Queen Esther is my hero. True, for a brief moment I, along with other feminists, transferred my loyalty from Esther to Vashti, the Persian Queen who defied her husband’s orders to appear before his court. I still like Vashti for her uppitiness in flouting her royal spouse. But Esther — well, Esther demonstrates a much larger courage. She put her life at risk to save her people, never knowing whether her plans would succeed. Our tradition recognizes her valor by naming a book for her, instituting a fast day in her name, and commemorating her victory with one of the most festive holidays on the Jewish calendar. When the Messiah comes, the sages said, even if every other festival is abolished Purim will still be celebrated. And Queen Esther as well.
With such respect afforded a woman within our tradition, why have women increasingly been treated as secondary personages among the fervently Orthodox in Israel? And why has the state accepted that attitude?
The Women of the Wall come to mind first, of course, because they have received the most notice. For 21 years, women from all the Jewish denominations have been trying to pray together once a month in an Orthodox service on the women’s side of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It is the kind of service Orthodox women’s groups hold all the time. But these women have been harassed and thwarted by the ultra-Orthodox, with the government’s backing. In November, Nofrat Frenkel, a member of the Women of the Wall group, was arrested for wearing a tallit and carrying a Torah scroll. Two months later, in a clear attempt at intimidation, the police interrogated and fingerprinted the group’s leader Anat Hoffman, threatening her with felony charges.
In response to objections from many quarters about the government’s behavior, the Israeli embassy cited Robinson’s Arch near the Western Wall Plaza as the appropriate prayer site for egalitarian services. The response ignored the fact that the women’s service is not egalitarian, not Conservative or Reform, but follows Orthodox halacha. It doesn’t matter. The charedim, who regard themselves as guardians of the Wall, object to it and the government supports them.
Other situations also point to the denigration of women. Consider gender-separated bus lines. Approximately 56 bus lines, operating more than 2,000 buses a day throughout Israel, have segregated seating. The men enter the front of the buses and sit there; the women use the rear door and sit in the back. Run by the public transportation companies Dan and Egged, the segregated buses service mainly ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Women who have boarded from the front and tried to sit there have been subjected to yelling and cursing and have sometimes been physically forced into moving to the back or getting off the bus.
Just recently, after three years of deliberation, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz finally responded to petitions calling for a ban on segregated buses. He ruled that the haredi community may run private bus lines that separate men and women, but the state could not enforce separation on public transportation. That may sound reasonable, except that he added that public buses in haredi neighborhoods be permitted to hang “behavior-directing” signs instructing passengers to sit separately. In other words, the buses will remain segregated, although passengers may not be forced to adhere to the separation. Really? How much less coerced will women who wish to sit up front feel with such a sign than they did earlier? Not much, I’ll wager.
Imagine the outcry from human rights groups here if signs like that appeared on public buses in the haredi centers of Borough Park or Monsey.
Then there are smaller happenings. Female soldiers, who always sang the national anthem at the Wall along with male soldiers, have been instructed to move their lips without singing so that their voices not “offend” ultra-Orthodox men. Similarly, a rabbi objected to having the B’nei Akiva (religious Zionist youth) group he leads participate in a national ceremony that included women soldiers singing.
But didn’t we read in the Torah portion a few weeks ago about the entire Israelite camp singing joyously after crossing the Red Sea? Didn’t Miriam lead the women in singing and dancing openly with their tambourines?
It’s easy to dismiss these incidents as trivial. After all, Israel faces pressing problems of security and of vilification by hostile nations, and we certainly need to defend and protect it in every way possible. But such occurrences are not inconsequential, nor are they only about haredim or women or even Israel. Every ruling that chips away at women’s freedom or dignity chips away also at the soul of a country that is at the center of Jewish life. Our tradition lauds Queen Esther for speaking out. The least we can do is speak out also, for women whose voices are being squelched. n
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”