Print | Email  

Women, time to fight back!

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2007-02-23

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

I have previously written about the Achilles heel of non Orthodox denominations, but one of the sore issues of Jewish law, where many women continue to be let down by the rabbinate is that of Divorce and the Agunah, the woman who cannot remarry because she is not being given a release.

For all the talk and theory, women are, in practice, denied equal divorce rights with men. If a man refuses to grant a divorce ( a ‘Get’) he often demands money from the woman before freeing her and sadly rabbis tend to advise  women to concede. And a stubborn, vindictive apology for a human male, can simply dig his heels in and refuse to free his wife ever, even, as has happened, to the point of preferring jail. On the other hand when a woman refuses to accept a ‘Get’ rabbis find ways round it.

Why is this problem not being solved? In earlier generations rabbis allowed ‘pressure’ to the point of compulsion (because after all a divorce must be agreed upon) or in extremis, annulment. Orthodoxy has responded by encouraging secular civil courts to the dirty work for them by imposing fines until a religious divorce is granted.

Why has there been no real progress? It’s a reaction ideologically against anything that is perceived to be coming from beyond the confines of Orthodoxy. It is a refusal to allow any hint of other values to affecting ours. This stubbornness is reinforced by a post-Holocaust disdain for non-Jewish values. ‘They tried to kill us physically; let’s not allow them to kill us off spiritually.’  It stems from a perception of modernity as totally decadent and corrupt. And the more that non observant Jewry assimilates while observant Jewry expands, the more the immovable forces refuse to budge believing their approach is being proved victorious and therefore ‘right.’

There may be some merit to these arguments. It is simply that sometimes a specific situation calls for specific halachic responses. This has always been the way with halacha. How does one normally achieve changes in halachic attitudes? One presents a ‘Teshuva’, a halachic argument based on a traditional dialectic and style that brings earlier sources and precedents to support one’s case. Then there is a response from an authority. Then the respondent is responded to, and so the process continues until problems are ironed out or attitudes are slowly modified. There can be cases where one side wins outright, as happened over the issue of whether electricity can be used on Shabbat.

Occasionally halachic attitudes do change. Nowadays it can be psychological danger, not just physical, that warrants an abortion, something unheard of before Freud. Slowly brain death in addition to, or instead of, heart stoppage is recognized as determining death. But for some reason the issue of divorce has remained intractable. There’s been a dabble here, prenuptial agreements to allow a Beth Din to adjudicate ( many authorities do not accept them), a dibble there, desperate attempts to annul marriages by independent and often maverick Batei Din ( again not accepted by many). Indeed in certain parts of the world the civil courts are our allies, rather like the Shabbos Goy called in to help us have our cake and eat it when all else fails. So if, sadly, we who want to see a new approach within halacha have failed, where do we go now?

I used to argue that in Israel (unlike Britain or even America) the State Rabbinate, inspired by the moderating traditions of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook  Z”L and his followers, functioned independently of the Charedi world (who disdained and avoided them) and would therefore be more amenable to change. But the Charedi rabbis must have been reading me, because in recent years they have started to infiltrate and take over positions the State Rabbinate and we are beginning to see the negative effects on matters such as conversion as well as marriage.

The recent scandal over segregated seating on buses in parts of Israel is another example of brute religious male aggression. It’s not the principle that bothers me. There’s no reason why people who dress modestly should be subjected to current fashions of undress. I don’t object to segregated celebrations if that’s what people prefer and if some men are scared that a sight of a female might drive them to climax, they may well need to be protected! It’s the aggression with which the men enforce it that I find so offensive. Any man, no matter how he is dressed, or however much he claims to be Charedi, who can bully or embarrass a woman in the name of Torah is not religious. He is a reproach to Torah. But it is symptomatic of how some outwardly religious people think others can be treated.

So I have a suggestion and Purim gives us the clue. It is a story about what women can do. It starts with Vashti refusing to pose naked. She has been adopted by feminists as a true symbol. I’m not convinced. The context implies she was drunk, but it’s a nice thought. Then there’s Esther. She uses her femininity and her indirect approach to bamboozle the king and best Haman. Yes, you will argue it was the Divine working through human agents, but then I would counter that the same goes for halacha in general.  We humans take the ‘Divine Constitution’ and we use those parts of it we can to deal with problems as we see necessary. The trouble is there is none so blind as he who will not see (or act).

There are some examples of woman power in Orthodoxy. The first is the increasing tendency of women to be the breadwinners and to have professional qualifications way in excess of their husbands, and to insist on being heard on material matters. (The flipside to this is that an indolent, failed husband can then withhold a Get to demand his wife pay him.) The second is Torah study, where over recent years more and more women have studied Torah to such a degree that their knowledge now rivals men’s in all but the higher echelons of the Torah world. But these two examples show what female activism can do! Sadly all Batei Din are still dominated by men and increasingly by intolerant or immovable ones.

So I believe it is time for women to act, even some ( religious) civil disobedience. No not in England, don’t worry; I’d never expect compliant, passive, conformist Anglo-Jewry to blaze any trails. But in Israel, yes, there are enough feisty, learned, gutsy women there to populate a whole army and to strike fear into the hearts of the complacent.

Stop trying traditional methods. They don’t work. For years the late Penina Peli and others tried conferences and congresses and polite pressure and got nowhere.

Now its time for women who care about Jewish Law to demonstrate, to withhold- earnings, sex, cooking, the lot. If enough women demonstrate, their voices will be heard. Even if it comes to court battles, the protests could clog the system. Let women stop giving charity to Yeshivas or Rebbes who don’t support them. Let them pressurize their husbands not to give either until change is achieved. Money and sex can make a difference to men. And maybe, just maybe, some distinguished rabbis will wake up and take their heads out of the sand.

The recent conference of Jewish Feminists in New York heard several speakers call for direct action. I applaud them. I agree. I have marched with protestors on this issue for years and it’s got nowhere. Other voices called for diplomacy and patience. No!  The suffragettes fought for the vote. They got it. Now I believe Jewish women must fight to the point of disobedience for fair and equal halachic treatment.

Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com