Some years ago at the height of the “No voice, No vote!” campaign which called for integrating ultra-Orthodox women in ultra-Orthodox political parties, Rabbi Mordechai Noigershel taught a class on the topic of “Those ultra-Orthodox women seeking Knesset representation.” Rabbi Noigershel is perceived in the ultra-Orthodox world as an opinion leader. Over the past decades, his classes and books have gained broad popularity in the ultra-Orthodox world. He delves into, and attempts to balance out, the various challenges posed by science in the context of religious Jewish thinking.
Considered an authority in the ultra-Orthodox sector, Rabbi Noigershel is currently perceived as a leader in the field of “how to answer secular Jews,” particularly in seminars designated as outreach to academic and educated layers of in society in general due to his knowledge in popular science.
In the lesson referenced, one of the remarks, notable for its ill-framed language, stated that “those women suffer from schizophrenia and need psychiatric treatment.” The supposed “medical scientific” affront glibly doled out by Noigershel was admittedly perceived as simplistic, shallow and crude, but testifies to contradictions between Judaism and the feminist movement’s overall concepts and diverse subsectors.
If I ignore the searing insult contained in Noigershel’s words and attempt to analyze the statement itself, the message conveyed by the Rabbi to his followers relates to an assumed deep rift between Judaism and the values and ideas on which feminism is based, a difference which cannot be settled at all, since “those women call themselves ultra-Orthodox” yet vocally express feminist stances, suffer from a kind of split personality (an utterly incorrect yet popularized and abusive manipulation of the disorder known as schizophrenia), and it is impossible to simultaneously uphold both identities.
Ultra-Orthodox feminism’s growth is sustained through two avenues. On the conceptualized and reasoned side, it is still a peripheral entity, although lively discourse occurs in online ultra-Orthodox groups, organizations and various frameworks. Paradoxically, its sources are actually deeply rooted in mainstream ultra-Orthodoxy. How does this eventuate? Several reasons are generally referenced. Among them I would include the educational revolution commenced by Sarah Shnirer, founder of the Beit Yakov movement, the first movement to acknowledge the need to provide Jewish and general education to ultra-Orthodox girls, thereby reframing the “Torah studies only” Lithuanian viewpoints attributed to the late “Hazon Ish” (Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, commonly known by the title of his magnum opus). His objective was to rebuild the Torah world of Europe destroyed by the Holocaust. To this end, he rebranded and repositioned the prestige of Yeshiva students (Torah seminary for young men) as producing the most desirable of potential husbands, thereby altering the norm in which only true luminaries devoted their lives to Torah study and to their communities. The “Torah studies only” approach bestowed personal attention on every boy, male youth and young man. The revamped approach thus led to one of the most significant revolutions in traditional ultra-Orthodox attitudes towards girls. Since then and to date, ultra-Orthodox girls are raised and educated to support their Torah studying husbands, and view this lifestyle as a sacred designation. To all intents and purposes, in the ultra-Orthodox sector, a groom’s signature on the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) which states they will provide for their wives is often nothing more than lip service to the norms of Jewish days gone by.
Enabling this new ideology led to girls initially qualifying only as kindergarten or school teachers. As the ultra-Orthodox demographic grew, it created a need for opening new training options and professions. An Ultra-Orthodox woman taking up these options needed to step outside the closed greenhouse of her community and join diverse places of employment, whether belonging to the ultra-Orthodox sector or beyond it, in order to bring home the bread while her husband focused on his Torah studies, often for his entire life.
The historic and social outcomes of these developments led to a generation of educated intellectual women working in a wide array of spheres. Increasingly often their spheres of knowledge were greatly vaster than that of their husbands. The women gained honed life skills and abilities to integrate in the market place. These are women who question things, who face issues raised by technology, who speak to and interact with others, and who are exposed to the most advanced feminist trends and even a form of religious feminism which explores core issues around religious law and practice.
Admittedly, ultra-Orthodox feminists are exposed to the lively religious discourses on issues of religious equality vis-à-vis Torah study for women, egalitarian prayer quorums, community events in the religious sector such as dancing with Torah scrolls on the feast of Simhat Torah, reading the Scroll of Esther, and the place of women in all these activities. But the central discourse in ultra-Orthodox feminism is far more closely linked to survival at the essential level: issues of labor rights, domestic violence, the status of divorcees, victims of sexual assault, and so on. These women see that ultra-Orthodox political representatives are not touching on these matters at all, nor offering solutions to acute social problems, hence the urgent need for political representation in the form of ultra-Orthodox women with up-close knowledge of these issues, high accessibility to the public of women in their sector due to separation of the sexes, and the ability to handle these issues far more effectively than male representatives.
In the ultra-Orthodox sector, even among the more modern of its streams where smartphones and internet are in common use, there is difficulty in understanding and digesting the phenomenon of ultra-Orthodox feminism. One of the more common accusations against ultra-Orthodox feminists is that they do not represent “Torah discourse” with their actions, and that they are steeped only in the world of materialism. Cap that with the highly disputed tone of anything that has even the faintest whiff of feminism, and the popularized conclusion is that “those women aren't really ultra-Orthodox.” Taken together, these claims rouse deep doubt as to the nature and quality of the women’s religious adherence. And these doubts, aired repeatedly, shut down the points raised by the women by casting the women into the same generalized category as those making claims on behalf of secular organizations. Exerted effort is expended on having the ultra-Orthodox women’s focuses and concerns viewed as a threat undermining the core values of the ultra-Orthodox sector.
In this article, I attempt to analyze ultra-Orthodox feminism as it currently exists, with emphasis on feminist doing rather than feminism as a form of personal identification. I will also propose a way of orienting religious-law abiding feminism.
Indeed, ultra-Orthodox “civilian” feminism has a secular ring to it. Worse yet, it is based on essentially liberal progressive values. It takes this form because the ultra-Orthodox feminists most certainly acknowledge the tension between Judaism as a religion of inequality (in its present form) and do not presume to alter the solid, ancient religious constructs it is based on. In other words, they are aware of the conservative ultra-Orthodox societal foundation. They also understand that even if they were to begin setting foundations in place for in-depth changes to religious law, those would likely be enjoyed and developed by the generation of their daughters if not granddaughters, particularly once there are sufficient Torah-learned ultra-Orthodox women fully fluent in the sources of religious law and able to address issues based on knowledge which they are currently prevented from acquiring, or the study of which is still in its early stages among women.
Ultra-Orthodox women can most certainly deal in Torah based issues and aspects of religious law, and express indignation over the chauvinist interpretations applied to Judaism. Some closely follow and learn from the processes occurring in the national religious sector on this issue, and draw inspiration from it for implementing real action. In the deepest sense of the term in the ultra-Orthodox sector, however, “religious-law abiding feminism” is perceived as “more dangerous” and “more radical” in the sense of “more extreme and more undermining of the values of society and religion” than the religious discourse which seeks to impact and change areas of civilian life involving unnecessary harm to women.
The oddity of, and tension caused by, ultra-Orthodox feminism as it is perceived is also driven by an expectation that these women will put up a physical fight of a Litzman and Deri type: in other words, they will make themselves heard on the desecration of the Sabbath, they will demonstrate against recruitment of Yeshiva students into the IDF, and perhaps even loudly voice their opposition to feminism as a destructive influence on the Jewish home. Since the language of these women, however, employs a different set of frameworks from that of male representatives, since these women talk of labor laws and sexual abuse, domestic violence and higher education, the right to represent their sector in official organizations and so on, and because these issues are completely missing from the ultra-Orthodox political discourse yet require urgent attention, ultra-Orthodox feminism sounds liberal and secular. We women of the ultra-Orthodox sector have become accustomed to our representatives dealing primarily with battles over the religious nature of the country, rather than the wellbeing of citizens in its own sector who make up part of that country.
Without a doubt, national religious feminism in its Torah-law sense could not have developed before women were given the right to choose and be chosen, become members of the Knesset, or before standard civilian issues were handled and anchored in law by secular feminists, not to mention non-Jewish feminists.
Torah infused feminism does exist, then, but it does not speak to most women in the ultra-Orthodox sector: it scares them, and sounds “reformist,” “anti-religious,” an anomaly which cannot truly exist in the ultra-Orthodox society of the Jewish year 5779. As a friend worded it beautifully, “let me be to drink my coffee and enjoy my bite of cake on a Sabbath morning with the newspaper. There’s nothing for me in synagogue other than on bar mitzvahs and other celebrations.” So sad to hear. Yet this is the common reality.
The purpose of this article is not to dish out grand statements on whether feminism is right or not, whether it is good or bad, but to try and differentiate the various cultural spaces and what they may produce. I do not see that the ultra-Orthodox sector is ripe enough for the presence of “sagely women” in the sense of Torah learning, involved in the Torah discourse. They, too, need time for personal growth and to become forces of impact at the highest levels of Torah knowledge, with comprehensive fluency in Gemarra and Torah based rulings. In all honesty, even the national religious camp is still disputing this issue. I do think the current generation’s task is to get things moving, but it is difficult to raise a roof when the foundations have yet to be set.
On this matter I want to calm those concerned about revolutionary changes in the ultra-Orthodox world resulting from national religious or ultra-Orthodox feminists. These processes require time to establish and shape. In the national religious sector, two decades’ worth of developments have still not made the phenomenon mainstream, as seen by ongoing extensive disputes on the issue. As things look now, the disparity between universal feminist trends and those in the ultra-Orthodox sector will continue, raising boundaries that will distinguish the latter from any progressive “western values.”
Last week, several ultra-Orthodox groups were set buzzing due to a call by many feminist activists, including this article’s author, to allow the event in Afula to take place with separated seating for women and men. An array of opinions and claims were presented. The ultra-Orthodox feminists were hit hard from both directions. Secular liberals were unable to accept that fellow feminists could support a public event with separate seating, seen in their terms as marginalization and discrimination. The ultra-Orthodox world was caught spinning confusedly on its heel by support for gender separation in a public event geared to the religious community, since that world had become accustomed to demands for a halt to the marginalization inbuilt into the ultra-Orthodox sector’s political structure, decision making foci, and command over the ultra-Orthodox public. Suddenly, a fairly uniform voice was heard despite that voice containing its internal feminists. Some responders from within that ultra-Orthodox sector even accused the ultra-Orthodox feminists of inconsistency, not to mention hypocrisy!
This case serves excellently as a zero ground for formulating theories and frameworks on ultra-Orthodox feminism and its modes of action, at least at this stage. It is a framework fighting for seemingly secular civilian rights having the weakest of any possible links with Torah law. On the other hand, this feminist framework is fully cognizant of the right to uphold events which separate the sexes as customary in the ultra-Orthodox world, an acknowledgment which clearly relates to the core views of this sector where mingling of men and women is prohibited.
In light of the response by ultra-Orthodox feminists, it is important to emphasize the two-toned morals leveraged by the male political, commercial, public and media elitists in the ultra-Orthodox world who do live and operate in the western world, cooperate with it, mix with women, and even support secular women’s rights on being elected to public positions. Examples include Ms Kalisch-Rotem, mayor of Haifa; Ms Feierberg, long term mayor of Netanya; or Ms Itzik, long term Knesset member and Minister running as candidate for Israel’s Presidency. Yet this same elite wages a harsh and bitter battle against women in its own constituency who are interested in political representation for the purpose of correcting neglected social issues in its own community.
Ultra-Orthodox feminism and its multiple trends as these currently exist in society continue to deal with civil issues in diverse ways, but the quietly set starting points for Torah based feminism have been established and will, most likely, grow to include women in political civilian leadership. There not only may, but certainly will, be reactions of various kinds that wish to halt the movement’s development, which is not linear and snagged by those who wield fear of the slippery down spiral. But from the moment that Sarah Shnirer opened the floodgates of knowledge to Jewish girls, there can no longer be an expectation that all girls will quietly don the garb of marginalization, inequality, and abuse. Moreover, those in charge of preserving the Jewish traditions would do well to take note of this discourse, and take no action to trip it up or stall it. Rather, they should look to the apathy Jewish women develop towards Judaism as a result of their sense of helplessness and hopelessness in being able to introduce change. Apathy is far more perilous and leads to slow but sure degeneration of all that is good.
Esti Shushan is the founder and CEO of “Nivcharot Haredi Women for Voice and Equality”, runs the “No Voice No Vote” campaign, and manages the “Nivcharot Feminism” Facebook forum.