Yesterday was the Kolech
Conference (Forum of Religious Women- Feminism is not in the title but it is an unspoken part of their charter). Though I was only able to stay for two sessions – I did hear a few thoughts that moved me and made me think.
I felt an overall push this time for women to take up the reigns of leadership – as poskim and as Rabbis. More so than in the US, the modern religious community in Israel feels very bound by halakha, is fluent in the texts that make this system, and still refers to Rabbis for ‘heterim’ or dispensations when their personal needs and law conflict. Which means the realm of writing psak and answering questions engenders Rabbinic control of the community.
Malkah Petrokovsky (Midreshet Lindenbaum) spoke about the importance of family planning and urged Rabbis, Poskim and teachers to take up the issue of birth control and family planning in a public and serious manner. In her experience many of her students feel required to have children immediately and if they ask for a “heter” to take birth control they will often receive permission for only 6-8 months.
I thought her call to put this topic on the table was very strong and well put. She was both emotional about the need to take up this issue and persuasive about the ability for the halakha to cope with change and adapt itself to people’s individual needs.
She also advocated a different vision of halakhic consultation where the posek or poseket gives the lay person the knowledge they need to make such personal decisions on their own, yet within the halakhic system. (In the US many modern orthodox couples already feel that this question should be decided without consulting a Rabbi or halakha).
The question arose at the conference: what changes will occur as women become more vocal and respected within halakhic decision making world. Malkah’s speech suggested that the topics discussed and the sensitivities brought to the table will be different. But her words also suggest that the approach to psak and the structure of hierarchy and control will be different. A “Feminist” halakhic expert (female or male) may no longer dictate law; He or She use their knowledge to empower people to make knowledgeable decisions in light of Jewish law.
It's worth reading about the Tzohar Rabbis: they are trying to put a more open and modern face on the Rabbinical Establishment in Israel. I applaud their efforts to compete with the monopoly that the Rabbanut holds on marriage and divorce in this country.
Still, I worry that the Tzohar Rabbis may remain squarely Orthodox (and more important orthodox- with a lower case "o") in their halakhic thinking. And I wonder if they will have the gall to uproot some of the systematic inequities that lead to the problems of mesorovot get, as described in this creative article.
Painting by Cricket Diane C Phillips
The recent Air France plane crash has halakhic consequences for one women whose husband was on the flight. While she and her family had a natural reaction to plan a memorial ceremony after the coast guard began finding the awful remains of the plane and its passengers, the Rabbis were debating her status as a married woman, an agunah, or a widow.
If a woman's husband disappears, she must remain in limbo, awaiting the facts of his absence. The talmud says, if a man drowns in a Yam Shayin lo sof, a sea that has no end (a very large one), then the Rabbis free her on the assumption that we have enough (if not 100%) proof that he died.
I don't want to add my own comments today, for this issue feels like a Sea of tears with no end, for the widow, for agunot of all types of cases, and for mesoravot get.
I do have to say the comments on this recent article
intrigued me. While I disagreed with a few, overall I was glad to see a civil public debate on the topic.
I was just rattled by this article about “victim feminism.” Marla Braverman claims that second wave feminism, in pointing out the systematic forces that work to keep women down, has created a generation of women who see themselves as victims. Consciousness Raising itself creates women who don’t feel stronger for recent gains, but rather accept that the deck is stacked against them.
The most startling claim she made is that sexual harassment victims who do not protest and or make reports immediately are part of the problem. Had we been trained to see ourselves as loud outspoken strong women then…. well then what?
Problem is, Braverman suggests that those women who report abuse after the fact are themselves adding to the sense of victimization by declaring their own victimhood and scaring more women about the invincible predators lurking around the corner. So perhaps they should have protested in the moment, she suggests.
Yes why not, women should be trained to voice their consent or refusal loudly and clearly. Maybe we can strengthen our sense of choice and voice. Yet that does not erase all the societal barriers than need to change for this utopia of women’s strength to flourish. (Maybe that’s the “victim feminist” in me). Society at large – not just women- still attributes shame to being sexually harassed and to talking about sex in general. Moreover, how do we change a boss or a professor’s awareness about his or her power, without talking about it?
I’m not sure how I would react if I was ever put to the test, but I know that I have gained from the conversation about power dynamics. I know that as a teacher I am aware of the influence I hold over my students and I try to use it wisely. I agree that all relationships: sexual or professional, work of friend, across gender lines or across power divide are complicated. And perhaps the court room, as Braverman suggests, is not the best place to begin policing some of the more nuanced cases she mentions. Still I am not certain that the work of feminism in the societal and educational spheres can yet afford to stop raising awareness.
I recently attended the conference on Halakhic Prenups, mentioned in this article. I must say there were a lot of fascinating details, that differ from the RCA agreement, which I had not been aware of. Here are just a few tidbits.
1) The prenup is entirely egalitarian. Both the wife and husband-to-be sign this document promising to pay each other a certain amount of increased food stipend if either side is recalcitrant (meaning the husband refuses to give a get or the wife refuses to accept or either side doesn't show up for their court date. )
2) The Israeli prenup builds in a period of reconciliation. During the 6 month waiting period, which precedes the requirement to pay each other the sum mentioned above, either side can request marriage counseling, with either a psychologist or a rabbinic figure. The second person (usually the one who sued for divorce) must attend three sessions in order to maintain their right to the sum at the six month point.
I learned a lot at this training conference and hopefully will share some more details in further posts.
An article I wrote about Esther's suit to make the Megillah part of the canon was posted on Matan's webcite in honor of the month of Adar. I wrote about the underlying moral responsibility that comes along with our communal memory of Purim.
We learn really slowly- but sometimes when you read the same daf over and over again it becomes like those pictures where a hologram jumps out of them.
Our topic is sex. And it is very tangible as the gemarah circles closer to the intercourse itself on daf 5-6. In asking whether losing your virginity (or breaking the hymen) is allowed on Shabbat, we are all lead to picture the actual act of sex. And lo and behold the gemarah is filled with phallic images.
The detour right before the Shabbat question is all about how the body is designed perfectly. It says if you are about to hear lashon hara you should put your finger in your ear. This is why your fingers and ears are shaped the way they are, says the gemarah. I couldn’t understand what this was doing here, until I read the gemarah for the enth time and it jumped out at me as a serious phallic image.
Then the gemarah begins working through Shabbat laws and how they relate to breaking the hymen. We are being led to imagine all the different problems on Shabbat - blood being released from the womb (a strange understanding of why some women bleed when they loose their virginity) or an opening being formed, a wound being inflicted. This section really leaves you confused envisioning sex, trying to figure out how the woman is shaped, where thy hymen is and where the Rabbis thought it was.
The gemarah compares our case to another Shabbat case, that of stopping up a hole in a barrel with a rag to prevent spillage. On the one hand this case struck me as inappropriate because we were focusing on creating an opening, letting out blood, or making a wound, not soaking a rag in fluid and squeezing it out which is the focus of this case. While we might have expected a case that had to do with wounding or breaking, this case of stuffing a barrel is surprisingly related as another super phallic image.
I am left wondering if the very act of sex is potentially questionable on Shabbat – not the breaking of the hymen alone but the penetration. The idea of penetrating a woman, of changing her status through the first act of sex, perhaps even exertion on the day of rest is one that raises questions about Shabbat.
Or perhaps the rabbis were just subconsciously using images that mirror the penetration they are envisioning.
Before the sun sets on this year’s Chanukah, one of the many neurotic holidays that remind us of all the bad things non-Jews have tried to do to us, I want to talk about one more Hazard that connects Chanukah and Ketuboth.
I think the Braita on daf 3b leaves us wondering when was this “time of danger” that caused the ancient Jews to change weddings from Wednesday to Tuesday. Not surprising several writings about Chanukah (including the Geonim specifically and other Midrashim) describe persecution along these lines – Greeks raping Jewish women in general, specific targeted rapes of brides on their wedding night. One source even explains that young couples were invited to sleep together before their wedding, so that even if a Greek would rape her, she would already have an emotional bond to her husband.
There is one story that I want to share here. For a long time leading up to the rebellion the Jews would avoid violating the decrees of the Greeks without direct conflict. If they were told women were not allowed to go to the Mikvah, they simply would not sleep with their wives. This way they didn’t violate their Judaism but they didn’t provoke the Greeks either.
Until the daughter of the Cohen Gadol, Yehudit (in one version), was supposed to get married to one of the Maccabi brothers. At this point the Greeks had a decree that the governor had the right to sleep with the bride before her wedding. Some marriages were done in secret but not all could avoid the Greeks prowling eye. But Yehudit wouldn’t stand for it. She stripped in public and shocked the Maccabis who wanted to burn her as a harlot. Then she spoke: You are embarrassed that I stripped in front of Jews, but you are willing to send me naked, powerless to the Greek governor to be raped. Her speech embarrassed the Maccabi’s so much that they decided to rebel. Instead of attempting to hold the wedding in secret, they dressed her up in her wedding clothes and paraded to the house of the governor as if they were gladly giving her over to be raped- and then they killed the governor starting the rebellion in force.
This article, which outlines the current political battle between civil and Rabbinic courts in Israel for adjudicating monetary issue of divorce, doesn't per say blame the Rabbinic courts any more than the system as a whole. (Though the article does describe the mad dash to file for divorce: the women in civil court - where she'll get a fair hearing, and the man to the Rabbinic court, where he'll get favorable treatment.) We are a schizophrenic country with competing courts and confusion and injustice abounds.
I want to comment on the Mishnah order in chapter 5. I think attention to order (and disorder) reveals the Mishnah’s awareness of woman’s need for a certain amount of economic independence within marriage.
The Mishnayot seem to be following the order of the natural progression of events in planning and executing a wedding. At the engagement the price of the Ketuba is set (Mishnah 1), then during the couple’s engagement both the man and women are entitled to a year’s time to work to make money for building the household, making the furnishings, or executing the wedding (Mishnah 2); if the wedding date comes and goes, certain rights and responsibilities kick in at the end of 12 months even if the wedding is pushed off (end of Mishnah 2). The fourth Mishnah picks up where the 2nd left off: it details the responsibilities of a wife to her husband once the marriage has begun. The fifth talks of the husband’s responsibilities to his wife after the wedding.
The third Mishnah in this chapter seems, raises eyebrows and seems totally out of place. It asks can a husband donate or vow to donate his wife’s handiwork to the temple, making the forbidden for everyday use. The larger question at hand is to what extent is the woman economically independence in the marriage and in control of her earnings. The Gemarah fills in some details: the Rabbis dictate that during marriage a woman should hand over her handiwork to her husband in exchange for his responsibility to feed her. However there is a debate as to what comes first. Perhaps he is essentially responsible to feed her, but in order to not to create bad feelings, the Rabbis ask her to pitch in by contributing her earnings to his total assets. Or maybe he owns her handiwork automatically and in return he is responsible to feed her. In the end of the day he can only donate her handiwork if he owns it a priori, or if he has control over her “hands,” meaning he has the ability to force her to work.
Ultimately most opinions suggest that a woman can opt out of such a contract – even though it may be built to protect her – she can choose to refuse his food and thereby keep her own handiwork to support herself, demonstrating that she owns her own handiwork and can choose how to use it. First point I want to make is that on the basic level this discussion reminds us that women were not always as economically dependant on their husband’s as we may imagine. They worked both in and out of the house, sometimes bringing the second salary into the household, sometimes choosing maintain their own savings.
We are still left with our original question: why does the Mishna bring up issues of bank accounts during marriage, when the progression of the Mishnayot are still dealing with the pre- marriage stage? Why not lay out the basic rules of the game (Mishna 4’s description a wife’s basic responsibilities) before discussing the exception to the rule, the woman who keeps her own savings, the man who tries to donate his wife’s salary as if it were his own?
I think this out-of-place Mishnah addresses the transition FROM independent wage earning woman (albeit young) who spends the year before her marriage earning money and furnishing her new house TO dependant wife who is fed at her husband’s hand and turns over all her earnings to his bank account. This Mishna answers perhaps the emotional needs of a transitioning woman; even when she becomes part of his family estate, she maintains a certain amount of control over her contribution to the family. Despite the fact that she may deposit her money into his bank account, so that he can divvy out the spending money for the week- still she has some independent control over her own productivity in that he can’t donate it against her will, and that she has the right to craft a more independent economic arrangement.