Rachel Stomel

Defying conventions

When Religious Zionist rabbis discuss women's roles in shul, childbirth, and feminism -- in a woman-free zone
Illustrative: Orthodox Jewish women attend a kashrut supervision course at the Emunah Seminary College for Jewish Women’s Studies in Jerusalem on April 18, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Illustrative: Orthodox Jewish women attend a kashrut supervision course at the Emunah Seminary College for Jewish Women’s Studies in Jerusalem on April 18, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“This is a convention of all of our hopes. Everyone should come to this conference. It is a gathering of anyone who values God and holds the Torah dear.”

So say the rabbis in a video released ahead of Thursday’s Ayin B’Ayin Yira’u conference in Jerusalem.

This year billed as a “unity convention” to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, the conference features the most preeminent names across the Religious Zionist spectrum, with hundreds of rabbis in attendance. With these great minds gathered in one room, the conference aims to take a good, hard look at the state of Judaism today, and use that as a springboard to define the challenges, goals and agendas of tomorrow.

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Tzfat and one of the organizers of the conference, explained in an interview in last week’s Shvi’i magazine, “This is not going to be a theoretical conference; we want to influence reality and take action. The conference will produce significant pronouncements with practical repercussions, and there will be an operating committee that will try to implement the conclusions that are reached.” He described the roundtable discussions, open to all conference participants, that would each produce a practical conclusion regarding a contemporary challenge to the community.

Sounds ambitious.

Here are a few of these roundtable descriptions taken from the conference’s online signup forms:

Women in the synagogue: How should we deal with women’s requests to participate more in synagogue? Is there room for change regarding the placement of the women’s section? Of the mechitza? How must we respond to the requests for women’s megillah readings? Women’s Torah readings?”

The Family: Divorce, marriage, gender, childbirth and feminism in Israel. How should we manage the challenges of the ‘new family’ in Israel? How should we address surrogacy, IVF for single women and prenuptial agreements? Are they part of the solution or part of the problem?”

The Rabbinic Courts: Get refusers, child support, alimony and joint custody.”

Only, there’s one glaring problem. The conference was entirely women-free.

That’s right. Women neither spoke at any session, nor participated in any roundtable discussion. But the real kicker is that women were barred from attending the conference entirely — even as audience members.

Keep in mind that this was a Religious Zionist event, not a Haredi one. In a community that boasts many impressive female leaders, educators, and Torah scholars, where women are active in public and religious life, and where policies formulated will affect women just as much as men — and in some of the sessions above, more than men — this shutting out of women is baffling. (As a relevant sidepoint, the male-only conference was funded by the Ministry of Education and the Jerusalem municipality with public tax shekels).

The stated premise of convening a diverse mix of Religious Zionist leaders in this “unity conference” was to multiply their creative potential and solve real challenges to the Jewish community by fostering a collective brainstorming setting. Why then reject a valuable resource of talented, creative leaders on the basis of gender alone? Why design a program with a built-in handicap, sabotaging its own efficacy?

If the goal of this conference was to confront issues facing the entire community and craft public policy in response, then it is goes without saying that discussions must include the female half the population. Women must be a part of official leadership and take an active role in policymaking. Their ideas should be weighed seriously by the community and they must occupy a real seat at the table. Especially when it comes to problems that specifically relate to women’s experiences, women’s voices should be heard directly, not filtered through men’s at best, or silenced at worst. This is the only way we can honestly address the needs of a diverse population, of which half are women. Excluding women creates social blind spots willfully, not only in our ability to perceive problems, but in our capacity to devise solutions.

It is absurd that women are absent from policymaking that directly affects their lives. This convention advertised a roundtable of men discussing feminism unironically in a room from which women are barred — and yet the comical scenario is entirely familiar in this community. Though we should be used to it by now, it is no less discomfiting to read session descriptions that relate to women as if they were alien specimens, objects decided for and acted upon by others, with a disregard for their personal agency or even basic participation.

In these conversations, women are entirely “othered.” The convention-goers ask: How should we treat them? What should we permit them to do? What challenges do they present to us?

This is what it means to be objectified. This objectification is not sexual in nature, but it is objectification nonetheless. Women are objects of Religious Zionist discussion, but they are not allowed to participate.

“The fact that the conference doesn’t include women doesn’t mean that we don’t respect women,” says Rabbi Eitan Eisman, head of the Noam school system and a conference participant. “Their whole lives, rabbis have gathered in rabbi-only settings, and therefore women were not party to their special discussions… It’s okay to let rabbis be rabbis the way they have done it for generations and discuss important, respectable ideas without seeing everything as offensive to women.”

“Women who try come and say ‘we are like men’ are women who distort empowerment. Women don’t need to be men, but rather be women. This confusion is the prohibition of ‘crossdressing’ in the deepest sense,” says Rabbi Eliyahu, in the same interview above. He mentions that his own wife lectures extensively in women-only settings, and that she does so “naturally and without provocation.” He assures us that women can and should definitely be leaders and influencers, as long as they respect the limits of their “natural” place.

The reason women have to be included in the conversation is that their contributions are valuable to the community. Limit women’s circles of influence to women-only settings, and the community suffers. Shut them out entirely, as this conference does? All the more so. Women who want to devote themselves to their society do not want to “be men.” Seeking women’s inclusion in policymaking is not provocation. Rather, women’s involvement and engagement is critical for a healthy Jewish society.

Some, like Rabbi Eisman above, have defended the conference, maintaining that it does not intentionally exclude women, per se. After all, it is a professional conference exclusively for rabbis, who, incidentally, are men, by Religious Zionist definitions. Non-rabbinic men have not been invited either. Sure, women’s leadership has a place in the Religious Zionist world, they say. Of course it does, but this forum is not it.

The problem is, if we accept the premise that rabbis decide policy, problem-solve, and determine the agenda for the Religious Zionist community, and if we accept the stipulation that those rabbis can only be men, then there is no model for women to dedicate themselves to this community. What, then, is a “good” woman leader of Religious Zionism supposed to look like, if she cannot be a rabbi and is automatically disqualified from participation for being a layperson?

By not holding positions of power or authority, women are only able to introduce ideas or initiate change by taking a bottom-up approach, in a setting where validity comes only from the top down. Moreover, if they attempt to do so, their efforts are regarded as rebellion, foreign, and subversive. Thus, Religious Zionist women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t: if women accept the premise of rabbinic hierarchy and that communal decisions should be made by leaders, then they cannot lay claim to the notion that women’s representation and participation matters. But if women insist that women’s inclusion is essential for creating a healthy Jewish society, they are forced either to reject the notion that rabbis are the only ones fit to make policy decisions, or to reject the notion that only men can be rabbis. For any woman who is committed to the Modern Orthodoxy that is Religious Zionism, this leaves her in a tough bind.

For the Religious Zionist community to have effective leadership, it needs to include — not just address — all of its parts. That means that women must be welcome in positions of policymaking, wield authority, and possess the practical capacity to fully contribute to society. Involving women is not a concession, but an ideal. This is not about empowerment; it’s about power — the power to shape the Jewish community of tomorrow.

About the Author
Rachel Stomel is a literary translator, graphic designer and slam poet. She is passionate about social justice in the Jewish community, with a special focus on women’s rights and issues of religion and state. She is the English communications director for the Center for Women's Justice, a legal advocacy NGO advancing the civil and religious liberties of Israeli women.
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