My younger son once had a girlfriend who almost never spoke in public. She would sit through one Friday night meal after another at our house (where the conversation was always lively and loud) opening her lips only to insert a mouthful of food.
We liked her and didn’t think her silence was an act of hostility, but we were curious. When asked, she said—in a voice so low she could barely be heard—that there was already enough talk in the world and that she had no interest in adding to it.
I could use a similar explanation for my recent silence on the blog, but that would just be an excuse. One of my New Year’s resolutions (my only one, so far, and one I’m adopting a few days early) is to resume writing for my blog.
For the past few months the Israeli media have been filled with news reports, editorials, and op-eds about the exclusion of women in Israel. Recently, there was a hubbub because Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where women sang. The supposed prohibition on men listening to a woman’s voice comes from talmudic discussion that includes the statement, “A woman’s voice is nakedness [or vagina, depending on your interpretation of the Hebrew].” (For a relatively liberal interpretation of the prohibition see a responsum by Rabbi David Bigman).
The media have also reported an incident in which a nonreligious woman refused to move to the back of the bus on one of the so-called mehadrin (super-kosher) sex-segregated routes of the government-subsidized Egged bus company, and a similar incident in which an ultra-Orthodox woman refused to move.
The latest flurry, which brought protestors last night to the streets of Beit Shemesh (a town about 25 miles west of Jerusalem), involved an eight-year-old girl Orthodox girl who was spat upon on her way to school by an ultra-Orthodox man who claimed she was not dressed modestly enough.
None of these issues is new. The mehadrin buses have been running for years, and they continue to operate despite a ruling by the High Court of Justice. Tension in Beit Shemesh between ultra-Orthodox and less religious and secular residents has been high for years; in the past there have been flare-ups, for example, over the sale of nonkosher meat.
And for many decades signs have hung on houses lining the main streets of Mea She’arim—an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem—adjuring Jewish women to dress modestly. Nearly 20 years ago I had to be in Mea She’arim on business and wore a dress (my only one) that came down below my knees and had sleeves down to the elbow; but it was pink, a color not frequently seen in those parts. A little boy who could not have been more than five years old ran by and yelled “Prietzeh” (whore) at me.
There are many explanations for the current festival. One is that it is convenient to have a rallying cry that cuts across political lines, so that we can forget the discrimination against various groups in Israel (including labor migrants who are usually designated by a name that suggests they are idol worshipers). Another is that politicians, especially the prime minister, are delighted to be able to be seen leaping to the defense of the beleaguered half of the population. And yet another is that by having a clear culprit (ultra-orthodox Jews—some of whom are distancing themselves from the extremist 1% they say are responsible for the trouble) we can go on ignoring the discrimination against women at every level of Israeli society (and on this see the incisive op-ed by Merav Michaeli).
Despite our Declaration of Independence that promises to ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex, and despite our laws, including a progressive one on sexual harassment, we still live in a patriarchal society. Compared with European countries (with which we like to compare ourselves), we have miserably poor representation of women in our Knesset. Women earn lower wages than men for equal work. Men decide which sections of the Israel Defense Forces women will be allowed to participate in. And on and on.
In response to the Orthodox pots that like to call the ultra-Orthodox kettles black (as in Beit Shemesh), I say that the moment the piety (and honor) of a family, clan, or community inheres in the modesty and chastity of women (as it still does in Judaism and Islam and did in Christianity in the past), it is but a tiny step to spitting on, or stoning, women who do not conform to the rules made by men.
Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.