Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Israel's Rosit the Riveter: Between Secular Law and Jewish Law

Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Israel's Rosit the Riveter: Between Secular Law and Jewish Law

Article excerpt

In the world of Judaism, the "end of men" is not in sight. Surely, tectonic plates are sliding and shifting, and a great deal of change is unfolding, but men are fighting hard to keep patriarchy alive. Deep inside, the Orthodox patriarchal man may be motivated by the sheer impulse to maintain his power, but outwardly he projects a profound commitment to his religious law, the law of God. He believes that his fight is a noble one ordained by divine will and that God is on his side. The problem is global; it appears in every Jewish community around the world.1 By way of background, this Essay will briefly explain the problem in the Jewish world before delving into the particular case of Israel. The global reflects the local. Recent developments in Israel not only inform a comparative perspective, but they also point to an interesting phenomenon: the interaction between developments in Jewish law in the United States and developments in Israel. On the level of secular law, this Essay will highlight influences flowing from the United States that affect secular Israeli law.

Jewish Orthodoxy2 is one of the last bastions of Judaism to openly oppose the equality of women.3 Most, though not all, Orthodox rabbis - who are all men4 - insist on a "separate but equal" approach to gender and trace this principle to God's will.5 The argument is that God requires that a woman be modest, and modesty commands a number of restrictions on women, especially in the public sphere.6 Jewish communities exist in many parts of the world. In every center of Jewish life, one expects to find a segment of the community that is Orthodox, that is loyal to the traditional version of Jewish law, and that rejects the participation of women in public religious rituals.7

Outside the United States, the largest number of Jews live in Israel.8 For reasons rooted in complex historical processes, the majority of Israelis are not Orthodox,9 but the religious institutions designed to accommodate religion are mostly in the hands of Orthodox men.10 Because these Orthodox men apply Jewish law in its most traditional form, they adhere to the principle that women should be confined to the private sphere and excluded from rituals held in public.11 This position is compatible with women joining the workforce; in fact, in Jewish communities across the centuries, women did work outside the home.12 Historically, in Eastern Europe, wives supported their husbands, who in turn devoted their lives to the study of Jewish law.13 Learning was the more valued activity; therefore, the fact that women acted as breadwinners did not upset the patriarchal hierarchy.14 Because women were barred from study, the development of Jewish law remained the monopoly of men.15

In the last twenty years, considerable progress has been made in raising feminist consciousness in the Orthodox world. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), an activist organization, has been investing energy, intellect, and money in offering reinterpretations of Jewish law (halacha) that comport with gender equality.16 In Orthodox communities across the world, similar efforts are being made, with a measure of success. In Israel a feminist Orthodox organization called Kolech (Your Voice) is collaborating with JOFA, introducing notions of gender equality and inclusion to Jewish law.17

Nonetheless, progress is not linear. Many Orthodox communities across the world have experienced a fundamentalist backlash as they attempt to combat feminist influences and defend the traditional separation between the sexes. For example, in both Jerusalem and Brooklyn, there have been efforts to require women to sit at the back of buses and men at the front.18 Recently, Orthodox communities in both Jerusalem and Brooklyn have attempted to force women to walk on separate sidewalks.19 The prohibition on female singing - that is, on a woman's raising her voice and singing in the company of men - is another example of backlash. …

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