Over 20 years ago, Dr. Hannah Kehat founded Kolech, the Religious Women's Forum. The first Orthodox, Jewish feminist organization in Israel, Kolech aims to increase public awareness and bring about change in the religious community in Israel. Its goals include the dissemination of the values of gender equality, the encouragement of equal opportunities for women in the public arena, and the advancement of women's rights in religious and halakhic areas. In honor of International Democracy Day, the IDI website interviewed Dr. Kehat on the status of women in Israel today. Read the translated excerpt below.
Q. How would you characterize the situation for religious women in Israeli society today? In what areas has there been change from the past?
A: The situation for women is both much better and worse, and this is happening almost simultaneously. There are many areas in which religious women have broken ground and broken down barriers. They are in a completely different place than they had been 10 or 15 years ago. There has been a marked change with regard to everything related to women's Torah study, women's culture, women's Jewish culture, and women's religious life. There has been a very significant revolution. Today, there are Orthodox synagogues that are more egalitarian in nature, and these synagogues are popping up like mushrooms after the rain. There are many more women Torah scholars today and many more women engaged in writing about issues related to Torah. There is an incredible body of women's literature being published. Women are in positions of influence in religious public life. There is truly a wellspring of creativity, desire, and ambition. Women wish to influence and are willing to take responsibility, whether within the framework of organizations or in education.
But when it comes to anything that is related to the religious establishment, all of this change is blocked. Not only that, but in the last few years, to my dismay, we have witnessed attempts to push women back where they had been. When it comes to dealing with these attempts, the situation of women is bad. The trend to exclude women, the sudden attempt to limit women's mobility, the sudden revival of the motto "a woman's voice is ervah" [the halakhic basis for forbidding women to sing in front of men because their voices are considered to be sexually provocative]—all these things had disappeared over the years, and weren't the subject of much attention. Separate seating on buses... I feel that these phenomena are a chauvinistic reaction to the development of women. This trend is some kind of indirect way to remind women who they are and to return them to the private sphere, to their four cubits.
Another thing that I find very difficult is the absence of women from positions of leadership in the religious establishment. I'm not just talking about the rabbinate or judges in religious courts; this can be found even in the positions of principals of religious girls' schools and high schools. Men still occupy the positions of power in these educational frameworks even though it is neither educational nor reasonable to have educational institutions for women headed by men. In my opinion, having men serve as principals in girls' schools is also a breach of modesty, because a man isn't a role model and shouldn't rule over young women. Although this phenomenon creates many educational problems, the majority of institutions of higher education—even those designed for women—are headed by men. This is even more pronounced in educational institutions for men, where women, of course, can't get a foot in the door. Religious women can't see on the horizon the possibility of really being integrated into religious leadership, even though it is permitted by Jewish law. Women are permitted to be religious leaders, teachers of Jewish law, and religious decisors. They can even be judges in today's religious courts—according to Jewish law, that is permissible. But the cloak of halakha excludes even dialogue about this matter, although we are making efforts to promote such dialogue.
Another area where the situation is stagnant and no progress is being made, despite the religious feminist revolution, is the status of women in religious courts. The political struggle is extremely difficult in the religious courts and it is very difficult to rack up success there. There have only been minor changes in the courts, and masses of women continue to undergo unjustified suffering there. I am not just talking about women who are agunot [chained women] and mesuravot get [women whose husbands refuse to give them a religious bill of divorce], but also about the attitude toward them, and the drawn out legal proceedings. This is an area in which we really feel frustrated.
Q: In the past, you called on secular couples to avoid getting married under the auspices of the Israeli chief rabbinate. What motivated you to issue this call? Is the situation different today? And do you see the limitations that were placed on the Tzohar rabbinic organization as having an impact in practice?
A: I still think that secular couples do not have to marry "according to the laws of Moses and Israel." There is no reason why they should do so. In having an Orthodox ceremony, they create the conditions for distress in the event that they wish to get divorced in the future. It is true that even if they marry in a civil ceremony, the religious court is supposed to approve their civil divorce and the religious court sometimes even demands a get (a religious bill of divorce). But in terms of their status under Jewish law, if a couple wishes to get divorced, the situation of a couple that had a civil marriage is far better than that of a couple that had an Orthodox marriage in which the woman became dependent on the man and his free will. This is where the problem of women who have been refused religious divorces originates. Since the religious court is not an ideal place, and its conduct is far from being worthy, I don't understand why people put themselves in such a dangerous position, when 30% of marriages end up in divorce. That means that when you marry in an Orthodox ceremony, there is a 30% chance that you will end up in the religious court. Why? If you don't live your life according to Jewish law why would you make the effort to make sure that your marriage is conducted in accordance with Jewish law? You could have a Jewish wedding, with all the markers of the religion, but could opt not to give the marriage the halakhic validity that will make it a marriage that requires a Jewish divorce bill administered in accordance with Jewish law, without which you may find yourself chained, or subject to get refusal, and only divorced if everything works out well.
The monopoly of the religious court corrupted it. This unfortunately refers not only to its halakhic approach, its sense of responsibility, and its sense of public responsibility, but also to the regular conduct of the court. Religious court judges, for example, don't keep regular work hours the way they are supposed to. We at Kolech see it as a religious imperative to break this monopoly, in order to improve the court system, enhance its work, increase its status, and improve the status and situation of women there.
Religious women find it difficult to give up on a religious marriage. My own daughters would not dream of getting married in a manner that is not "in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel" because they live their lives according to Jewish law. But there is no reason for women who do not live their lives according to Jewish law to do this.
There's another problem here that is very difficult. If a woman lives her life in accordance with Jewish law, she knows that if a woman has an extramarital relationship and has a child who was fathered by a man other than her husband at a time when she was married, the child has the status of a mamzer and this is very frightening. Secular women, however, relate to the issue of open marriage and betrayal differently; it is not seen as so dramatic or as such a big disaster. According to Jewish law and tradition, if a woman wasn't married according to Jewish law, if she has a child from a man other than her husband without being divorced from her husband, the child is not considered a mamzer, but if she was married according to Jewish law, the child receives that status. Thus, marrying according to Jewish law actually increases the incidence of children who have the status of mamzer rather than decreasing it. This is a paradox. Rabbi Bakshi Doron has already discussed this and railed against it "what do we need this for?" Why would we want to create a situation in which a secular woman is married "according to the laws of Moses and Israel," and if she then leaves her husband and begins another relationship without receiving a religious divorce, the children of that relationship will have the status of mamzer?
With regard to the Tzohar rabbinic organization, I just want to say that from our point of view, they do nice work, but when it comes to the real problems, I don't think that they are having an impact. What is going on with them does not add or detract from the struggle that is taking place with regard to the rabbinic courts; they are simply adding a warm and welcoming dimension to marriage. I used to complain to Tzohar, saying: "You are convincing couples to marry according to the laws of Moses and Israel. If so, take responsibility for their divorces as well! In performing these marriages, you are bringing these couples into a system that is so problematic and complex. You can't just bring them there and abandon them, on the grounds that 'the issue of divorce is an issue that the rabbinic court deals and has nothing to do with us.' It's a bit irresponsible.
View the full interview in Hebrew on the IDI YouTube Channel