Settler, Feminist, Future Rabbanit – Alumah Florsheim is a fascinating tangle of contradictions
Alumah Florsheim authored a compelling and impactful article, in which she called on the halakhic authorities to adapt the Niddah or family purity laws to women who have been victims of sexual assault, after she herself was a victim of rape. An interview with her reveals a woman who is about to be certified as a Rabbanit (spiritual and halakhic leader) but who also has reservations with the rabbinical establishment; a right-wing settler who supports talks with Hamas; a woman who married a Haredi man and maintains an egalitarian home with him.
Hilo Glazer | 3 September, 2021
Alumah Florsheim’s home in the student dormitories of the Hebrew University does not have air-conditioning and in vain tries to make do with the cool Jerusalem climate, even in the never-ending August heat wave. The only hint of a chill emanates from a poster of the film The Lives of Others about the monitoring of East Berlin residents by agents of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, hanging on a wall in the middle of the apartment. It is no coincidence that this is the most prominently displayed picture in the apartment occupied by Florsheim, who will soon be certified as a Rabbanit (spiritual and halakhic leader) by Midreshet Lindenbaum, Israel’s first and largest institution for women’s Torah study. Her studies there were preceded by a Master’s degree in German history. For her MA thesis, which dealt with the work of the Stasi’s intelligence photographers, Florsheim analyzed photographs filed in the organization’s headquarters in Berlin, not studying their “totalitarian esthetic” only as an archival exhibit, but deriving present-day insights from them as well. In fact, her in-depth acquaintance with the Stasi’s control and supervision mechanisms have given her a new perspective on the strict system of laws mandated by Jewish halakha itself.
“I’m not comparing the Stasi with Jewish law; that would be contrived,” she explains. “It comes from more a subtle and nuanced place of dealing with power structures. You can be very cynical and look at it from the outside in, as a secular person might look at the Orthodox world and say ‘How horrifying,” or you can look at it from the inside. In my study of the Stasi, I was constantly making that kind of movement – swinging between my critical, academic observation and looking inward and trying to see where it encountered me, where in my life such structures exist and how I can work actively from within them. And because in the end I decided that I was going to live my life within the halakhic framework despite all the difficulty I had with it, I realized that I would have to study it in depth, that I couldn’t allow Jewish law to be an external ruler over my life.”
When Florsheim talks about acting within the halakhic system, she is referring mainly to an article she wrote a year ago for the periodical Tehumin, a platform for Orthodox research, which addressed the laws of Niddah or family purity for women. In the article, she called to have those laws adapted to women who have been victims of sexual assault. According to the accepted laws, a married woman must count seven days from the end of her menstrual period, during which time she must carry out an internal inspection known as hefsek taharah. She must make sure that her uterine bleeding has ceased by means of the insertion of an ed bedika (a soft, white cotton cloth) in her vagina twice a day – in the morning after rising and before sunset. This customary strict approach requires “an examination of cracks and crevices” (i.e., the examination is conducted deep in the vagina). Florsheim explains that for many women who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the need the perform the invasive examination – and to do it so frequently – can cause painful memories to rise to the surface. That is why she suggests that these women be allowed to make do with a more superficial examination that halakha allows in the presence of certain medical circumstances.
“The Niddah laws can be very triggering for women who’ve been sexually abused,” says Florsheim, “and after studying the subject and being tested on it, I saw that in halakhic terms, it represents a space in which there is room to maneuver. I wanted to help the women and also the rabbis who encounter these questions.”
But even in this case, Florsheim did not approach the matter like a spectator from the stands. “While I was serving in the military, I was raped,” she states frankly – a revelation that is hardly self-evident for any woman, certainly not an observant woman who aspires to find her place among the ranks of Torah leadership. “I don’t recall exactly when I realized that that was what had happened, or when I told someone the first time. In fact, it was only when I was 27 that it erupted. My body simply crashed. It was a very difficult episode of a few months when I completely stopped functioning. Mentally and physically, I was a wreck. That’s what led me to write my article, even though it wasn’t easy to deal with the content of the trauma and recover.”
Did you find the writing therapeutic in any way?
“It’s hard to say. It was a very powerful experience, one that on the one hand contained an element of healing and on the other brought up some very difficult things. Post-trauma is very complicated.”
At a glance, even her bio appears more like an intricate knot of anomalies. Florsheim, 32, married plus two, is a woman who is about to be certified as a rabbanit but who has serious reservations with the rabbinical establishment; who says she grew up in a home devoid of ideology but was injured as a teen in a demonstration against the evacuation of Amona; who has always identified as “apolitical,” but inspired by the protest against the disengagement, arrived at her army base sporting orange anti-disengagement bracelets; who is “a right-wing settler,” as she puts it, but who challenged her fellow soldiers from the left; who is Modern Orthodox, but flirted for a few years with being secular and ultimately chose the path of becoming a Torah student; who married a Haredi man from Chabad, but has kept her maiden name and practices egalitarian parenting with him, including splitting maternity leave.
Confused? So is the Florsheim family. “I grew up in a very feminist home and in an atmosphere of contempt for rabbis. That’s why my father is quite ambivalent about my choice to become a rabbanit – he doesn’t know whether to rejoice because it’s a feminist act or be upset because it involves the rabbinate.”
But after getting to know Florsheim, one realizes that this collection of contradictions actually converges into a single, consistent worldview, one that is committed to casting doubt, is averse to rigid dogma and always prefers question marks to exclamation points. Or in Florsheim’s words, “My basic experience is one of duality – neither here nor there. On the one hand, there are drawbacks to this perpetual position of criticism, but on the other, I can feel at home anywhere.”
She grew up in Maaleh Mikhmas, a religious settlement in the Benjamin hills, the youngest of six children. Her mother, an educator who has written curricula and textbooks in history, and her father, a food wholesaler, were among its founders. “Mikhmas was established as part of the Allon Plan, and it was important to my parents that it be part of an official agreement, not out of a desire to poke a finger in the Palestinians’ eye. Even if the atmosphere around was hawkish, my parents had reservations with politics and never allowed me to go to demonstrations. Although my father, for example, fought in the Yom Kippur War and served many days in the reserves, he never regaled us with heroic stories about the army and I never saw him hold a rifle or a gun, unlike the fathers of my friends who volunteered to do guard duty for the community. The ideology was present in their actions, but they did not talk in ideological terms.”
Their attitude towards religion was also characterized by flexibility. “They took things very easy, in terms of their approach and also in terms of external appearance. The women in my family wore trousers and didn’t cover their hair.”
In general, Florsheim grew up in a family that took a somewhat sardonic view of the Gush Emunim settlement movement. “Sometimes it was expressed in an ironic perspective on the excessive religiosity, the longing for the Holy Temple, the messianism. And sometimes it took the form of harsh criticism, for example of the undue militarism in this society.”
Despite this, when in 2006, nine homes were demolished in the settlement of Amona at the instructions of the High Court of Justice, Florsheim participated in the tempestuous demonstration in which thousands of young people barricaded themselves on the site and confronted police. “Some of the homes belonged to teachers of mine in the Ulpana High School for Girls in Ofra, so my protest came more from a personal than ideological place,” she explains. She barely escaped in one piece. “While logic would have it that when you see mounted police officers rushing at you on their horses, you should get out of the way as fast as you can, my logic as a 16-year-old teen was to take them head on. My back was injured – not seriously, but from time to time, I still get a reminder of what happened when it says hello. I was left with a psychological imprint. My crisis in wake of the evacuation was not one of faith, but rather in terms of the state and its institutions.
Another significant childhood memory was the Second Intifada, a period defined by repeated terror attacks in the territories of the West Bank, further to severe and continuing restrictions imposed on the Palestinian population. “Sometimes surprise roadblocks would be set up and I recall how the Jewish cars drove through while the Palestinian cars had to stop and wait to be inspected by the soldiers. Sometimes, the inspection was reasonable, and sometimes they would undress them and make them stand in the middle of the road.
“Once on Hanukkah, the rabbi of the school gathered us and said some things about the revolt against the Greeks and added something like, ‘I can’t even imagine what it could be like to live under an occupation that dictates to a person where he may or may not go,’” she continues. “I remember myself raising my hand and saying to him, ‘You just have to cross over to the other side of the road and look.’”
To see what occupation looks like?
“Occupation is a repulsive word because of all the contexts that have become attached to it, but yes – to see what it looks like when people are deprived of the right to decide where and when they may go.”
Florsheim chose to enlist in the IDF. “Most of my friends did national service, and those that didn’t were placed in the ‘classical religious’ positions in the army – as education NCOs, teachers, etc. I knew that wasn’t for me and that I needed to do something analytical.” She was selected for the elite Shehakim course of the Intelligence Corps, and for the first time encountered people from different backgrounds. “At least stereotypically, the environment was very Tel Avivian, leftist, elitist. Graduates of the Telma Yellin High School of the Arts, IASA (Israel Arts and Science Academy in Jerusalem) and the children of politicians and artists. People who had never actually seen a Palestinian. It was even more striking when I arrived on the scene in the Palestinian arena as an investigator.”
In what way?
“I remember the talk about the IDF as a moral army – what’s right and wrong to do. But it always remained in the combat and tactical zones. ‘Knock on the roof,’ assassinations, etc. The discourse never moved over to other areas or took an in-depth look at what we are doing there. It didn’t interest anyone. And so, I thought to myself, what kind of leftism is this? It remains on the level of the slogans that their parents chant.”
Was that a thought that you kept to yourself or did you say anything?
“On the personal level, close friendships developed during my service and I think there was also some kind of reconciliation between my views and theirs. But I remember when a dilemma arose as to whether or not to conduct negotiations with Hamas. I said: Why not? Of course, if they’re the ones that control the territory, then they’re the ones we have to talk to. Everyone looked at me like ‘Who is this nut?’ That’s when I suddenly realized that ideology doesn’t allow one to take action, that it’s actually paralyzing. People who came from the left were captives of paradigms, whereas I didn’t owe anything to anyone and could thus see things as they were.”
During her military service, Florsheim rented an apartment on Tel Aviv’s Shenkin Street. “Part of that time, I tried being non-observant, but not for long periods,” she recalls. “Quite a few of my friends experienced a crisis of faith as a result of the disengagement from Gaza. In general, I’m sure there are quite a few people who left the religious fold who can point to the disengagement as the breaking point. But for me, faith was always a simple matter, and the confusion was more a personal issue.”
And didn’t the attempt to become non-religious address it somehow?
I tried to be secular but I couldn’t. I mean I was able to eat non-kosher food and not keep Shabbat, but it didn’t feel right. The whole time, I had a feeling that something was pulling at me. Once again, it wasn’t ideological in the sense of an orderly manifest that I had inside my head, but rather emanated from a movement in my soul.”
To ride a bicycle to the delivery room
When she completed her military service, she moved to Jerusalem and began to study, and has never actually stopped since (“I’m a perpetual student”). In addition to her studies, she also taught Hebrew in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and was among the founders of Lissan, a nonprofit that promotes accessibility to the study of Hebrew and Arabic for Arab and Jewish women in Jerusalem. She herself volunteered in East Jerusalem, especially in the Arab Isawiya neighborhood.
“I’ve never been involved in politics,” she explains. “We don’t hold dialogues on coexistence or peace. The goal is only to teach Hebrew. A lot of women say they need Hebrew in order to be able to talk with their doctor or an official in the office of the National Insurance Institute. The needs are basic.”
And still there’s something fraught about teaching Hebrew in East Jerusalem. For the women there, the motivation to learn Hebrew is mostly a lack of choice. It’s not an enrichment course.
“The activity is always bottom up. We respond to requests that come from the field. The idea is not to be the colonialists who have come to teach them to speak the language. We are inundated with requests so it seems that we’re addressing an existing need.”
But her social action did not make Florsheim feel complete either, at least not in religious terms. “I felt that believing in God is nice, but it’s not enough, and that if I want to remain religious, I have to study the religion,” she explains. As part of her undergraduate degree in history, she enrolled in several theology courses. “I studied Judaism, Christianity, Islam because I thought the academic angle would give me peace,” she pauses, pondering the geekiness that emerges from her words and adds, “said no one, ever.”
Florsheim’s non-categorical style often takes the form of self-deprecating humor – a virtue that is not a given when it comes to a future spiritual leader. “I always laugh when I put on my headscarf because both my father and husband are very much against it [in the Chabad movement, women wear wigs – author’s note]. The head covering itself is perceived as something that’s very patriarchal, but in my case, it’s just the opposite, because the men around me are so against it.”
So why then?
“Once again, it doesn’t come from an ideological position. Women can talk about their head coverings from here to eternity, but that’s not me. This is simply the life I live now. It comes together with my entry under the wingspan of Jewish law.”
It was a gradual entry. Parallel to her studies in the university, Florsheim began to study Torah in the Beit Midrash for Women in Migdal Oz. “But at that time, I didn’t yet touch halakha, which to me seemed boring, too technical, a matter of men determining how women feel and how they should live. In the end, I realized that I had no choice. I studied Talmud, Hassidism, the Zohar – all of which is good and important, but I understood that if I want to remain religious and succeed at it, I needed to grab hold of the hot potato known as halakha.
Florsheim registered for the Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) at Midreshet Lindenbaum. Midreshet Lindenbaum is part of the Ohr Torah Stone network of institutions that aspires to implement far-reaching changes within Jewish religion, but only within the framework of a strong commitment and adherence to Orthodox halakha. The WIHL is the realization of this vision because it is a track that parallels the ordination of men to the rabbinate. The program’s fellows live as yeshiva students for five years (“[Yeshiva students] without quotation marks,” insists Florsheim. “It’s my day job”) and they receive stipends (paid for by private donations, rather than by the state, as in the case of married male students). At the end of their training, the status of Spiritual Leader and Morat Hora’ah (authorized to provide direction in matters of halakha – Jewish Law) is conferred upon them. In April of this year, Shira Marili Mirvis, a graduate of the program, was chosen as the first Rabbanit, woman spiritual and halakhic leader, of an Orthodox congregation in Israel, Shirat Hatamar in Efrat. Her story stirred up considerable interest in the international media too. Florsheim, who will be graduating in about a year and a half, does not necessarily share that aspiration. “In a certain sense, I’m already doing community work with people from the neighborhood who come to me. I like it that the community is not organized according to geographic boundaries.
“Most of the people that come to me are women who’ve read the article that dealt with the laws of Niddah and identified with the difficulty. There are women who know someone who’s had a similar experience and they perceive this as an invitation to talk about things even if they’re not related to the laws of Niddah. I listen to them and I’m there for them as much as I can, but there are cases when I can’t, because I don’t have the ability. I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist. I can only address the matters from a halakhic perspective.”
The second type, she says, are people who are “somewhere on the religious spectrum, and it’s not always clear to them where they are. I understand them well. I’ve been where they are, which is something that not a lot of rabbinic figures can say.”
In terms of pure knowledge, don’t you come from a position of inferiority compared to rabbis who’ve been studying Talmud since childhood and who are familiar with the entire Jewish bookshelf?
“Sometimes I may have technical difficulties with a specific matter, but I overcome them relatively easily. I’ve read papers written by men who’ve been learning Torah their whole lives but lack basic literacy skills. I have good skills so I can catch up. To say nothing of the fact that I bring with me things that those who’ve only been studying in a Beit Midrash don’t necessarily have. There’s something distorted in the learning of those who do nothing besides learning Torah. They become very analytical, theoretical, hair-splitting. Disconnected from actual life.
“There’s a story of a yeshiva student who wrote a treatise on whether a woman in labor should travel by car to the hospital on Shabbat, and his conclusion was that she should ride there by bicycle – just to demonstrate how disconnected they can be from actual lived experience,” she illustrates. “But that same disconnect exists in other ivory towers too and in other learning societies that are not necessarily religious.”
But other ivory towers are not characterized by an unequal division of roles by definition, where the woman is the breadwinner and also the one in charge of the housework, in order to enable the man to study.
“It depends on the family. Sometimes it’s the husband who takes the children to their schools and picks them up. If you go to a community clinic in a Haredi neighborhood in the middle of the day, you’ll see children mainly with their fathers. In many homes, there’s a kind of role reversal, in which the women are the breadwinners and the men are the main caregivers for a few years. And it should be pointed out that in secular society too there are quite a few women who work until four in the afternoon and then bear most of the burden at home too. This phenomenon is not unique to Haredim.”
You define yourself as feminist and Orthodox. Isn’t there a clash?
“Of course there is. Most of my difficulties with Jewish law are related to the status of minorities, including women. But if I’ve decided to be part of this world, I have to get to know it as best I can. That’s the only way I can become an agent of change within it. The difficulty is with the motivation to enter it.”
To be an agent of change means to accept rules that you disapprove of.
“That’s right. I wouldn’t be able to live in a system that I could completely control. That would be too fluid and could move in any direction. If the entire thing is no bigger than me, something of its meaning gets lost.”
In Reform Judaism, for example, women are counted as part of a prayer quorum and women rabbis have been ordained for many years already.
“Reform Judaism has undergone so many changes in the 150 years of its existence that you have to ask yourself: What does it ultimately converge into? What connection is there between the Reform movement today and what those who founded it envisioned? Everything is very fluid and mutable. But that doesn’t imply that I’m criticizing the Reform movement. There are a lot of people for whom it’s a good fit. For me personally, it’s not. I never even toyed with the idea. It was clear to me that if I wasn’t religious, I’d be secular.”
The wall of halakha
Florsheim spent most of her 20s feverishly studying and didn’t devote too much attention to matters of marriage and family. No one in her family pressured her about the subject either. “The concept of ‘late singlehood’ didn’t exist in our family,” she says. “I always got the message that I was complete as an individual, that I could develop as far as I wanted and that it wasn’t necessarily dependent on marriage and children. That’s why I didn’t feel pressured, with the exception of the accusation that came up from time to time, a kind of internalization that ‘You’re too broken and no one will want you.’”
At first, the accusation appeared as a crack and Florsheim thought she could mend it herself. “I could have remarked to people, ‘It’s something that happened to me,’ but I wasn’t really connected to it. I didn’t understand the deeper meaning of what had happened, of how it affected my life. I was disconnected. And when I did become engaged with it, the main emotion was guilt. That’s why I didn’t go for therapy. Until my body made itself heard and crashed. Apparently, it just kept piling up until everything overflowed. I have no other explanation for why it happened at that particular point in time. Perhaps it was the realization that it wasn’t my fault.”
Such a realization could have been expected to be something cathartic, liberating.
“Yes, but liberation is also a form of brokenness. It’s a breaking of everything you knew about yourself until that moment.”
How do you tell your parents such a thing?
“Although my parents are open and communicative, they had a hard time with the fact that I told other people about what happened so easily. I explained to them that for me it’s a way to neutralize the guilt. Just as a generation ago, people kept it a secret when someone had cancer and today that doesn’t make sense to us; the same goes for emotional states.
“And just as talking about it has helped me, it also helps others,” she continues. “A lot of women with whom I was only casually acquainted were simply drawn to me like a magnet as soon as I started talking about it. Women I’d never spoken to before would sit with me for hours and share some of the difficult things they’d experienced.”
During that time of intense sharing of her experience, she began dating Shmuel, an electrical engineer at a startup company she met through a mutual acquaintance. She told him about the sexual assault already on their third date. Florsheim draws a direct line between her being able to discuss the subject openly and her ability to establish a healthy relationship.
“So much so that it even freaked me out,” she says. “I thought that perhaps I was in a state of euphoria, and it took some time before I could trust my relationship with Shmuel to know that it was objectively good and not the byproduct of me being in a kind of high.”
She gave birth to her two sons in the Palestinian Saint Joseph’s Hospital in East Jerusalem.
“A lot of people thought that was a strange choice, but it was important for me to give birth in a place that allows a natural approach to giving birth. It took on a dimension of beauty, but that’s also related to the assault. For victims of sexual assault, childbirth is often a difficult situation and they need a supportive environment, which is not always possible in general hospitals.”
Why is it important for you to talk about the subject publicly?
“For the same reason I shared it with other women personally. If I had known someone when I was 19 who had experienced something similar – even if I didn’t necessarily talk to her, but just knew of her existence – I could have spared myself many years of pain and guilt. There is tremendous strength in reflecting an experience.
“I so needed that person that could tell me ‘Me too,’ ‘It’s alright,’ ‘It will be okay,’ someone who could tell me that I’d have a life afterwards, even a full and normal life, so much so that I’d be able to talk about the assault in different contexts, to write about the subject. My psychologist said that engaging with the subject is indicative of a very high coping level.”
At the same time, Florsheim underscores that dealing with sexual assault is not necessarily linear and that it may not move in a fixed direction. “When I started writing the article (about the laws of Niddah), I was already in a place of recovery, of strength, and that’s why I felt I could do it. But when I received the editors’ comments on the text, I was pregnant, and once again, not in a good place. It turns out that pregnancy is also a kind of trigger. It was very difficult for me to reopen the subject and introduce changes. An encounter with the same text six months later can evoke completely different emotions.”
May I ask why pregnancy is a trigger and sex is not?
“It’s of course very individual and varies from one woman to another. Of course there are women for whom sexual relations are a trigger. For me, they’re not. So why is pregnancy a trigger? It took me a while to figure that out. It’s a kind of feeling that something is happening in my body, inside me, without me having any control over it. And to that of course are added concerns over what kind of mother I’ll be, what of what I experienced I will pass on.”
Can the Niddah purity inspection can be a trigger even when sex isn’t a trigger?
“Again, it varies from one woman to another. With sexual relations, you have a partner. Someone who responds to you, who maintains eye contact with you. With the inspection, you’re entirely alone. It’s something you do to yourself and that can trigger anxiety.”
Was the incentive to address the subject by writing the article also personal?
“There was nothing redemptive about it and I didn’t relate to it as something that was intended for me. What’s more, even at the stage when the inspections started to become relevant for me, I was already in therapy and I knew how to do them in an adaptive way. But yes, there were also more difficult times.
“I think my academic engagement with the subject was yet another stage of maturation. You understand that you’re not alone in this place, that perhaps there’s value in people knowing that you’ve experienced something similar, that you learned, that you know. It’s a bit like talking about the sexual assault.”
Perhaps instead of introducing adaptations to the purity inspection, wouldn’t it be better just to oppose the custom, certainly when it comes to women for whom it’s a trigger?
“If I were to tell a woman, ‘Don’t do it,’ I’d lose her. She’d dismiss me as being Reform. Anyone who doesn’t want to do it doesn’t have to. They don’t need me for that. For the women who do ask, it’s important for them to observe it and they want me to help them find a way to do so. A woman also has the prerogative to take stricter measures with herself as long as she is aware of the costs and significance.”
Don’t you have a problem with the terminology of “purity,” when the mirror image is that on the other days the women is “impure?”
“No, because pure and impure are not words that carry a value judgment in this context. And as a rule, we use the terminology of ‘permitted’ and ‘forbidden.’ Because today, in the monogamous family structure, the laws of Niddah are a matter for both members of the couple. When you are forbidden, your husband is also forbidden. It isn’t a misogynous system that coerces women. It’s true that for the woman, the praxis is more complex because it is applied to her body, but from a feminist standpoint, as far as I’m concerned, it’s meaningful that she and her husband are in it together.”
But the laws of Niddah, as flexible as they may be, nevertheless subject the women to the constraints of times and habits. Is it really possible to uphold them and still enjoy a healthy sex life?
“They certainly cannot come in place of a healthy couple relationship. I hear Niddah counselors say things like ‘The waiting will cause you to long for each other.’ I consider that nonsense and it infuriates me in terms of ageism as well. After all, a woman stops menstruating at around the age of 50 and she has another 40 years or so to live with her husband, a time when they are seemingly ‘permitted’ to each other all the time. So what are you saying, that there’s no longing anymore and that the love is over? I’m not there. The Niddah laws are not what are going to make your relationship healthy.”
So what’s the justification for them?
“They are simply part of our halakhic system.”
So in the end, we hit a wall and say – this is the law.
“And then we check to see if the wall is passable or not. If I could live with everything in peace, my work here would be done.”