A Woman’s Place

A female rabbi has spent years fighting the ultra-Orthodox-led discrimination against women in Israel. Now the rest of the country is joining her.

Ultra-Orthodox Jew.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray on the banks of the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv.

Photograph by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images.

Last week, synagogues around the world began reading the Book of Exodus. The story of the Israelite people enslaved in Egypt begins with their suffering under the hands of Pharaoh, who slowly increases the heavy and senseless nature of their work, demoralizing them until they finally cry out to God for help.

Mainstream Israeli society has reached a similar point of demoralization in recent months following one after another attempt by the ultra-Orthodox sector to “put women in their place.” To this I say, “What took you so long?” As a female rabbi living in Israel, I have spent years trying to shed light on the gender inequities, promoted by the ultra-Orthodox, that have seeped into mainstream society through laws and cultural practice. 

Take the public buses in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Women who refuse to sit in the back, cordoned off from men, have found themselves harassed, even beaten. Now there are even separate women’s supermarket shopping hours, amusement park days, and streets on which women walk on one side of the road and men on the other, more like Saudi Arabia than the democratic countries with which Israel tends to ally itself.

I have long refused to get used to the rigid gender requirements the ultra-Orthodox have chosen for themselves—and that affect me in numerous ways. When I called my state socialized-medicine provider a few weeks ago to make a doctor’s appointment, I was told to come in modest dress, because the clinic is located in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. Uncomfortable with the mandate, I made the appointment to see the same doctor somewhere else, although I will have to travel farther to get there. It is winter here, so wearing a big, long coat would not have been a major inconvenience. But on principle, I will not be party to this blatant—and rapidly spreading—violation of my civil rights.

The imposition of ultra-Orthodox ideology on the rest of Israeli society has been going on for years. Signs have been posted in ultra-Orthodox (haredi) neighborhoods for decades telling women to dress modestly, by which they mean sleeves covering the elbows, skirts below the knees, a high neck line, closed shoes with socks or stockings, and a hair covering. People seemed willing to go along with this when visiting these neighborhoods, I gather, because they felt that as long as they were visiting haredi turf, they should respect the community. No matter that the idea behind the dress code is that women should cover themselves up so as to prevent male sexual arousal, rather than teaching men to control themselves and relate to women as intellectual and spiritual equals.

Moreover, there is a sense in Israel that the ultra-Orthodox are somehow the most authentic of Jews and therefore the proper keepers of religious traditions. When I first moved to Israel 15 years ago, I immediately became active in Women of the Wall, a group of women who have been praying aloud at the Western Wall, where there are separate sections for men and women. On the men’s side, there is loud singing, group prayer, and reading from the Torah scroll, while on the women’s side there is only silent individual prayer. For raising our voices in prayer, we have been harassed and even physically attacked by ultra-Orthodox men and women alike. The fact that I, a tax-paying Israeli citizen, could not pray as I wished at a public religious space, seemed to me an unthinkable violation. But most of Israeli society, including both the modern religious and the secular, was not nearly so outraged.

In Israel, marriage and divorce, as well as conversion and burial, are handled by the rabbinate, which has become increasingly rightwing over the years. Through the rabbinate, the ultra-Orthodox have also imposed their misogynist outlook on marriage laws. Because traditional Jewish marriage is unilateral, where in essence the man is acquiring the woman, it is only the man who can end it. And he must do so willingly. Many women wait for years to get a divorce; others never receive it. Moreover, there is no civil marriage in Israel; any couple who wants to be recognized as married in Israel must marry through the rabbinate or in a civil ceremony in another country and then return to Israel and register as married with their certificate from abroad. As long as marriage and divorce were seen as the religious sphere, people were willing to tolerate this infringement of their civil rights.

Indeed, the state-sanctioned enforcement of traditional gender roles even affects the mikveh, the ritual bath. Single women (as well as openly gay and lesbian couples and people who are marrying or converting outside the rabbinate) are forbidden at state-run mikvehs; single women are banned because ritual immersion removes the impurity incurred by menstruation. By Jewish law, menstruation renders a woman sexually forbidden until she immerses, so the rabbis see single women’s immersions as a license for them to have sex outside of marriage. It was not until this month that a case was submitted to the Supreme Court to protest this situation.

That suit is part of a broader pattern of women (and men) beginning to finally fight back against the ultra-Orthodox. For example, when women soldiers were told they could not sing at army functions. Or when pictures of women began to disappear from bus stop billboards. Or when a fringe radical group of ultra-Orthodox in the city of Beit Shemesh whose women appear in public only with blankets over their heads, began harassing modern religious women and girls in the city who dared to walk in public in knee-length skirts and sleeves that did not cover their elbows.

Why is it that this phenomenon has finally upset enough people to cause a communal cry? The ultra-Orthodox sector, where families with 10 or more children is not unusual, has grown over the years—to the point that they have become a real threat to the mainstream in Israel.

Trying to reach out to the haredi women—who, after all, have born the brunt of this sex discrimination for generations—is challenging, even fruitless, it sometimes seems. When I participated in a dialogue between Women of the Wall and some of the ultra-Orthodox women perpetrators of verbal and physical abuse at the Western Wall, our conversation did not go very far. At every pivotal point in the conversation, the women would refuse to think independently and claim they had to check with their (male) rabbinic authorities before accepting anything we said—even when we showed them authoritative Jewish legal texts to prove our points.

When a documentary about Women of the Wall premiered at a film festival a number of years ago, I brought three of my daughters to see it. They were horrified by footage of haredi men and women physically and verbally abusing women in prayer. And when at the end it became clear that the Women of the Wall were banished by the government to an alternative site—where we would be neither seen nor heard—to pray, my then-6-year-old daughter said in the wise yet naive way of children—“Ima, you mean the bad guys won?”