The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

January 26, 2012 by Rabbi David Ellenson

Beit Shemesh, Religious Extremism, and the Dignity of Women: Some Lessons from History

Vera Weizmann voting in Israel's first elections

The recent contretemps in Beit Shemesh riveted the Israeli public and brought worldwide attention to the misogynistic treatment accorded women in the public square by certain sectors of ultra-Orthodox Israeli society.  As is by now well-known, some ultra-Orthodox Jews there hurled insults and engaged in bullying an eight-year-old Orthodox girl named Naama Margolese for dressing “immodestly” on her way to school.  These same Jews also rioted when public street signs situated in an area inhabited by a population of ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, and secular Jews that instructed women to dress according to their particular standards of modesty were removed.  In recent months, ultra-Orthodox sensibilities have also led to the creation of bus routes where women are segregated and consigned to the back of the bus.  On some public ceremonial occasions, women have been prohibited from singing lest their voices offend male listeners and on other occasions when women have sung there has been the spectacle of rabbis placing their hands over their ears to block out their sound.  These episodes of Jewish religious extremism unconscionably objectify women and are absolutely incompatible with the democratic and egalitarian values upon which the State of Israel was founded.

This is not the first time such conflict between sectors of the ultra-Orthodox community and the other Jewish citizens of the State of Israel has been manifest.  Indeed, such clashes predate the State itself.  The ways in which secular and especially Orthodox religious leaders spoke out and acted in those cases provide models for how I would hope that present-day Israeli and Jewish religious leaders would respond to the concerns these events in Beth Shemesh and elsewhere evoke.

In 1917, the British Mandatory Government in Palestine decided to create a Jewish Assembly that would govern the affairs of the Jewish community, and an Elected Assembly was to be chosen.  On December 28, 1917, the committee charged with responsibility for the first Elected Assembly decided that members of the Elected Assembly should be chosen through direct election in which all men and women above the age of twenty then living in Palestine would vote.

This recommendation to include women in the electorate was vehemently opposed by ultra-Orthodox elements in the “Old Settlement” in Palestine who decried this advancement in the rights of women as an attack upon their efforts to preserve a traditional way of life in the Land of Israel.  In contrast, the “Zionists” of the “New Settlement” saw this proposal as an indispensable foundation for the creation of a modern Jewish nation.  Over the next two years, stormy arguments ensued.  However, the modern forces led by figures such as David Ben-Gurion within the pre-State Jewish settlement would brook no compromise on this matter, and they insisted that full rights be granted to women to vote and to serve in office.  While the ultra-Orthodox then responded by initially stating that they would boycott the elections that were held on April 19, 1920, they ultimately chose to vote as they feared non-participation would not be in their self-interest. The rights of women to participate fully as equals in the modern political structure of Jewish pre-state Palestine were thereby assured.

Three decades later, when the State of Israel was actually created, the issue over extending suffrage to women and their eligibility for public office arose once again.  It seems the issue remained a controversial one for many within the ultra-Orthodox community.  Sensitive to this struggle, Rabbi Meir Ben Zion Hai Uziel, then the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, refused to be silent and published a legal opinion, “Concerning the Participation of Women in Elections for Public Institutions,” on the matter.  Rabbi Uziel boldly insisted that women had a “basic human right” both to vote and be elected to public office.  He stated that women, no less than men, were created in the Divine Image, and observed that women were the intellectual equals of men. 

Rabbi Uziel further maintained that women had every right to participate as equals with men in the public sphere.  He observed that women were surely as able as men to engage in commerce, and that their administrative and organizational skills rivaled and often exceeded those of males.  Rabbi Uziel found it completely absurd that some men claimed that the mingling of sexes at public polling places would lead to sexual misconduct.  Indeed, Rabbi Uziel observed that if extending suffrage to women would lead to sexual licentiousness, then no semblance of normal life could be unregulated.  Such logic would require that men and women be forbidden from walking together in the street and would neither countenance the joint presence of a man and a women in a store at the same time nor allow women and men to engage in conversation on such matters.  Unlike those ultra-Orthodox Jews in Beth Shemesh today, he insisted that no reasonable person would ever entertain such notions.  Simple justice therefore demanded that women be allowed to vote, hold office, and participate as their male peers did in political and commercial life. 

Rabbi Uziel was not alone in making such unequivocal public declarations at that time.  His Ashkenazic counterpart, Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, agreed with him.  In his own legal writings on the matter, Rabbi Herzog said that the modern State of Israel must be completely committed to the principle of gender equality and favored the full participation of women alongside men in the political life of a nascent Israel.  He dismissed as groundless the concerns of those who feared that female involvement in the public life of the State would lead to sexual misconduct, and observed that men and women mingled together constantly in the courts and in the marketplace.  Like Rabbi Uziel, Rabbi Herzog argued that if one defined such conduct as immodest, then no semblance of normal life would be “left any human being.”  In addition, he applauded the complete inclusion of women in the political life of the State of Israel and maintained that such inclusion “removed a discrimination that had led to the denial of their rights as human beings.” 

In adopting the public stances they did against the outcries of their ultra-Orthodox compatriots, Rabbi Uziel and Rabbi Herzog wielded their considerable prestige to assure the democratic and modern character of the State of Israel.  Their courage and their willingness to exercise their authority on behalf of women shine out from the past and provide a model of how responsible religious – and secular – leadership in Israel ought to behave today.  For those of us who love the State of Israel, let us hope that the religious and political leaders of Israel today follow their examples and act to assure that the dignity and rights of women in the public domain be maintained and that Israel preserve its character as a democratic and modern Jewish nation against these anti-modernist forces of religious extremism.

Rabbi David Ellenson is President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  He and Daniel Gordis have recently co-authored Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Orthodox Repsonsa (Stanford University Press).