Beyond the Mehitza: A Response to Yisroel Besser

In Yisroel Besser’s “In Her Place,” he claims to be ad shetagi’a l’mekoma, in the place of a woman. For one evening, Mr. Besser sat behind a mehitza, was treated as an afterthought, felt uncomfortable and states he is now “entitled” to judge women. Let me be clear: Mr. Besser attended a graduation ceremony for a few hours and now feels that he understands how women are treated in the Orthodox world.

Mr. Besser, I will leave aside the obvious problem of your only being ad shetagi’a l’mekoma for a few hours. I will ignore the fact that you attended a graduation ceremony — not a synagogue. And I will even disregard your attempt to compare your experience as an observer of a gradation ceremony with those of women as observers at a Torah service.

Instead, I wish to highlight what you have missed. I invite you to see beyond the mehitza.

10,000. This is the number of estimated agunot reported in Israel, with North America estimating 462. 10,000 Jewish women have been denied the get to which they are entitled. 10,000 households are forced to choose between remaining married to these men or abandoning their religion practices. How many of these households are struggling with one income? How many are raising children without a father because their mothers cannot date and remarry? The problem extends beyond the issue of agunot. Among divorced women, how many experienced extortion to obtain the get? How many women have divorce settlements that differ from what the secular courts decided, putting these women in a worse state financially or with regards to child custody, but done for the sake of their freedom? How many parents have struggled to raise the obscene amounts demanded by their son-in-law for the sake of their daughter? This is what you see when you see when you look beyond the mehitza.

30%. Ultra-Orthodox women who contract breast cancer have a 30% higher mortality rate than the general population. We know there is a 90% survival rate with early detection so why is there such a high death rate among ultra-Orthodox women? The reasons point in only one direction: excessive modesty. In Israel, fliers imploring women to take care of their health are not posted for fear of immodesty. In ultra-Orthodox communities it is forbidden to say the word “breast” and there are cases of the word “women” being defaced on a women’s clinic in Israel among other tactics done for the sake of modesty. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health notes that breast cancer rates among Orthodox Jewish women in the United States are rising. The authors evidence the low cancer screening rates and overall poor health practices of ultra-Orthodox women which they state, “may be a result of their religious value system, which may include limited interactions with secular society and poor health education”. Do you see this, Mr. Besser? Are you looking past the mehitza?

Mr. Besser, women in Orthodoxy are facing a slew of challenges that are very real. The problems I have highlighted literally affect life and death, poverty or sufficiency. If you are so inclined to judge how women in Orthodoxy feel I would ask you not to reduce the issue to a matter of the mehitza. I would ask you to consider what are the effects of women being removed and segregated in our society more broadly.

When women are reduced to an afterthought, their interests are ignored, their needs go unmet. This may be accepted during services where halachically you can argue women are not obligated to daven with a minyan or attend shul at all. But what happens we bring the mehitza outside of the synagogue? More and more frequently we see women excluded from public spaces due to their sex. First it was a shiur, then an event, and today we are witnessing the removal of women from public spaces entirely. Women’s images do not appear in magazines — women’s magazines even!– nor are cartoon character, fictionalized images of women allowed in pictures for children.

What happens when women are removed from these spaces? You may find it appropriate to keep women “in their place” during davening. But how are they, how are we, affected when are place becomes smaller and smaller?

The problem, Mr. Besser, is not the mehitza. The problem is we have expanded the mehitza to daily life. The results speak for themselves.

Karolyn Benger

About the Author
Karolyn Benger is a non-profit professional, scholar, public speaker, author, advocate for Jewish causes, and a fighter for social Justice. She is a graduate of Emory University, with a degree in Political Science and a specialization in the Middle East. She has taught courses in Comparative Politics, Political Islam, and Politics of the Middle East at Emory University, Georgia Tech, and Emerson College. Ms. Benger is a published author of both academic and non-academic works. Her academic research focuses on political oppositional groups in Egypt under Mubarak and her non-academic publications can be found with Kveller, North Shore Children and Families, and Binah. She regularly speaks on Democratization in the Middle East, Women in Islam, and Islamist organizations. Ms. Benger has volunteered with various organizations, such as Yad Chessed, Phoenix Hebrew Academy, and Temima High School.
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