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Religious women of the revolution

The chief rabbi battle was lost, but a radical, female-led change is already well underway in the Zionist religious camp

The announcement of the new Chief Rabbis came as no surprise. Rav David Lau and Rav Itzhak Yosef were elected – the natural outcome of the ongoing struggle for control of the  Rabbanut  by  ultra-orthodox groups. The real surprise would have been if Rav David Stav had received the majority of votes.

And yet, a strong sense of despair and disappointment rippled through Israeli society. Why? Because we allowed ourselves to hope that the times they are a-changin’.

For a while, the Israeli public wrote off the Rabbanut, relegated its relevancy to the religious and ultra-orthodox sectors alone. However, many Israelis are coming to the realization that the Chief Rabbinate significantly affects all our lives through marriage, divorce, burial, kashrut, shabbat, and more. Someone is making concrete decisions, and we have absolved ourselves of responsibility for ensuring that someone who shares our values be involved.

It should come as no surprise that the Chief Rabbis don’t really reflect the majority of Israelis. After all, they are largely elected by other ultra-orthodox rabbis, with almost no female representatives. It is perfectly logical that the newly elected Chief Rabbis reflect the Haredi world. That’s just how it’s done.

Recently, MK Elazar Stern attempted to change the system by proposing a bill that would expand the electoral body to include 25 percent women. Unfortunately, and to the dismay of many, this bill was foiled by pressure from the ultra-orthodox and ultra-religious sectors.

They seem to fear the effect that women would have over the process. At the same time, the female, Zionist, religious world is undergoing a true feminist revolution, marked by struggles and changes in consciousness and values. This revolution is manifested by resisting the exclusion of women from the public sphere; a change in the nature of Torah study  by women; re-evaluating the place of women in orthodox synagogues; modernization of mikvot (ritual baths); and outspoken hostility towards sex offenders, especially when they are teachers, educators, or rabbis from within the community.

In other words, we are re-defining the system, the power relations, and the internal dynamics. I have no doubt that if women were included in the Rabbinate’s electoral body, the end result would have been completely different.

We lost the battle of the Chief Rabbis. But in the long run – it is clear that this revolution cannot be stopped.

So don’t worry – next election, our voices will be heard.

About the Author
Rachel Azaria is Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, holding the education portfolio and women's rights portfolio. Azaria earned a BA in psychology and MA in conflict resolution, both from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. An alumna of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership, Azaria served as the CEO of Mavoi Satum, a non-profit organization helping women denied a get (Jewish divorce) by their husbands. Azaria was first elected to the city council in 2008, and held the Early Childhood Education and Community Councils portfolios in her first term. In 2013 she was reelected and appointed deputy mayor. The Yerushalmim Party, that she chairs, doubled itself in the recent elections. She is an active leader of the struggle against the exclusion of women from the Israeli public sphere, and gained international recognition as a leading orthodox feminist. She lives in the Katamonim (Gonenim) district of Jerusalem with her husband and their four children.
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