Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll

Breast cancer behind the mechitza

Regarding the article thing about woman [sic] and breast cancer, that’s a sobering statistic. Of course it has nothing to do with what I wrote.

In his Mishpacha article, Sruli Besser reflects on his experience on “the other side of the mechitza” during his daughter’s Bais Yaakov graduation. Among the many rebuttals of his piece, which praises Jewish women for being pious and suffering subpar conditions in silence, several people noted that Haredi society’s negligence of women’s needs leads, among other things, to higher rates of breast cancer deaths in the community. According to Israeli studies, Haredi women die 30% more often from breast cancer than women in the general population.

Besser insists this has nothing to do with his jolting experience of what it’s like to be on the women’s side of the mechitza.

But it has everything to do with it.

There is a systemic problem of ignoring women’s experience in Orthodox Judaism, and it has far more severe consequences than stale cookies and poor air conditioning.

In Judaism, those who make policy for the entire community are men. Men, by virtue of being men, don’t experience Judaism as women do. This is natural.

What is not natural, however, is not listening when women describe their experience and ask for change. Communal and rabbinic leaders simply do not consult with women. They don’t allow for serious input from them, and they don’t hear from them about the consequences of communal policy and priorities. Thus, women’s needs come after a long line of other considerations and as a result, policy doesn’t take them into consideration.

This is wholly unnecessary and wrong. Moreover, the failure of policy and priority to consider women leads directly to many of the issues we face in Judaism today.

Policy fails Jewish women.

In marriage and divorce:

Religious courts often ignore the needs and wants of Jewish women and do not use their power to protect them where they should. As a stark example, earlier this year, in Jerusalem, a woman seeking a divorce from the husband who beat her, was refused by the rabbinical court which said, “since he only beat you because you asked for a divorce, you should go back to him and not ask for a divorce and then you won’t be beaten.”

In religious courts, get extortion is encouraged and judges who seek halachic solutions to terrible situations are punished.

In women’s Jewish life:

Haredi political parties control the Rabbinate, and the Rabbinate controls all Jewish ritual life. Though they purport to represent all those who practice Torah Judaism (including women), no women are on any committee or allowed onto any haredi political party list.

During a Knesset meeting to discuss a Supreme Court case brought by religious women to improve services and practices in the mikvaot, MK Moshe Gafni looked around the room, packed with religious women seeking change and said, “there are no problems in the mikvah!”

A law passed only a few years ago placed women on the committee to elect religious court judges for the first time. It guarantees four out of the 11 spots to women. Haredi MKs who opposed the law when it was created are trying to reverse this decision to weaken women’s representation.

In women’s health:

In Israel, Haredi women rank 8th for life expectancy. Haredi men rank 2nd. The disparity is huge.

Yet, not one haredi MK has yet attended the committee on women’s health in the Knesset. The Minister of Health is himself haredi.

‘Kosher’ radio stations won’t say the words ‘breast cancer’ and events on fertility and women’s reproductive health are routinely held with no women presenters or women in the audience.

Haredi women develop breast cancer less often than the general population, yet they die more often. The high morbidity rate can be attributed to a number of factors, from poor knowledge of the disease, to the fact that it is considered immodest to talk about, to the intense pressure the community has to appear healthy for marriage matches, to the refusal of many to allow for awareness raising. All of these communal issues add up to women dying.

In the obsession with ‘modesty’:

Women and girls are hurt, confused, and outraged at being blurred or photoshopped out of existence. Yet, when they speak out against the practice, their voices and protests are dismissed. Boys are taught that they cannot look at or see women. They are trained to not see or relate to them, and the balance of society is upended with Jewish women being portrayed as objects of sin to be avoided and shunned.

This leads, as we see in Bet Shemesh, to justifying verbal assault and even violence as men and boys scream ‘shikse’ and throw trash and rocks at girls and women who don’t look the way they think they should.

* * *

Besser says that Halacha is perfect.

This is not about changing Halacha.

This is about changing social policy and priorities towards a more just Jewish society.

When Bnot Zelafchad came to Moshe and all of the communal leaders to claim their portions of the Land of Israel, they said: “Our father died in the desert… has no son. Why should the name of our father be omitted from among his brothers because he had no son? Give us a portion among our father’s brothers.”

Moshe did not dismiss them saying, “The Torah is perfect, accept your lot.” He took their voices seriously, and the law was amended according to their logic and arguments.

For Judaism to thrive, we must end this culture of ignoring women’s experiences.

For Judaism to be healthy, we need to have women’s voices and images as a full part of Judaism.

For Judaism to be just, women must be a part of the process of policy and standardization.

Change on the ground starts with change in the conversation — and that conversation must include the Orthodox Jewish woman’s voice.

About the Author
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and an activist. Cofounder of She loves her people enough to call out the nonsense. See her work at
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