The past has a vote and religious feminists

I am a non-religious Jew, but my favorite group on Facebook is “I Am a Religious Feminist and I Too Have No Sense of Humor.” It is a non-political group, of almost 10 thousand members, most of them religious women. In its credo, the group claims that it provides a safe place for religious women to share events from their life. However, as a recent post demonstrates, the members manage to accomplish much more than that.

“After taking part in a partnership minyan at the library, one of the scholars stopped me and asked, ‘what was that?’ ‘A minhah,’ I answered. ‘Don’t be clever’ he said. ‘Listen to me, stay away from peculiar practices, just do as your mother used to do’. ‘But my mother also prays at a partnership minyan,’ I answered. That was it; I have heard the last of him.”

This seemingly innocuous incident delivered in the most straightforward, way, with no commentary, is typical of the type of posts published by members of the group. It also testifies to the ongoing feminist revolution which takes place within different religious communities in Israel today.

This post is rich with subversive references, and those are clear to the target readers. From these short lines, they form a complete profile of the writer. They understand her reality, the type of criticism and intolerance which she encounters daily, and her special upbringing that makes it easier for her to live according to her convictions.

Filling up gaps in order to decode the subtext of a minimalist text is not unlike the type of close reading that the writer of this post and many of her friends do on a regular basis when studying biblical and talmudic texts.

In 1969, in the immortal essay, “The King through Ironic Eyes: Biblical Narrative and the Literary Reading Process,” Menachem Perry and Meir Sternberg introduced that practice to readers outside biblical scholarship. They pointed out how through careful omission, the biblical narrator of the story of David and Bathsheba successfully conveys his reservations about the king’s actions. In order to understand the deeper meaning of the text, the readers must be active and fill up the gaps. 

In the case of the condescending man in the library, the triumph of the young woman was, of course, clear to her informed readers. It won her, within minutes, hundreds of likes and many admiring comments from both women and men.

As an outside observer of the group, I feel that unlike other feminist groups on Facebook, this one is more pragmatic. Members of the group work hard on changing different aspects of their reality. Like the writer of the post, many of them are young women who wish for a more equal and just community for themselves and for their daughters.  

Earlier this week, religious feminists held a  conference  “Kolech” (your voice) at Bar Ilan university. To me it is clear that those feminists are going to play an increasingly important role in Israeli society, inside and outside the religious world.

In the first part of the 20th century, the American Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan stated: “the past has a vote and not a veto.” It has taken awhile, but religious feminists  finally managed to quiet down some of the ghosts of the past. Hopefully it means that the religious world in Israel will become friendlier and more accessible towards women.

About the Author
I hold a PhD in English Literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, specializing in writing about issues related to women, literature, culture, and society. Having lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994), I bring a diverse perspective to my work. As a widow, in March 2016, I initiated a support and growth-oriented Facebook group for widows named "Widows Move On." The group has now grown to over 2000 members, providing a valuable space for mutual support and understanding.
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