An Interview With Debbie Weissman Part 2
This two-part interview with Israeli Orthodox Jewish feminist Dr. Debbie Weissman reveals the contribution of Israeli Jewish society and politics to some of the complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here, the presumed lines between left-wing secular and right-wing religious are infinitely more complicated, and there are Orthodox Jews like her who support Palestinian rights, gay rights and gender equality.
At the same time, many aspects of the inter-play between religion and politics among Jews in Israel will be familiar to rights activists from other contexts. Racism and nationalism are now features of Jewish religious extremism, just as they are for example among Hindu fundamentalists in India. Meanwhile, through organizations such as Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum, Orthodox Jewish women are reclaiming their religion and resisting fundamentalisms, just as for example Catolicas por el derecho a decidir (Catholics for the Right to Decide) in Latin America and Sisters in Islam in Malaysia.
In Part 1 Dr. Weissman assesses diverse political trends among Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and in Part 2 she describes the impact of these trends on Orthodox Jewish women and their resistance to some of these gender discriminatory, racist and authoritarian tendencies.
See also the Article on Open Democracy Jewish. Orthodox. Feminist. Israeli.
How do you see the relationship between religious fundamentalisms and patriarchy?
I think patriarchy has other causes besides religion; even in a secular situation there can be patriarchy. So it isn’t only a religious phenomenon. Patriarchy as a human phenomenon goes back a very long way, and as a historical sociologist, I think fundamentalisms are a response to conditions in the contemporary world and there are additional factors in post-colonial societies. I wouldn’t say that in the Middle Ages Jewish patriarchy was fundamentalist: it was patriarchal.
Who is challenging religious fundamentalisms among Jewish communities in Israel and how?
One of the ways to take away some of their power is by empowering other people in the community also to be knowledgeable about religion and to develop alternatives. To say that Judaism is such a broad phenomenon that has existed for thousands of years and in many different places and there are many traditions and many possibilities of interpreting tradition. In the last three years, we have in Tel-Aviv something called secular yeshiva [religious schools] where the students are mostly young men and women, not necessarily religious, not even Conservative because we have had Conservative yeshiva for many years, but secular Israeli young people, mostly left-wing, who spend four days a week sitting and studying classical Jewish texts like the Talmud, and then two days a week doing community service projects in some of the poorer areas.
Once we say to them “Hey guys, you claim to be speaking in the name of Judaism but you know what? So do we, but we have a different approach.” I think that no less than 36 times in the Torah we are commanded not to oppress the stranger, to love the stranger, to understand the soul of a stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. That to me is no less a part of Judaism than covering your elbows or demanding that the entire land of Israel belonged…I mean, Judaism is broad enough and complex enough for us to be able to find a way to be authentically committed Jews and also human beings who care about the other. Knowledge is power and we have to take away this myth that they are the authentic Jews. I am not saying they are inauthentic but there are many ways to be an authentic Jew.
Meanwhile, there is another trend within the modern Orthodox community in Israel which has moved not necessarily to the left politically but definitely to the left religiously and culturally. Our synagogue in Jerusalem, founded in 1980, was the first in Israel to say we are an Orthodox synagogue but we are going to try to push the envelope when it comes to women’s participation, and we have been in existence now for some 30 years. There are now three synagogues that have gone beyond us, they pushed the envelope even further. One of them was started by Dr. Tova Hartman. They are not fully egalitarian but they are pretty close and certainly women have a place of dignity and participation.
Can you say a little bit about Kolech?
Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum is an organization of Orthodox women in Israel who are committed to feminism within the Orthodox framework. When we have a national conference we usually get between 1500 to 2000 participants. Our membership is at least double or triple that. Our conferences, which are written up in the media, have dealt with issues such as lesbianism; what it is like to be a single woman or a childless woman in the Orthodox community; the issue of battered women; the terrible discrimination against women in the rabbinical court systems, marriage and divorce laws. We always have in our conferences non-Orthodox women; even Reform women rabbis speak. We deal with the oppression of Jewish women by other Jewish women in terms of the ethnic groups like the Oriental women who are oppressed by many and one of the oppressors maybe Ashkenazi women. But we have not dealt with Palestinian women and that’s because a not-insignificant proportion of Kolech are fairly right-wing politically; they are not extreme, there is nobody that is fundamentalist, but we have some of our national leadership are women who live in settlements in the territories.
Why was Kolech founded?
There were kind of two major factors. One was education: by 1998 you had enough seriously educated Jewish women - I mean educated in Talmud - who not only studied Talmud but also teach Talmud so they really know their stuff. That is a phenomenon that began to develop in the 70s and 80s so it needed time to develop. I always say the key is going to be when we have women who were taught by women who were taught by women. It is okay to be taught by men also but once you have three generations of knowledgeable women then I think you are set.
The other thing that happened is, in America in the early to mid 90s, they had an American organization, JOFA - Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and in 1997 I was invited together with a whole group of Israelis to attend the JOFA national convention in New York. We were very impressed and we said why don’t we start something like that here. It was the second day of the conference that we all had lunch together and we said when we go back to Israel we’ll do this, and the rest is history.
In other religions fundamentalisms, there is a huge focus on women’s bodies and women generally. Is that something you see among the Ultra-Orthodox and the religious Zionists?
One of the outstanding educators and ideologues in our community is Yoske Ahituv - Orthodox, left-wing, pro-feminist. A man already in his 70s, he is just wonderful. He wrote this article about this tremendous emphasis on modest dress that characterized for many years the Ultra-Orthodox and now also characterizes this Ultra-Orthodox nationalist group I mentioned earlier[Part 1]. He said that it is because there is like a connection with nationalism: seeing the woman’s body as a body politic, a way of relating to the nation and clearly an emphasis on women having children and giving birth and perpetuating a nation, which I am sure is found in other cultures as well.
The Ultra-Orthodox are often distinguishable by the way they dress and they tend to be extremely meticulous about certain aspects of Jewish law. I am pretty meticulous but nowhere near as meticulous as they are. The modesty has become so extreme that it is almost self-defeating. Most of us dress as we dress and don’t think so much about body parts. But once you make the measure of religiosity for girls how long their sleeve is; does it cover the elbow or not? Does this skirt cover the knee or not? Then you are thinking and talking so much about a woman’s body that it is almost accomplishing the opposite of what you wanted to do.
This has been one of the major themes at some Kolech conferences. Someone who probably has published in English is Dr. Tova Hartman, and she has done a lot of theoretical work on how the ideology of modesty functions to keep women down. One of the things about Orthodoxy is, we often engage in apologetics, and we say, “Oh no, there is no discrimination against women in Judaism, and in the home the woman is queen!” One of our great 20th century rabbis used to say “The woman is like the Minister of Interior and the man is the Foreign Minister who carries the opinion of the family out onto the public sphere. But at home, they have discussions and then they decide and he goes to vote, she doesn’t go to vote.” This is a very interesting issue - the whole controversy over giving women the right to vote.
What positive developments do you see in women’s rights within the Orthodox communities?
The Orthodox community is really opening up in many exciting ways, new schools are springing up all the time, experimental schools, and the most exciting thing for me is there is now a group of young Orthodox rabbis who are seriously talking about setting up an alternative to the Orthodox rabbinic establishment in Israel that would be a parallel system of courts. For example, we now have women who go into even the establishment rabbinical courts and they are called rabbinical advocates and they try to help the women get through in a more just and fair way. I am very excited about this alternative system because I think that could solve a lot of problems.
I want to explore with these young rabbis the setting up of the court system. The greatest human tragedy… I mean if I don’t have a role to play in my synagogue, that’s too bad but that is not going to ruin my life and I can always create a new synagogue. But in the case of a woman whose marriage is no longer a reality and who is prevented from getting a divorce and getting on with her life especially if her marriage is abusive - that is a human tragedy; she may be a woman who wants to have children or more children and she is not allowed to do that. That to me is a human tragedy and that has to be rectified. Up until now we haven’t said well we can just set up our own courts, we have always been afraid. I think it is a tremendous act of courage, if the rabbis will go through with this then maybe we can solve that problem of those women and that would be a tremendous step forward for us.
Up until 2007, we did not have civil marriage and divorce in Israel. We still don’t, but we have a move in the right direction. If you are Jewish, you have to married by an Orthodox rabbi, if you are Christian by a priest, if you are Muslim by an Imam. There was a law passed recently that allows non-Jews in Israel to have civil marriage and this is specifically to deal with the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came from the former Soviet Union so they do not have to have religious marriage any more. I want that law to be available to everybody in Israel. I do believe that one of the places in Israel where woman have achieved equality is in the judicial system. We have wonderful representation as lawyers, judges, attorney general, state controller and now the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is a woman and I think that if we know how to work together with the courts then we may in fact be able to have this bill passed especially because we have over a million relatively new immigrants who are Russian speakers. Only a very small percentage of them are Orthodox. Most of them are definitely in favor of civil marriage and divorce. I think it is going to happen say within the next 10 years or so.
Dr. Debbie Weissman is a Jewish educator, a founder of the Kehillat Yedidya Synagogue, and is actively involved with feminist and peace activism. She is President of the International Council of Christians and Jews and has lived in Jerusalem since 1972.