In less than 70 years, Israel has become a world leader in major technological, medical and agricultural advancements, in addition to having a superior — if not the very best — intelligence and military. Yet despite our multi-national pool of talent, ingenuity, and discipline, we have been unsuccessful in working together to resolve one of the greatest internal conflicts in Israel: the growing divide between the Haredi community and everyone else.
What happens within the Haredi community has broad ramifications on all of Israeli society, as it is the fastest growing population sector in the country. In the coming years, due to a variety of factors, there will be significant changes within the Haredi community – both in attitudes and practices – in many areas including its education system, professional training and workforce entry, and military service, as well as its mishandling of severe crises like the blatant protection of pedophiles and the Haredi extortionists who deny their wives a Get.
It’s not just the Haredi community, but all of Israeli society, that will benefit from the anticipated changes. But these changes can and will only come from within the community. Efforts from beyond, by non-Haredi political parties, elected officials or organizations, will only create a push-back by the Haredi leadership and its followers, give more power and support to its extremist factions, and drive the Haredi community more to the right as they close off options that may have been implemented had they come from within their own community or from their own leaders. How fast or slow the important changes will be made is dependent on who will have the power to play a role in initiating and implementing them; lack of any success for the B’zchutan party, a party organized by Haredi women, in this week’s election will likely delay many of the necessary changes.
I have never met any of the B’zchutan candidates, and it is clear that they have an extremely uphill battle due to a miniscule budget, lack of targeting, a bare-bones grassroots operation, and a campaign largely bereft of a solid strategy, from what I have seen and heard. In fact, within my Haredi circles, I have found few females who even heard of them, and none (myself included until last week) were aware that they received approval to run by a Rabbi acceptable to the Haredi community, something which should generate greater Haredi support for them if only they could get that message out. And, to be honest, most of their campaign messaging has been so poor that it compels me to vote against them. But there are a few reasons why I, initially a vocal critic of B’zchutan, now believe that everyone benefits if they win a seat at the table.
With each passing year, Haredi women are increasingly becoming long-term breadwinners for their families, usually without their consent, which makes them the best proponents for change within their society. In comparison with their male counterparts, Haredi women have a more extensive secular education, greater post-high school professional training, and broader experience in the work force. Combining this with their greater compassion and spirituality better qualifies them to work closely with Haredi rabbis within their system to find solutions for many of the economic problems facing their communities.
We’re not talking about Haredi cooperation for an across-the-board recruitment of their men into the army or their mass enrollment into colleges and universities and, subsequently, the workforce. But, for example, there is increasing room for discussion about increased participation in training or apprentice programs that are not hindered by their limited secular education and won’t force them to utilize the internet or go to college. The Haredi men can learn from the Torah giants of their ancestry, men who used their minds for Torah and their hands to support their families. Some Jewish Torah scholars went to far off tiny villages to take posts to earn a living, while others were teachers and ritual slaughterers to support their families. But so many others, major Torah scholars, learned Torah around vocations, and were shepherds, shoemakers, blacksmiths, traders, and tailors. Even Maimonides entered the professional world when his financial situation deemed it necessary, and became a physician (for which he had previously trained, while on the path to becoming a Torah scholar).
Today, there are vocations that do not have to detract men from their Torah studies completely, and yet can provide a second income that will enable their wives to stop slaving at full-time jobs and spend more time with their children. Bus drivers, locksmiths, electricians, and plumbers, as random examples – these are all honest ways to make a living and therefore honorable jobs. And they do not require a college education, but rather specific training and apprentice programs that could be conducted within the spirit and practices of the Haredi community. But the creation of such programs or other policy changes must come from within the Haredi community. And who better to take the lead on it than women, the wives of Torah scholars and the mothers of the next generation who know that we cannot stand by and create an entire generation dependent on charity?
These Haredi women wanting to play a larger role in policy making in Israel are not seeking a revolution in the Haredi community. Quite the contrary. They want to maintain the tradition that has long been celebrated in Judaism, where the men were the breadwinners. Today, in an economy where most families need two incomes to survive, it’s necessary for most women to work but the husband should be earning the second income before the family turns to the community’s coffers. Teaching someone to fish is a higher level of charity than giving him a fish. And how much more important this will be for the next generation, which cannot afford to be financially dependent on their parents or the government.
B’zchutan wants to maintain the Jewish way of living – of immersing ourselves in and leading ourselves with Torah, without turning to charity until we have exhausted all means of supporting ourselves. This is the Jewish mesorah, the chain that has carried us from one generation to the next. It may have twisted and tangled in recent years, and now a small group of women backed by a Torah leader wants to straighten out that path again.
This same mesorah, the chain of tradition upon which Haredim place significant emphasis, offers precedence for female leadership that begins in Tanach…straight from G-d Himself.  Devorah judged from under a tree, out in the open, serving men and women. The Chulda Arch graces Jerusalem, highlighting the place from where she prophesized. The Torah takes the time and space to mention that Miriam led women in honoring and exalting G-d. And while He could have found a way for Mordechai, or another man, to save the Jews under Achashverosh, G-d chose Esther, a woman, and reminds us each year at mandatory readings of a Megilla that bears her name. These are but a few of many examples.
As Tanach teaches us, women can appropriately lead, prophesize, clarify Jewish law and policy (i.e. bnot tzelafchad, as one example), and be an equal partner in changing the world (as Sarah was with Avraham, bringing idol worshippers to monotheism). The lessons of the Torah are relevant for every single generation, including our own. And if female leadership was good enough for G-d in many previous generations, then who are we to say otherwise today?
Let’s take it a few steps further. The Haredi men who do not want to work and instead want to depend on their wives to bring the paycheck should be excited that Haredi women want to go to the Knesset to help equalize salaries in Israel (one report I saw noted that women earn, on average, only 60% of their male counterpart’s salary). This will enable Haredi female bread-winners to increase their paychecks and make their families less dependent on community charities or the government; even more, it will raise salaries for all women in Israeli society, regardless of religious observance.
And every single person in Israel should be enthusiastic that these Haredi women want to go to the Knesset to help improve health care for all men, women and children. The B’zchutan campaign has mentioned that Haredi women have a 30% higher rate of breast cancer, and the Haredi male Knesset members failed to attend a committee meeting at which this crisis was discussed. But the social and economic implications of this extend well beyond Haredi families. Sending Haredi women to the Knesset to initiate solutions for greater educational and preventative health care can lower death rates, reduce the treatment costs by kupot cholim, and help decrease the harmful impact on families and children when mothers are leaving their homes and jobs to receive chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Supporting Haredi women seeking to enter the Knesset is not just something Haredim should do; often, achievements for one population sector can better impact greater society. In the 1800s, eradicating slavery in the U.S. wasn’t just a victory for blacks, it was a step forward for all humanity. Fighting child labor in the U.S. 100 years ago didn’t just improve the working conditions of minors and better protect their health, but for adults too. 96 years ago, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote, which has proven to be beneficial for all Americans, not just one gender.
None of us would dare say that Golda Meir or Margaret Thatcher were voices solely for women. Every male in the Knesset is supposed to represent female Israeli citizens too. The women of B’zchutan, these wives and mothers, are seeking to go to the Knesset and work to improve things for all men, women and children in Israel. Not just for women. And not just for Haredim.
Judaism teaches that our redemption from Egypt was in the merit of women, and our Final Redemption is supposed to come from women too. Maybe that path goes through the Knesset.
March 17, 2015 could be a historical day in Israel with the election of a Haredi woman. While it seems an uphill battle, overcoming the odds is a great part of our tradition, whether in the Six Day War, the Maccabi victory led by Judah, and David’s defeat of Goliath. This Tuesday in Israel, your ballot can be a pebble in the slingshot.