Sitting in a meeting, chewing over some complex sensitive issues, I mansplained a respected female rabbi... and I liked it! Well, not really.
I confess there is so much I don’t know about women (Rabbis) and the experience of women in the rabbinate. But I’m listening and learning.
Alternative Title: Sex, Harassment, Jail and a President: You Gotta Love Israel
Score one for Women’s Rights! Score another for Israel doing Justice and for Ethical Standards!
It is bittersweet but ethics-affirming to read that Israel distinguishes itself again. Very soon, Israel’s eighth President Moshe Katsav will enter jail to serve a seven year sentence for the unanimous conviction of him in the Tel Aviv District Court a year ago of two counts of rape, two counts of sexual harassment, an indecent act using force, and obstruction of justice.
In its judgement, the court said the testimony of the main complainant in the case, a woman known only as “Alef” from the Tourism Ministry, was credible. Alef testified Katsav had raped her twice, first in his office and then two months later in the Sheraton Hotel in Jerusalem.
There are those who will be embarrassed by the whole situation, that Israel’s then president was convicted and is being jailed. What will “they” think?
Celebrate a Victory for Women’s Rights and Justice
I, for one, observe this as a moment to celebrate. We don’t celebrate the downfall of a once important political leader; rather we celebrate the victory of women’s rights and justice over machismo and sexism.
Israel exists in a macho neighborhood, awash with a culture of patriarchy and paternalism. Just this week, Israeli journalists caught on tape another shameful example, in the form of sexist comments – about female soldiers defending Israel no less – between the Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.
But Katsav’s conviction and the impending incarceration are watershed moments. The message is clear: no more must women be subjected to, and silently endure, the sexist comments, groping or worse by men in power. If the President of the country can be tried, convicted, jailed (and forced to resign) over these heinous actions, then it can happen to YOU too. So clean up your language, your attitude and your behavior!
A Much Needed Win in the Struggle over the Role of Women in the Public Sphere
Israel is in the midst of a battle with fundamentalists Jews (yep, OUR fundamentalists) over the role of women in the public sphere. Groups are protesting recent decisions forbidding women for singing at public gatherings in Jerusalem, forbidding women’s pictures from appearing in ads on buses and billboards, and forbidding women’s active participation at relative’s funerals. This fight is part of an all-religion, global struggle between fundamentalism and liberalism. And we Jews must struggle to retain and expand hard-won women’s right.
Israel is a country that has made so many strides for the equality of women (think Golda Meir and the early inclusion women in the military). Given the issues with ultra-orthodox fundamentalists, Israel still has a long way to go. But let’s pause in the fight for a moment to praise this little county for doing what so many other places couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t. Israel held responsible a man in the highest echelons of power who sexually harassed his female employees.
Israel Religious Action Center at the Center of the Struggle
A side note: yasher koach (May your strength be firm!) to our Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and its Executive Director Anat Hoffman, who have been – and are -at the forefront of many a fight for women’s equality in Israel. Read more here.
On December 30, 2010, a three-judge panel unanimously found former Israeli President Moshe Katsav guilty of “rape, sexual harassment, committing an indecent act while using force, harassing a witness and obstruction of justice.”
Indeed, Mr. Katsav’s many offenses directly hurt not only the citizens he assaulted and demeaned, but, as a leading representative of the state, his actions harmed the government and people of Israel, whose principles, trust, and international image he egregiously violated. Against this shocking and depressing reality, however, the Israeli courts and the media restored a measure of dignity and hope by doggedly pursuing justice and fearlessly speaking truth to power.
Instead of being appalled by Mr. Katsav’s actions and expressing sympathy for his victims, a group of his political supporters comprised of dozens of community rabbis, heads of yeshivot, and other religious educators rushed to his defense following his conviction.
Today, I signed onto this letter by an international group of Rabbis and Jewish religious leaders which opposes the ridiculous and religiously indefensible letter by a small group of Israeli rabbis to support Mr. Katsav. I – and we – affirm our Jewish commitment and support for women’s rights in Israel and around the world. I thank Rabbis for Human Rights – North America for organizing this response.
Raping Our Faith, Assaulting Our Society: A Jewish Response to the Rabbis Defending Katsav
As rabbis and other Jewish leaders, we agree with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said that the conviction of former President Moshe Katsav for rape and other crimes was a “sad day for Israel,” but one which showed that in Israel “all are equal before the law, and that every woman has exclusive rights to her body.”
As rabbis and religious leaders ourselves, we are horrified that dozens of Israeli community rabbis, heads of yeshivot, and other Jewish educators came to the defense of Mr. Katsav following his conviction. In a public letter to the former president, these leading Israeli rabbis slammed the “poisonous media,” urged Mr. Katsav to “be strong and continue to insist on the truth uncompromisingly” and closed their letter by saying “Respectfully yours and with deep appreciation as before.”
We find this rabbinical defense of a violent criminal to be shocking. It is shameful that these religious leaders staked their position in the name of Zionism and Judaism. To speak in this manner, as rabbis, is a hillul haShem, leading to a public denigration of Torah and Jewish tradition. Underlying their letter is a total disregard for the Israeli system of justice, a dismissal of a serious investigation, a willful rejection of a fair and careful trial process.
It may be that the rabbis who rallied to Mr. Katsav’s support have high regard for some of his positive accomplishments. But he has no claim to honor, certainly not to rabbinic praise. “Who is honored?” our tradition teaches, “The one who honors other human beings.” (Pirke Avot 4:1)
We stand united in our support for women’s rights in Israel and around the world. As we learn from the Torah, both male and female were created in the divine image, b’tzelem elohim (Genesis 1:27). It is this shared human expression of the divine image that is both the foundation of equality of all gender expressions and of the Jewish understanding of human rights.
Just prior to a shiva minyan (after a funeral) service at the mourner’s home, I was approached by a congregant who asked me “Rabbi, are women included in the minyan?” This veteran Or Ami congregant, an active Jewish woman, surely knew that our congregation, and this rabbi, recognize the uncompromising egalitarianism intrinsic to Judaism. Unlike our orthodox brethren (of Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and other faiths too) who graft a foreign patriarchal stream into a once egalitarian tradition and thus do not count or fully include women, we count women as full partners in the minyan (the 10 adult Jews needed for a communal prayer service).
Knowing that she must have been teasing me, I said with a straight face, “sure, as long as you don’t sing the prayers out loud…” She, a few other longtime congregants and I all chuckled at that, and I turned back to my preparations for the service.
My wife contends that sometimes my sarcastic humor is not evident to people who do not know me. Case in point: a few moments later, another congregant approached, saying that some of the other non-Or Ami guests were shocked to learn that the mourners were part of a synagogue which, apparently orthodox, did not include women in the minyan! Unfortunately, their shock turned initially to embarrassment as I explained to them the underlying joke. After the service, we finally laughed about the whole situation.
It did give me pause. I would have hoped that most of the Jewish world, by now, would have embraced our God-given egalitarianism so that anachronisms – like not counting women as part of a minyan – would be a thing of the past. Alas, this is not so.
In many places around the world, women are still considered secondary or second class citizens. Sure, there is an attempt at apologetics to explain away the differentiation. But in truth, they remain of secondary status. And in Israel, these attitudes lead to other, more drastic situations:
- In ultra-orthodox areas of Israel, some buses are segregated and women are expected to sit in the back.
- At the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem, women are confined to a small area on the side (the men’s area is huge). Women cannot pray with tallit or chant from Torah, as is traditional in progressive Jewish movements around the world.
- Women cannot be divorced in orthodox Judaism without a “get” (Jewish divorce document) from the husband. Thousands of women in Israel cannot remarry because their husbands will not give them a “get.”
The Reform Movement has worked for full equality of women – ordaining them as rabbis and cantors, having them serve as Temple presidents, inviting them back into the center of Judaism as was intended. May the attitude, that there is anything okay with the segregation of women – on buses, in prayer, in a minyan – soon be an artifact of the past.
As we prepare for Shabbat, for relaxation, spirituality and community, we take a moment to recognize that there are some who would like to dictate how all Jews should celebrate this holy day. In Israel, some ultra-orthodox are pressuring the Israeli government to transform Israel’s holiest religious sites into orthodox synagogues, excluding progressive Jewish women. Before, or after you celebrate Shabbat, take some time to read and speak out:
FROM: Rabbi Robert Orkand, ARZA President, Response to Interrogation of Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of IRAC
RE: Interrogation of Anat Hoffman, leader of Israel’s Women of the Wall
On behalf of almost a million and a half American Reform Jews, I react with dismay and alarm to the recent report that Anat Hoffman, leader of Israel ’s Women of the Wall, was interrogated and fingerprinted on January 6 by Jerusalem police. She was told that she may be charged with a felony for violating the rules of conduct at what many consider to be Judaism’s most sacred site. The action against Ms. Hoffman who is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, follows on the arrest in November of Nofrat Frenkel a member of the Conservative movement and a medical student. The crime: wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) not at the Wall itself, but at an area that had been previously designated a place where Women of the Wall can gather for a once-a-month worship, as they have done for the past 21 years.
These recent actions at the Wall insult all Jewish women for they are being reminded, as they have so many times in the past, that they are second-class Jews at a place that is not a synagogue but rather, an historic site of great importance to all Jews, not just those who are Orthodox. The insults to which Women of the Wall have been subjected cannot be repeated in polite company. The fact that the police have seen fit to arrest women who went to the Wall for peaceful prayer and not those who have screamed that the Nazis should have murdered these women is a stark reminder of the lengths to which the ultra-Orthodox in Israel will go to force their religious practice on an entire nation.
One must wonder why the people of Israel tolerate a religious fanaticism that is no different than what we have witnessed in Iran and elsewhere. There have been riots on Shabbat by ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting the opening of a parking lot near the entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. There have been riots in Jerusalem protesting the fact that an Intel plant operates on Shabbat. There are now segregated busses in Israel on more than 90 routes, with demands that the number of routes be increased. There is a growing crisis in Israeli education due to the fact that there is not a core curriculum required of every Israeli student, which means that increasingly students are being exposed to a narrow religion-based curriculum and are not learning the subjects that will allow them to function in a modern society. In short, Israel is the rare democracy today that tolerates and even worse endorses religious discrimination against Jews. The promise of Israel’s “Declaration of Independence that Israel will be a homeland for all Jews appears to be nothing more than a dream.
Make no mistake: What appears to be a growing religious crisis in Israel is as much a threat to Israel’s survival as are the external threats, perhaps more so. Israel has shown that she can protect herself from armies and terrorists. Protecting herself from religious extremism may be Israel’s biggest challenge—a challenge that cannot and must not be ignored by those who care about Israel’s soul.
FROM: Anat Hoffman, IRAC Executive Director—Personal Call to Action A Call to Action—Make the Wall for all Jews
On January 5th, 2010, I, Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, and leader of Women of the Wall was called in for questioning and fingerprinted by the Israeli police. They warned me that I was being investigated for the felony offense of wearing a tallit, and holding a Torah at the Western Wall.
My interrogation comes less than two months after the November 18th, 2009 arrest of the Women of the Wall member Nofrat Frankel for wearing a tallit and holding a Sefer Torah at the Wall.
We are asking you today to contact your local Israel Ambassadors and Consulates and tell them that you will not tolerate religious discrimination or be forced to practice the religious ideologies of the Ultra-Orthodox community. You can write your own letter or sign the letter we have attached. (see below)
Israel must understand that the will of a small fundamentalist minority cannot take the Wall away from Klal Yisrael.
- Please send your letter to your Ambassador Michael Oren
- Send a letter to your local Israeli consulate
- Please also send this communication to your friends and family so that the message will come from as many people as possible
- Other ways that you can show your support are to purchase a Women of the Wall tallit ([email protected]) or by making a donation to IRAC’s work advancing Jewish pluralism and tolerance in Israel and fighting to end religious coercion and discrimination. http://www.irac.org/Donate.aspx
- Lastly, organize a solidarity rally or prayer service for the Women of the Wall on the next Rosh Hodesh, Erev Shabbat January 15th 2010
Local and International Advocacy Action within the Jewish community
On behalf of the Jewish people fighting for religious pluralism in Israel , I am outraged that one of our leaders, Anat Hoffman, was interrogated and fingerprinted by Jerusalem police on January 5th, 2010. Police told Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall, that she may be charged with a felony for violating the rules of conduct at what many consider to be Judaism’s most sacred site.
Hoffman’s interrogation came less than two months after the November 18th, 2009 arrest of the Women of the Wall member Nofrat Frankel for wearing a tallit and holding a sefer Torah.
We will not tolerate this discrimination and abuse to continue among our own people. Women are treated as second-class citizens at a holy and historic place that has great symbolic importance for all Jews.
We are shocked by the brutal and callous insults to which Women of the Wall have been subjected. Many of these curses cannot be repeated in polite company. Israeli police have seen fit to arrest women who go to the wall for peaceful prayer, and make no attempt to reprimand those who spit and curse at them, a stark reminder of the power enjoyed by the Israeli ultra-Orthodox, and their success in forcing their religious practices on an entire nation.
If this were to happen in any other country in the world, the Jewish community would be up in arms. Israel is the rare democracy today that tolerates and even endorses religious discrimination against Jews.
Make no mistake: What appears to be a growing religious crisis in Israel is as much a threat to Israel’s survival as are the external threats, and perhaps more so. Israel has shown that she can protect herself from armies and terrorists. Protecting herself from religious extremism may be Israel’s biggest challenge—a challenge that cannot and must not be ignored by those who care about Israel ‘s soul.
We cannot allow this discrimination to continue any further. We must protect our religious rights in Israel.
Pass on our message to the Israeli government, that the Kotel is the beating heart center for the whole of the Jewish people, and not an Ultra-Orthodox synagogue. The arrest and intimidation of women praying at the Wall must stop and it must become a place in which all Jews can pray and connect spiritually to Israel.
According to JTA,
Israeli police questioned a prominent Reform movement activist in connection with the wearing of prayer shawls by women at the Western Wall.
Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, said she was fingerprinted Tuesday and that her case was being referred to the attorney general for prosecution.
Hoffman was brought in for her involvement in Women of the Wall, an activist group that presses for rights for women at Judaism’s holiest site.
“I think it was a meeting of intimidation,” Hoffman told JTA.
The interrogation follows the November arrest of Nofrat Frenkel, an Israeli medical student and Women of the Wall member who was detained after donning a tallit at the site.
Including Rabbi Sharon Brous, Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Rabbi Naomi Levy, Rabbi Lynn Brody, Rabbi Denise Eger and Women of the Wall’s Anat Hoffman.
Among the most important contributions of the Reform Movement to Judaism, was/is its rebalancing the gender roles within our religion/people. We brought women out from behind the mechitza and onto the bimah. Judaism thrives because of this. Innovation? No, reclamation of what was and should be.
Divrei Derech writes: Yes, a woman was arrested for wearing a tallit, the traditional Jewish prayer shawl. What theocracy might perpetrate such a travesty… Israel.
First of all, I do believe Israel is a relatively good democracy, like others (including our own here in the U.S.), certainly not perfect, and it’s partnered with a relatively good system of justice.But we know that politics get complex and especially so as they intersect with religion.I remember seeing the group Women of the Wall Women of the Wall when I lived in Israel. Their purpose was to gain the right to pray at this holy site. Unfortunately, some traditional authorities do not accept women constituting a prayer group and do not accept women praying aloud. Read on.
Having been nurtured on a diet of equal rights and feminism, I find the challenges of orthodoxy and fundamentalism (not always the same, but often related) to be most difficult when focused on the role and rights of women. So even while I applaud this piece of news, I still remain frustrated that our Jewish orthodox lack full enlightenment…
The Jewish Forward describes the stunning change at a glacial pace, regarding Orthodox Jewish women’s roles:
After years of serious study and service to her community, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Hurwitz was given the brand-new title of Maharat — an acronym signifying one who is a public leader, halachic decider, spiritual guide and Torah scholar. In the words of her mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, she is “a full member of the clergy, with the distinct voice of a woman.” Were she a man, she’d be a rabbi. Were she a Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative Jew, she’d be a rabbi. But Hurwitz really wanted to stay in Orthodoxy’s fold, a decision both comfortable and challenging.
It is a partial step in the right direction:
Hurwitz’s not-quite-a-rabbi role omits two important tasks that only men are allowed to perform — leading a public service and serving as a witness. The rationale is that these aren’t necessarily rabbinic roles, since non-rabbis (who are men) may perform them. But anyone who has been to an Orthodox service on a Saturday morning knows where the action is. And it’s not in the proverbial balcony. This refusal to grant full rights to women bothers those outside the Orthodox world, and also within it. Writer Blu Greenberg, who has advocated for years that her fellow Orthodox women be allowed to become rabbis, spoke eloquently at the conferral ceremony about the grand achievement of the day, and the work left undone. “I would be less than candid were I not to acknowledge that even this joyous day has its moments of qualification, that I and many others… had hoped that the new credential this day would have been ‘rabbi’, as Sara has shown herself to be qualified both in her learning and her leadership,” Greenberg said.
Or as New York’s Jewish Week puts it: Mahawhat?: A Rabbi by Any Other Name