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Women’s independence: We’re not there yet

My daughter's experience of Orthodox Judaism is richer than mine could have been, but even now, women’s participation and representation have a long way to go
Female students, studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum, in Jerusalem, February 16, 2015. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90/ File)
Female students, studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum, in Jerusalem, February 16, 2015. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90/ File)

Omg the daf yomi today.

This text from my daughter made me smile for many reasons. Mostly, because these five words encompass so much more than her frustration with a talmudic passage about accidental intercourse.

Not only does my daughter speak languages that I don’t, not only is she learning in-depth, understanding Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish law in ways I never will, but her story of being an Orthodox Jewish woman will be so different from mine. This brings me joy, as well as some pain.

Unlike me, she will be able to bring sources, and speak of sages and rabbis in ways that show a level of learning, an understanding, and familiarity that I never had. Unlike me, she won’t have horror stories of bringing personal questions and intimate items to a rabbi, waiting in mortification to be told whether she can be with her husband. She will be able to seek her own sources, determine her own answers, and when she needs a higher authority, ask a woman if she prefers.

God willing, she will sign a halachic prenup before she marries, recognize warning signs of abuse and red flags. She won’t accept, “what do you need that for,” as I had to, after a serious inquiry about birth control, nor “Don’t worry, if he tries anything, I’ll break his legs,” as a replacement for a halachic prenup

But our story isn’t just about one mother and daughter; it represents the ways that women have gained independence in Orthodox Judaism in the past decades.

In the courts

Now, there are women in rabbinic courts, Toanot who represent women in divorce proceedings. Having women advocating for women armed with knowledge of halacha and secular law has changed women’s experiences in rabbinic courts. Thanks to government policy initiated by MKs such as Limor Livnat and Aliza Lavie, women now sit on the committee to elect dayanim — another game changer, shattering the old boys club that saw family members and friends elected to these vital positions.

In the bedroom

Yoatzot Halacha — women trained in the laws of intimacy and family purity — have not only given women independence in a distinctly female space, but they have also enabled more women to keep these laws now that they do not need to seek information or approval from men. Women being able to immerse in the mikva according to their traditions and desires, brought about by women activists and Supreme Court cases, has strengthened women’s connection to the mitzvah and freed those with trauma and reluctance to return to the mikva with joy.

In the beit midrash

Across Israel, and to a lesser extent the greater Jewish world, institutions of higher learning for women abound. More and more women speak the language of
halacha at high levels at a scope that has never been seen before. They own their Judaism and are part of the beautiful tradition of a living Torah.

I was privileged to attend the Hadran Siyum HaShas in January 2020, led by Rabbanit Michelle Farber who teaches a women’s Daf Yomi class and podcast. The deafening roars and cheers for women who had taught, learned and completed the 7.5 year cycle of learning Talmud easily competed with noise levels of rock concerts I’d been to at my daughter’s age. Now, women all over the world have signed on to “learn the daf”– in the thousands. And Rabbanit Michelle’s podcast is not the only one hosted by a woman anymore. Among others is Talking Talmud, hosted by Anne Gordon and Dr. Yardaena Osband, and weekly video episodes (Hebrew) available on Farber’s Hadran.

On line

On social media, especially on Instagram, frum women rule. Many have more followers than most Hasidic rebbes do. Access to social media has given women massive platforms to speak, teach, discuss issues, and the platforms have turned women into major influences, advocating for change. Some women’s organizations use social media to talk about intimacy, abuse, and the need to free agunot. Others use it to create worldwide prayer groups or discuss fertility challenges.

And yet…

…in so many ways, we are not free and we are not independent. 

In marriage

Every woman who marries in a traditional Jewish ceremony is a potential agunah. According to Jewish law — Israeli law — only a man can decide to end a marriage. Thus, while in Israel a woman can be a Supreme Court judge, she cannot be free of a man who beats her, until and unless he and the three men who adjudicate divorce, free her. She is chained to her husband and cannot move on or have children. Here in Israel, that also means legally and financially. Even if he runs away, lives with another woman, or simply plays games with the court, in Israel, his debts are her debts, dragging her down.

(courtesy)
(courtesy)

In our images

The erasure of women, which started as an extreme practice in small communities, has spread like wildfire, and is now not only the norm in Orthodox publications, but is being done by commercial businesses, government and municipal institutions, despite being illegal. Women often cannot advertise properly with their faces, and, worse, are often replaced with objects when listed beside men. Government officials and even MKs are blurred and victims of terror attacks, or their wives, are distorted in news stories. Bus lines exist with women and girls seated in back as policy — despite this being illegal.

In representation

Two Israeli political parties — again, contrary to law — ban women from running on their lists. These parties, both Haredi, represent over 13% of the government. Despite claiming to represent Haredi women, they do not advocate for their women’s rights or represent their concerns. They do not attend the committee meetings on women’s health or domestic violence — despite both being a problem in the community.

In each of the areas where women have gained independence, it has been hard won. Women and men, understanding the importance of representation and independence for women not only in life, but particularly in Judaism, those who understand the difference between halacha and social or cultural norms, and the urgency for Judaism to not be static in the face of cultural changes have sought ways to include women, to add their voices and perspectives into Orthodoxy and Israeli society. 

And we as a whole have gained from it.

Women’s voices are vital to the continuation of Judaism — and Israeli society. Women being active participants in Jewish law, its development and application, brings better understanding and a more just application. Policies are more in line with reality and the way people practice, lessening tension and allowing for more alignment and comfort with practice. We, as a community and society must find more ways for women’s participation and representation — and fight against the incessant trends towards our exclusion. We must aim to make Judaism and Israel the very best they can be.

Chag Atzma’ut Sameach!

About the Author
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and an activist. Cofounder of chochmatnashim.org She loves her people enough to call out the nonsense. See her work at skjaskoll.com
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