Women – In the Parasha and at the Protests (10)
This is my tenth consecutive post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests. Scroll down for photos.
March 8 was International Women’s Day, and women were central at the March 11 post-Shabbat protest in Jerusalem.
The face, and voice, of the Jerusalem demonstrations is a woman: MC, Tova Sheleg. Tova warms up the crowd with her stellar chanting and revives them if they flag; introduces the speakers; and closes the first part of the protest (some people go on to Balfour) with Ha’tikvah. At an early demonstration, Tova was a speaker herself, and mentioned that she was the daughter of the late Bambi Sheleg, an influential activist and magazine editor dedicated to building bridges between Israel’s divided communities. Tova’s father is Yair Sheleg, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. She was born to the role she’s performing now. Demokratia!
Two women are always highly visible at pro-democracy demonstrations, at least on signs: Esther Hayut, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Attorney General Gabi Baharav-Miara. Our heroes.
And last week in Jerusalem, there were also two significant female speakers.
Malka Puterkovsky was important less for what she said about women than for what she represents. She is a former head of Midreshet Lindenbaum, a seminary for young religious women that combines Torah study with military service; a beloved teacher of women in the Religious Zionist community; a founding member of Forum Takana, dedicated to preventing sexual abuse by authority figures in the Orthodox world; and the author of Walking on Her Path: Life Challenges from a Halakhic and Moral Perspective (in Hebrew).
Ruth Halperin-Kaddari addressed head-on the frightening situation for women under the present government. Halperin-Kaddari is a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University, and founding director of the university’s Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status. She served for 12 years on the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which she also chaired. Her many publications include Women in Israel: A State of Their Own. Some readers might be interested in her feminist perspectives on Jonathan Sacks z.l., delivered at a recent conference in his memory at Bar Ilan.
She shared the stage with representatives of the handmaids, the women in red and white who have become a powerful presence at pro-democracy demonstrations around the country. Their costumes – inspired by the serialization of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about fertile women subjugated to child-bearing slavery in a totalitarian society – signal their connection to the feminist struggle worldwide.
There’s no doubt that women will be disproportionately affected by Israel’s legal reforms. They have already been severely harmed by the present government. On International Women’s Day 2022, Israel boasted a record 35 women members of Knesset. This year, there are only 8. Two of the coalition parties — the Haredi parties — will not include women in the foreseeable future.
In spheres where Haredi leaders have power – for example, in their own streets, on buses and in businesses that serve their communities, in public events where they are represented, and in billboard advertising around the city – they reinforce the gender separation that is a central value for them. As Haredi communities grow, along with the political power they now wield, more and more women who do not share their values will be forced to conform.
Even women who do share their values will be harmed by the reforms, as we heard from a Haredi woman who addressed a recent demonstration in Tel Aviv. In cases of domestic abuse or a husband’s refusal to grant his wife a divorce, Haredi women depend on secular courts to protect them.
It’s not just the Haredi parties in the coalition who are ideologically committed to limiting the role of women in the social, political, and religious life of the country. To different degrees, all the religious parties in the coalition share that aim. In 2019, when Smotrich was transportation minister, he claimed that mixed-gender combat units weaken the IDF. He was shouted down then, but next time, who knows.
When religious movements shift from helping their members to shape themselves in God’s image, as they see it, to imposing their own image on others against their will, the story will end badly for everyone. That’s our reality in Israel today.
Women played central roles in the book of Genesis, which focuses on families. They are less prominent in Exodus, which is about the birth of a people. But in the first of this week’s double parasha, Va’yakhel-Pekudei, women are mentioned explicitly as contributors to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.
A possible explanation for their unexpected presence is the nature of the gifts they contribute.
Exodus 35:20 Then all the congregation of the Israelites withdrew from the presence of Moses. 21 And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting and for all its service and for the sacred vestments. 22 So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the Lord.
Jewelry is typically identified with women. Yet when jewelry was needed to make the golden calf in last week’s parasha, women did not take a willing and active role. Their jewelry was removed from them by their husbands.
Exodus 32:2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.”
Another possible explanation for the reference to women in this week’s parasha is the nature of the skill they contribute. Along with weaving (though in the case of the Mishkan, it was performed by men), spinning was traditionally associated with women in the ancient world.
Exodus 35:25 All the skillful women spun with their hands and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen; 26 all the women whose hearts moved them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair.
Both weaving and spinning are among the skills of eshet chayil, the woman of valor celebrated in Proverbs 31:10-31 and in many Jewish homes on Friday night. But spinning is particularly emphasized.
Proverbs 31:13 She seeks wool and flax and works with willing hands… 19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.
If you’re not sure what a distaff and spindle are, this 5-minute video tells all.
In the ancient world, weaving and spinning were closely associated with storytelling. (Still today, we weave narratives and spin tales.) Weavers and spinners feature prominently in classical stories and myths. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope weaves to fend off suitors while she waits for her husband Odysseus to return from the wars. She promises to marry one of her suitors once she’s finished weaving a shroud for her father, but each night she unravels her day’s work and starts over. Weaving in the Odyssey is both a way to spend time and a way to manage it, as storytelling also is.
The Three Fates of Greek mythology were sisters. One would spin the thread that represented the allotted lifespan of each human being, one would measure it, and one would cut it. A different kind of Time management.
Proverbs 31 is describing a real, if idealized, potential wife, but here too, textiles play a role that transcends the material. The fabrics made by the woman of valor offer protection from the elements. Her family wears crimson. She is clothed in linen and purple. But she also wears strength and splendor, the basis for her optimism about the future — in Hebrew, ‘the last day’.
Proverbs 31:21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson. 22 She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. 25 Strength and splendor are her clothing; she looks to the future cheerfully.
Not so far from Penelope and the Fates after all. Perhaps the Mishkan women were spinning more than fine yarns, linen, and goat’s hair. At any rate, the Mishkan, a microcosm of the universe, would have been incomplete and imperfect without them.
It’s rare, even unheard of, for countries to pay special attention to women when they plan dramatic overhauls for themselves or others. Did the allies discuss the future of women in Iraq before they decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein? Was there a government debate about the impact of Brexit on women in the UK?
Probably not, and here too it’s unlikely in the extreme that the interests of half the population were found worthy of discussion by the reformers. That, in the words of one of the most popular slogans to emerge from the pro-democracy demonstrations, is a busha, shameful. I am grateful from the bottom of my willing heart that women are a central presence at the pro-democracy demonstrations, this week and every week.