Torah] the husband has three obligations: to feed his wife, to provide a roof over her head and to sexually satisfy her,” Freedman says.
“The rules are specific: a woman can demand sex at least twice a week when she is not niddah [menstruating]. Otherwise there are grounds for a wife to ask her husband for divorce.” A man cannot demand sex from his wife.
Ruth Stein is a 29-year-old working mother of eight from Stamford Hill who asked for her name to be changed due to her family’s standing in the local community. She describes Taharat Ha-Mishpachah, the law forbidding sex between a man and menstruating woman, as “something beautiful and impossible to explain to anyone from the outside”.
The most visible signifiers of orthodox Jewish womanhood are the ubiquitous bobbed wigs: today, they are a multimillion-pound industry
“When the wife is niddah, the couple get a chance to work on their friendship because the physical side is not there,” she adds. “It’s like a monthly renewal.” At 19 Stein married an Israeli man selected for her by her extended family.
“Of course, it was weird at first, because he was a stranger,” she says. “But we had all the excitement of the lovey-dovey, getting-to-know-you thing on our honeymoon. Not like in the West, where there’s no mystique.”
A pillar of Haredi life that is spoken of fondly, often reverently, during my meetings with British Haredi women is chesed, or kindness and giving. The British community is supported by a network of voluntary societies, or gemach, who make it their business to ensure that community members have everything from flat-pack boxes for house moves to volunteers for visits with hospitalised relations.
‘As Haredi women, we are committed to be there for each other and not think all the time of our own self-indulgence’
Raquel Klien, 63, is a veteran of Stamford Hill’s voluntary community. For 15 years, she has managed Ezer Leyoldos, an organisation whose services include post-natal support, childcare, home help and kosher meals for families in times of difficulty. “As Haredi women, we are committed to be there for each other and not think all the time of our own self-indulgence,” Klien tells me.
A grandmother of 20, she lives in the heart of Stamford Hill on a street where Haredi children, dressed in pigtails and pinafores, play as their mothers chat across garden walls. The most visible signifiers of orthodox Jewish womanhood are the ubiquitous bobbed wigs: Haredi women’s answer to the 18th-century shtreimel and payots (tall fur hats and long sidelocks) worn by married Haredi men.
So I am surprised to learn they are a recent vogue, supplanting the headscarves with which women traditionally symbolised their tzniut, or modesty. Today, these wigs are a multimillion-pound industry.
“Come on, we all use retail therapy,” Klien laughs. “I do. But there are young girls who get married now and the way they present themselves is not according to our rules of modesty. Young people in our community are becoming hooked on Western image obsessions thanks to the internet. It is like a cancer on our lives.”
‘When women on the outside stop popping antidepressants and being objectified, they can criticise our lives’
The effect of the internet preoccupies Haredis of all ages. Computers are tolerated within the community, but ostensibly only for business and with rabbinical permission. Meanwhile Haredi women’s magazines, such as the housekeeping weekly Binah, run opinion pieces about the threat worldwide connectivity poses to cherished family privacy.
“These roles give women security and quality of life,” Klien says. “The real value of a Jewish woman is in the influence she has on her husband and in bringing up her children as honourable beings. How can she do this in a world that thinks it is OK to have sex before marriage? For men to marry men?”
There is another challenge to the Haredi world view. In Israel “orthofeminists” are agitating for women’s equal access to sites of worship. The movement’s figurehead is Anat Hoffman, who stages direct actions at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall, in protest against the strict rules about female worshippers and their dress (Ilana Freedman describes Hoffman as “odious”).
Other organisations, such as the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance(JOFA), advocate participation for women at the synagogue, instituting controversial “partnership minyans” (prayer groups committed to including women in ritual leadership roles with Jewish law). Dina Brawer of JOFA is aiming to become Britain’s first female orthodox rabbi.
“Why do we need women rabbis?” Klien scoffs. “Women can talk to their male rabbis. These are silly, insulting women.”
For Miriam Kliers, 42, the “warm bath of Haredi womanhood” is an illusion. Born and raised in Stamford Hill, she recalls being struck at a young age by the hypocrisies of an upbringing that taught women they were central to Haredi life while denying them an education. When Kliers asked permission to sit maths and English GCSEs, she was told she’d have to pay for the examinations herself.
“Of course, my parents had no interest,” Kliers says. “I was destined to be a good Haredi wife.” By her mid-20s Kliers was unhappily married, raising three children and was the sole family breadwinner. She felt disillusioned with Haredi life.
‘Haredi women manage large families and this gives them an illusion of power. This power isn’t real’
“I can sit and chat about babies and Passover recipes with the best of them,” she says. “But I suddenly saw how sinister it all was. Haredi women manage large families and this gives them an illusion of power. This power isn’t real.”
In Oral Law divorce is initiated by the husband issuing a get: an official bill of divorce that decrees that the woman is “hereby permitted to all men”. Aged 39, Kliers found herself agunah – or chained – to a marriage because her husband refused to divorce her. One night in 2011, she fled with only the clothes she was wearing and her youngest child, Sarah (not her real name), five, in tow.
Today, Kliers is part of a support group for women and men who have taken the decision to leave the faith. She claims her experience is not unique. “If you leave the community, the ‘religious police’ will make your life a disaster,” she says. “You will also lose your children as they are considered the property of the community. This, naturally, is a big disincentive for many women to leave.”
Yet Kliers considers herself one of the lucky ones. In her early 30s she satisfied her “insatiable itch” to get an education by studying for an Open University degree and was able to support herself in the outside world. “Most Haredi women don’t have the options I had,” she says.
‘Once you start allowing women to drive, you give them some power over their lives, and the rest of it starts to unravel’
Leaving the faith, for Kliers, has been a process of “taking back” her body after having three children in quick succession because she had been refused rabbinical permission to use contraception.
“I decided that no one gets to tell me what to do to my body, my hair, or how to dress. Enough was enough,” she says. Life after Haredism, Kliers admits, has been difficult. “But I have no regrets,” she says. “There are magical aspects of my life – like finding [her new partner] Peter, or my first trip to the theatre – and there are bad days. But even on bad days, I am living a real life rather than in some make-believe world.”
It is unlikely the Stamford Hill enclave of Kliers’ youth will exist by the time her daughter Sarah, who is now nine and living with her father, grows up. House prices are soaring in an already overcrowded area as a Haredi baby boom continues. Kliers believes something has to give. “They say it’s ‘traditional’ for women to pop out eight or nine children and then support them on a single wage with little or no education,” she says. “This is a dangerously irresponsible message.”
For Kliers change is inevitable. “That’s why the Belzers are running scared,” she says. “Once you start allowing women to drive, you give them some power over their lives, and the rest of it starts to unravel.”
Ilana Freedman acknowledges that life can be materially hard for young Haredi families. But, for her part, she sees traditional Haredi values as an antidote to the worst aspects of 21st-century Western life.
“When women on the outside stop popping antidepressants and being objectified, they can turn around to us and criticise our lives,” she says. “Until then, I say, ‘Deal with your own issues.’”
THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF JEWISH WOMEN
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF JEWISH WOMEN
In the last decade, there has been increased awareness of human rights violations in every country. Evidence shows that women, particularly, have been denied their basic human rights. Often, the denial of women's human rights is based on religious law.
The declaration that "women's rights are human rights," which was made so eloquently at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 and reconfirmed in 1995 at the Beijing World Conference on Women, should now include the recognition that Jewish women's rights are human rights.
As has been well documented, Jewish women can be discriminated against in marriage and divorce under Jewish law. While ancient Jewish law was designed to protect and support Jewish women, today that same law is being used by some as a tool to deny women their rights to equality in marriage, divorce, and the founding of a family.
The Jewish community readily admits that the shameful situation of the agunah, a woman chained to an unwanted or non-existent marriage who cannot be released without her husband's consent, is unjust. It is common knowledge that some Jewish husbands withhold their consent to a religious divorce or get, in order to extort exorbitant sums of money from their wives as the "price" for the get. Nonetheless, the Jewish community, despite a high level of educational attainment, financial success, organizational skills and traditional commitment to social justice, has been unable or unwilling to find solutions to the painful problem of the agunah.
The International Jewish Women's Rights Project intends to document the human rights violations of women in Jewish communities all over the world. Thanks to the vision and generosity of the International Council of Jewish Women, we will be establishing a central data base which will include cases of women who have been denied the right to marry and to found a family from every Jewish community. Each case is a violation of a Jewish woman's human rights. As the nations of the world celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ratifying of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Jewish Women's Rights Project intends to gather information, research, and publicize the infringement of Jewish women's rights. It is our hope that our efforts will bring about the necessary changes that will eliminate such human rights violations in the Jewish community. The time has come for all Jews to act on the biblical injunction: "JUSTICE, JUSTICE YOU SHALL PURSUE".
A DISCUSSION ABOUT THE POSITION OF JEWISH WOMEN IN ISRAEL
The Jewish Agency for Israel
This should begin with a survey of the position of women in Judaism – an extremely contentious issue. In the last generation or so, the position of women in the Jewish tradition has become a veritable battlefield for modernists and traditionalists. People on both sides of the issue have come to see the issue itself as a barricade that must be stormed in order to save Judaism from the grasp of the forces (the other side) who would undermine it and potentially destroy it. Many aspects of Judaism have been seen as a battleground over the last two hundred years. Since the coming of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, the fight over the modernisation of Judaism has been joined on a whole host of different issues. Different generations have embraced and emphasised different causes, depending on the specific historical circumstances. Each generation has fought its own battles, and the forces of tradition and modernity have faced off against one another over many different things. Indeed, it was the Haskalah which first put the question of Jewish education for girls centrally on the agenda of the Jewish world.
However, there is no denying that despite some important changes that have developed over the years regarding the question of a woman’s place in Judaism, it is really the last generation that has seen the topic turn into one of the cutting-edge issues within the Jewish world. The world of Jewish feminism has developed strongly and enormous changes have been felt in both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox worlds.
The very question of the role of women in Judaism continues to arouse strong emotions; to many people, the subject itself is taboo. In the last thirty years, especially since the rise of the Jewish feminist movement that has often attacked the traditional culture of Judaism as being sexist and unjust, dozens of books and articles have been written about the role of women in Judaism. Many of these are apologetic in tone, seeking to justify the tradition. The approach of this school of thought is, broadly speaking, that women are “separate but equal” in the Jewish tradition; that men and women are relegated to different realms of activity within Jewish life, and that within the separate realms the man is a king and the woman a queen. In other words, difference does not mean that one group is preferred over the other. Rather, it is stated, both genders reflect the work of G-d, who intended different spheres of activity and complementary roles for them both.
Many have criticised this position. There are those who criticise from within the world of belief in G-d. Their argument, they say, is not with G-d but rather with what men, as the primary interpreters of G-d’s word, have done with the word of G-d. The argument goes that they have abused and misrepresented the instruction book that they were given, namely the Torah. They point out that in the division of roles according to gender, almost all the prestigious ones have been assigned to men.
Men are the almost exclusive stars of Jewish history in the public arena; all public functions within Judaism and the Jewish community have traditionally been seen as the exclusive preserve of the male sex. Moreover, the scholarly arena that has been the centre of prestige and respect within the Jewish community since at least the destruction of the Second Temple, has once again been assigned exclusively to the realm of the man. Men are responsible for the development of the liturgy where, for example, they are required to recite every day the blessing to G-d “who has not made me a woman.” The problem, according to this perspective, is sociological rather than theological.
Less traditional critics have brought G-d into their argument, seeing the divine texts as man made and arguing that the very concept of G-d and G-d’s deeds that has developed within Judaism is a result of male dominance and male construction of the sacred texts. All the inequalities that have developed within the Jewish tradition according to this approach must be seen as the responsibility of the men who both wrote and interpreted the traditional texts
The Jewish Woman Chabad
The Role of Women Judaism 101
Women in Judaism Wikipedia
The Jewish Woman Mikvah.org
Orthodox Judaism in the United States Jewish Women’s Archive
Reform Judaism in the United States Jewish Women’s Archive
Jewish Women vs. the Jewish State New York Times, Leslie Sachs, July 1, 2017