The New Religious Women
by Chen Artzi-Srour
Yediot Aharonot, Shabbat Magazine 23/8/2018 [Translated from Hebrew]
They had been considered an oddity, but what began quietly on social media gave birth to a revolution: religious feminists have evolved into agents of social change. They speak out against sexual abuse, demand changes in the way the mikveh (ritual bath for women) is run and attain certification to rule on issues of halakha – they also dance, speak out about sexuality and are building an alternative community.
Chen Artzi-Sror, whose book about this phenomenon is being published, went back to meet with four of her book’s heroines to discuss their victories and the price they paid for them.
When the community she lived in announced daily Daf Yomi learning in the synagogue, Moriah Ta’ason-Michaeli was happy. Daf Yomi is a long-established practice of studying one page of Talmud each day, part of a way of life for religious men who do not have the time for full-time Torah study but want to allocate time for a fixed session each day. Moriah decided to join her community’s sessions and even prepared independently because, as opposed to me who have many years’ experience in studying Gemara, religious women don’t have enough of a background. They study halakha in a basic way, but the vast majority has never studied Talmud at all. “Despite the difficulties involved in leaving my house and children, I freed up my evenings and checked that it was OK for me to come. I sat by myself on the other side of the mehitza (partition between men and women’s sections of the synagogue) and I didn’t utter a sound. All I did was to listen to the group of men as they studied together. I wasn’t an equal amongst equals. Nevertheless, the following day, someone called to advise me that it would be better if I didn’t come anymore. The men were bothered by my breathing behind the mehitza. This was the only place for me as a woman living in a small community in the Benjamin region to study Torah, and now this too had been stolen from me just because I am a woman. My single opportunity. I did not absolve [them], and I did not forgive.”
Moriah has now left her position in the public sector, choosing instead to study advanced halakha at the Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership. She is embarking on a rigorous, Sisyphean course of study at the culmination of which she will be tested in exams identical to the semicha (ordination) exams administered [to men] by the Chief Rabbinate. She will not only learn and teach Torah but she will also be qualified to answer halakhic queries.
The disparity between the sense of powerlessness and exclusion experienced by Moriah and the exciting future that awaits her, encapsulates the story of religious feminists in the Religious-Zionist sector. This is the story of women who were once looked upon as an oddity, as strange or unusual, who for the most part weren’t taken into account, and then suddenly they received a voice and a space. One of the reasons for this change was social media. When the feminist-religious revolution hit social media, meaning each home and every smartphone, suddenly tens of thousands of women could freely articulate their pains, their dilemmas and their achievements and they realized that they were not alone. The virtual power had become a real one.
Who will marry you?
The feminist and sectoral change may be seen in almost every field: sexuality and body image, Torah study for women, the place of women in the synagogue and in religious observance, the perception of political and rabbinic systems and the formation of a complex identity which is both religious and feminist. This may sound like an oxymoron, but the “New Religious Women” are here to stay and to prove again and again that the two identities actually work excellently in tandem.
As a religious feminist, I also found a safe haven in these groups. But alongside the feeling of partnership, I also understood that what is happening here is much greater. We are witnessing the unfolding of a social and human narrative that needs to be documented and told in real time. So I went to interview and meet the personalities behind the screen.
Each woman I met proved just how much the personal is political and how much the political is very personal. This fascinating phenomenon formed the basis for my debut book The New Religious Women, which has just been published by Yediot Sefarim. To coincide with the book’s publishing, I went back to meet four of the featured women who are active in various fields:
- Rabbanit Devorah Evron (56) lives in the north of Israel in Mitzpeh Netofah and is the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership.
- Moriah Ta’ason-Michaeli (33) lives in Givat Harel in the Benjamin region and is a blogger for “Female Settlers on the Web”. She previously worked as a parliamentary assistant for MKs Uri Ariel and Miri Regev and is about to commence her studies at the Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership.
- Attorney Sagit Peretz-Deri (38) lives in Bet Shemesh and is a social and political activist.
- Na’ama Plesner (44) lives in Jerusalem is a mind-body therapist who founded “Avodah Shebaguf – Connecting Mind, Body and Soul” and is an activist in the sphere of mikvaot – ritual baths.
Artzi-Sror: “How can you be both a feminist and religious?”
Rabbanit Evron doesn’t understand the question. “I am a feminist because I am religious. I wholeheartedly believe in the idea of God’s ongoing revelation in the world. This is a fundamental Hassidic tenet. As far as I am concerned, feminism is part of this revelation. Our Sages taught: ‘If someone tells you that there is wisdom among the nations, you can believe him.’ Throughout the generations, Judaism has adopted corrective ideas which sprouted in other cultures. For example, in the 19th century Nationalism was the forerunner of Zionism. My feminism is primarily a religious tikkun olam (bettering of the world). Social media has of course accelerated all these processes and we are no longer considered individual crazy women; we are together.”
Peretz-Deri: “I was considered crazy, a weirdo, a witch. And now, the social media networks have granted us all legitimacy. Until then, people with greater spiritual authority than me would argue with me and my traditional relatives would laugh. As far as they were concerned, I was this strange girl whom they asked, who will marry you?”
Ta’ason-Michaeli: “It appears that we’ve all heard that sentence.”
Peretz-Deri: “I used to think that this was simply old-fashioned chauvinism. But then I understood that all girls hear that sentence in various ways, both overtly and covertly. ‘Don’t stand out in the crowd, don’t be too clever, too obstinate. Don’t be too much of anything, just be an average type of girl, so that you will get married. Nonconformists don’t marry.'”
Ta’ason-Michaeli: “My hair covering affords protection from a social perspective. The fact that we are married and have children implies that we are ok, we’re not witches. It’s a stamp of approval. Many religious people are afraid of feminists, but when they see that I am religious, one of them, they might even listen to me.
“I used to say that I am not a feminist because the term has negative connotations in our sector. Instead, I would say: ‘I am not a feminist, but …’ and then go on to say the most feminist ideas I could. Instinctively, I did not want to be tagged as a feminist because of the stigma attached to the term. Then I joined a forum [on Facebook] called “Halakhic Feminists” and I understood, that is who I am. A religious feminist. Within the group, I allowed myself to be my true self without having to justify myself. It’s not as if I have other options for meeting women like myself. We are lone ambassadors.”
“It’s a complex decision what kind of feminist you want to be,” says Na’ama Plesner. “Not only do you lose your innocence, but also if you look at everything with a critical eye, you run the risk of developing existential bitterness. When I saw I was approaching that point, I stopped. I choose to fight when my inner voice calls on me to act. I pick and choose my fights, and in between, I enjoy the right to keep quiet, because I feel I do not have to carry the weight of all the world’s problems on my shoulders.
“My feminism emanates more from the mind-body connection and less from agendas and ideas. Until recently, women did not talk about their bodies among themselves and now we have reached the point where we have an explosion of female counselors for healthy sexuality. A religious woman essentially doesn’t have a body until her wedding. This sounds terrible, but this is the feeling shared by many women. My own emancipation began when I began to study dance. I felt like crying from the revelation that I have contact with my body and that I truly live within it, not from a halakhic or medical perspective but rather in the language of the body for the sake of the body. Today this understanding, which until not long ago was considered a revelation, is far more common. We encountered this in our struggle to improve the mikveh experience as well: going to the mikveh is an isolating experience for many women, suddently with the advent of social media things changed. We have an opportunity to share, to express anger, to offer tips, tp understand what is legitimate and what is not.”
Rabbanit Evron: “One of the difficulties in the gap between reality and the social networks is that the pace of the social networks is so much faster, which almost leads to the sense that nothing is enough, which causes disappointment. But real life is in the facts on the ground.”
Ta’ason-Michaeli: “A friend once told me that I’m pitiable, because I always see the injustices in any given situation. In my community, which is the world of the right-wing settlers, I will always be perceived as ‘Reform.’ Now I live in peace with myself, but at home in the community it is much harder. In the secular world, people are surprised to meet a feminist settler but they are much more curious to find out more about it.”
Rabbanit Evron: “They [secular people] are far less judgmental because I do not pose a threat to them. The whole concept of religious feminism is changing the social and familial structure within the Religious-Zionist sector. We are changing the agenda within this sector and determining what people will talk about: mikveh, sexual violence, prostitution and the hierarchy in synagogues. It is no longer an oddity.
Not alone at the mikveh
Artzi-Sror: “Now that the religious feminists are no longer an oddity and have become a force to be reckoned with, I want to hear about the price you paid. Did you experience more frustration or more satisfaction?”
Peretz-Deri: “It’s complex. When a woman knows Torah, she does not know how to define herself. How can I get official recognition for my knowledge? I know more Torah than many men I have met, but how am I supposed to introduce myself? ‘I am female religious scholar’? I am not an avrech (a man involved in full-time Torah study), I am not a dayan (religious judge), nor a rabbi. So I tell people, I study and teach Torah. It’s cumbersome. These are frustrating moments.”
Plesner: “My daughter is six years old, she gets up early every morning for selichot (penitential prayers before Rosh Hashana) and loves going to synagogue. But I know that at a certain age, the world will signal to her that the synagogue is not her territory.”
Ta’ason-Michaeli: “Religious women pay a heavy price for their feminist choices, also from the perspective of couplehood and family. The fact that you have suddenly awakened doesn’t mean that your partner is in the same place. It wasn’t bad for him until now during tefilla (prayers) or in the community. Some women decide to cover up that side, to be feminists in places that don’t really affect their home. And the synagogue is one of the most family-oriented places there are, so many women just let it [the feminism] go. There is a limit to how much a woman wants to be in the opposition.
“Social media provides a solution for some of these prices we pay, because it pierces the loneliness. Suddenly there’s an opportunity to be the guest of communities which have already undergone the process.
Once you have experienced prayers at a synagogue which gives you a place, it is so difficult to go back.”
Plesner: “There are also other difficult situations. When the gabbai (in charge of the order of synagogue services) of my synagogue hands over the Torah scroll to me in the women’s section, not one woman approaches the scroll. Some of them will tell me to return it to the men’s section. There isn’t always cooperation from the women, sometimes even the opposite.”
Ta’ason-Michaeli: “But just as the greatest difficulty is within the family, so too comes the greatest satisfaction. Just now, when our daughter was born, we marked the event with a “brit bina” (literally: a covenant of wisdom, in parallel to the brit mila ritual of circumcision performed on a male infant) to commemorate the covenant between her and God, and to publicly name her. My spouse and I both had a siyum masechet (ceremony celebrating the completion of study of a Talmudic tractate) with the children. My mother gave our daughter her name, including reading aloud all the verses and blessings. It was a very moving ceremony because, although we had designed a new format, it was deeply rooted in family and tradition.”
Rabbanit Evron: “Even before I was tested for morat hora’ah (license to rule on matters of Jewish law), I mentored the women in our synagogue who read from the Torah on the Simchat Torah festival. Suddenly, one of the young girls said, ‘Mom, please be quiet, Rabbanit Devorah wants to say something.’ Do you understand? She called me ‘Rabbanit’ because that is how she saw me. She didn’t ask for my formal credentials; what she called me was a reflection of the reality she saw. Our greatest achievement is when a reality that we could never have imagined becomes the norm.”
Artzi-Sror: “On the other hand, we have to deal with an all-out campaign against religious girls enlisting in the IDF and the exclusion of women from the public sphere. Harsh statements such as those from Rabbi [Yigal] Levinstein from Eli that ‘they’ve driven our girls crazy’ or Rabbi [Yosef] Kelner who describes any successful woman as a ‘bachurilla‘ (derogatory term mixing the Hebrew words for boy and gorilla). How do you handle this?
Rabbanit Evron: “I am the moderator of the beit midrash (study hall) for the Forum of Directors of Premilitary Preparatory institutions, so these issues affect me closely. It is very upsetting, mainly because they express their opinions and present them as the only legitimate religious point of view. We are witnessing a colossal struggle for the public opinion in the State of Israel. Part of the issue of excluding women from the pubic sphere is about the more conservative wing trying to take control. The fact that society gives legitimacy to the idea that our primary discourse is about the role of women and their bodies is a manipulation.”
Ta’ason-Michaeli: “When I hear what these rabbis say I understand why people nullify me and treat me as they do. I live in a community opposite Eli and it pains me to know that from a very early stage and until they complete their education, young people are being inculcated with his kind of ideas. As women, we are the ones who pay the price for these comments.”
Rabbanit Evron: “Religiously observant people are used to putting their ideals into practice, and therefore it is only logical that religious girls should serve in the IDF, which is the most significant institution in the State of Israel. The huge increase in numbers of religious girls who now serve in the IDF and even continue on to senior positions of leadership should be considered a success of religious schools and not a failure. The rabbis cannot understand this.”
Peretz-Deri: “I cannot agree that military service is an expression of feminist activity and it is a shame that it is a benchmark in the State of Israel. This is such a masculine perception of societal constructs which view a military General as a model to be emulated. In my list of feminist goals, militarism is way down at the bottom of the list.”
Artzi-Sror: “One of religious feminists’ greatest achievements has been the fight against sexual abuse.”
Ta’ason-Michaeli: “We have many voices that can be heard. We must be the first to condemn disgraceful phenomena. Sometimes it bothers me to see the issues that our Religious-Zionist sector chooses to hush up and why. That exists in every society, ‘Be quiet, don’t ruin things for us because we have a much greater overall goal.’ We don’t want to be quiet just because the one who is perpetrating the abuse also has other ideals with which we may identify.”
Peretz-Deri: “The correlation between religious conservatism and the willingness to accept people who have abused is very frustrating.”
Plesner: “One of the most moving moments for me personally happened when a graduate of ‘Avodah Shebaguf – Connecting Mind, Body and Soul’ posted a warning on the [religious] feminist group, that the person who had abused her as a child and adolescent was slated to lead the services in his community synagogue during the High Holidays. She wrote to me afterward that the process she underwent in Avodah Shebaguf provided the healing which enabled her to cope with the abuse.”
Between Ohana and Ulpana
Attorney Peretz-Deri is a well-known feminist activist who has also earned a reputation for expressing the viewpoint of the Mizrahi population (Jews who emanate from North Africa and the Middle East) on all occasions in the political, social and media spheres. Her two-pronged identity as a religious feminist and as a Mizrahi woman at times makes it doubly difficult for her, facing opposition both at home and from the religious feminists who, until recently, were almost exclusively Ashkenazi.
Artzi-Sror: “What is more difficult? To be a feminist in a chauvinist society or a Mizrahi woman among Ashkenazi peers?”
Peretz-Deri: To be a Mizrahi woman among Ashkenazi peers! Within my family, I will always be loved unconditionally. I am one of them, even if they do not always identify with my views. In contrast, my feminist identity is based on ideas, and when I promote different ideas, such as ones grounded in Mizrahi culture, then my connection with feminism is weakened. If I need shelter on a rainy day, I know who will let me in, and it won’t be the liberal Orthodox Jews. Although not everyone likes feminists, their ideas are respected and the movement is a legitimate member of the family of ideas. To talk about being Mizrahi is not on an ideological par with other groups struggling for their rights. It brands you as a crybaby and delusional.”
Artzi-Sror: “You set up the women’s forum for the Jewish Home political party and served as its chairwoman. You left after the Eli Ohana affair. What happened?”
Peretz-Deri: “The racist reaction of the Religious-Zionist sector to Ohana’s place on the party list made it crystal clear to me that this was not my home. My father and grandfather were members of the Mafdal (National Religious Party; forerunner of Jewish Home) central committee, and so was I. After the Ohana affair, my father told me in a pained voice: ‘All my life I have voted for the Religious-Zionist party, but no more. What do they think of me? That a soccer player is the figure who best represents me?’ You see, this was an example of double racism, both in their decision to guarantee him [Eli Ohana] a place, and in the ugly response. Eli is a wonderful person, but he was brought into the party to attract the Mizrahi vote. And what is the stereotypical Mizrahi? Someone whose works with his feet. It agitates me to this day.
“I heard about the selection on the radio a minute after sitting with [Naftali] Bennett and other Jewish Home MKs in a meeting, and no one had said a word about Ohana. Nevertheless, I sent him a message: ‘Welcome, brother.’ He may not have been my first choice but I certainly welcomed him graciously into my political home. Why was there no public outcry when the [Ashkenazi, former media personality] Yinon Magal was given a place on the party list? [because ostensibly, like Ohana, he too lacked political experience]. Don’t try to tell me that you were bothered by the fact that he [Ohana] is secular. You were opposed to him because he is Mizrahi and a soccer player. Just the type of person that teachers in Religious-Zionist ulpanot and yeshivot warn against emulating. The ugly wave of racism that sprang forth from deep down in the Religious-Zionist sector clarified just how unwelcome we were. Someone once said to me, ‘You look like you belong to the Shas political movement.’ Why? Because I dress elegantly and wear high heels; because I am dark-skinned and because I speak with the [traditional Mizrahi guttural sounds for ] ‘het‘ and ‘ayin.’ This exclusion is not only found in the political sphere, but also among feminists.”
Rabbanit Evron: “Unfortunately, Sagit is correct. Go to any midrasha [seminary for girls’ post-high school learning] or any yeshiva and the majority of students will be Ashkenazi. If I relate a story I heard from my grandfather, it is considered a dvar Torah – words of Torah. But if Sagit does the same, it will be considered folklore. We must forgive ourselves and admit our errors toward the Sephardic population. We are making similar mistakes toward them as men do toward women. Instead of making excuses, we need to admit that we erred.”
Artzi-Sror: “What does the future hold?”
Plesner: “I am curious. It really is impossible to know, as we never imagined that things would change at so quick a pace.”
Rabbanit Evron: “I don’t know what will be, and it isn’t important. People sometimes think that all religious feminists are already strategizing the end, that they are plotting tens of steps ahead in order to uproot something from its roots. This is not correct. There is a very basic concept of submission in my view of the world. I am another link in the chain that’s been transmitted over thousands of years and I have no interest in breaking or destroying it. This cord which will not quickly be broken is the very essence, and therefore the question of what will be in the end isn’t relevant to me, because we are talking about a process which is measured in terms of eternity.”
 Prior to the 2015 general elections, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett offered the eighth, realistic place on the party list to former soccer player and manager Eli Ohana. Due to public outcry within the party at Ohana’s lack of political experience, as well as racist comments referring to his Mizrahi background, Ohana decided not to join the party.