September 17, 2019

When Divorce is a Mitzvah

By Layah Lipsker

Getting married under a chuppah is a beloved Jewish ritual, often paired with a festive hora. It is a mitzvah performed with much joy.  Sadly, some marriages will end in divorce. There is a mitzvah associated with divorce too, but less well known, and obviously not widely celebrated.  But maybe it should be. The ritual around Jewish divorce, the giving and receiving of a get, is a mitzvah that can bring spiritual closure and remind us of one of the sacred themes of Judaism, the gift of autonomous choice and personal freedom.

We tend to think of mitzvot as happy occasions or spiritual highs.  But the word mitzvah does not mean good deed, it means commandment. A mitzvah is an opportunity to infuse life’s mundane and important moments with transcendence.  A mitzvah is a reminder that spiritual intent and meaning can inform every part of our lives, in joyous times and in challenging times. According to Kabbalah, Judaism’s rituals around death and mourning help ease the transition of the soul to its next phase, and bring comfort to the mourners.  In the same way, the mitzvah of giving and receiving a get can bring comfort and help ease this painful time of transition. The words said during the get process can be healing, as they explicitly release the couple from the vows of marriage and pronounce them available to new relationships.

In my work as director of the Boston Agunah Taskforce, I have seen women, from every background and affiliation, face a recalcitrant spouse who uses the Get to inflict pain, retain control, or negotiate a better settlement.  For five years, we have advised hundreds of women; through accompaniment to the Boston Rabbinical Court, in person and by phone, and through questions posted anonymously on our support site, getyourget.com.

Unlike a long drawn out civil process, the get process is usually quick and can bring some measure of closure at a very challenging time. Sadly, many men and women are denied the opportunity to perform this mitzvah and move on with their lives.  Get abuse, a Jewish form of domestic violence, is often part of a pattern of abuse and control that begins soon after the wedding.

Since the Taskforce was formed, as a project of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, we have learned a lot about get abuse.  Contrary to the prevailing myth, get abuse is not only an Orthodox problem and women are not the only victims. Both men and women can suffer from Get abuse, although the consequences for women are much worse under Jewish law.  Get abuse is prevalent throughout our Jewish community, as either party may seek the spiritual closure a get can provide for various reasons.

But the most important thing we have learned is that couples often get bad advice about when to obtain a get.  Less religious couples tend to worry about the get only after their civil divorce is finalized. More religious couples are often told that they cannot begin their civil proceedings until after resolution in a Rabbinical court.  Both are mistaken. “GetReady” is a groundbreaking initiative of the Taskforce, encouraging couples to link the get to their civil divorce, by inserting a legal clause that helps ensure Get compliance.  The reason is simple. Rabbinical courts, outside of Israel, do not have the power to compel either party to participate in the Get process. Through legal education and public awareness, we hope to make this legal clause standard in every Jewish divorce.  In our experience, including language about the get at the beginning of a divorce negotiation, reduces the possibility of using it as a negotiating tool when tensions worsen.

Rebecca is one women who was helped through the Taskforce.  She was married for 11 years and has three beautiful boys. She suffered neglect and verbal abuse, beginning with her first pregnancy.  When she finally had the emotional and financial capacity to leave, her husband swore that he would never give her a Get, thus preventing her from ever remarrying under Jewish law.   Rebecca believed her community rabbis would find a way to free her, especially after she gave them evidence of serial affairs. Sadly, it’s been three years since the separation, and she is still an “agunah,” a woman chained to a marriage that is over while she is unable to move forward with her life.  When we met Rebecca, she had seen many rabbis, but had not filed for divorce or contacted a lawyer. We advised her to file and to include the GetReady clause. For the first time, Rebecca sees a path to a new life, and her husband has agreed in writing to giving the Get.

Sometimes divorce is a mitzvah, and our Jewish community needs to help ensure that this spiritual closure is available to every man and woman who wants it.  On March 20th, we will mark International Agunah Day. It’s time to end get abuse and make the GetReady clause standard for every divorcing Jewish couple. If you know of someone thinking about divorce, please point them to our website, getyourget.com, for more information on GetReady, or to ask a question to one of our get consultants.

Layah Lipsker is the director of the Boston Agunah Task Force, a project of HBI.

Make Your Own Haggadah With Gendered Themes

By Amy Powell

Just before Pesach in 2011, the New York Times reported some important news about gender and Passover: The fusty Maxwell House Haggadah, offered free in grocery stores with a purchase of Maxwell House coffee (this year there was one in my matzo box), adopted some gender-neutral language.

Rather than calling G-d a king, they used “monarch,” and changed the four sons to the four “children.”

Today, there are so many varied haggadot with more profound changes relating to gender than simply adopting gender-neutral language. Haggadot exist for a spectrum of observances, age groups and personal preferences, many with updated themes of freedom, plagues, renewal and more.

For those searching for readings and themes — and perhaps not ready to invest in new haggadot — there are many downloadable versions. HBI has compiled a few tools to help you design your own seder with an eye to HBI’s mission of developing fresh ideas about Jews and gender.

For example, JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, compiled numerous  Pesach Divrei Torah, described as “by women, for all,” in a 32-page free download titled Shema Bekolah, Hear Her Voice.

Another resource, is JewishBoston.com and The Wandering is Over Haggadah: A Seder For Everyone, their free and downloadable, contemporary and customizable haggadah. Here, you will find readings and options on anti-Semitism, mental health, immigration, feminism, labor rights, social justice, climate change, racial justice, inclusion, Israel, LGBTQ liberation and more. The contributors include The Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN), JCRC, ADL, Ruderman Foundation, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Emilia Diamant, JewishBoston.com, New England Jewish Labor Committee and others.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, known as the “Velveteen Rabbi,” created a downloadable haggadah, the Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach, out of her desire for a seder text which cherishes “the tradition and also augments that tradition with contemporary poetry, moments of mindfulness, a theology of liberation, and sensitivity to different forms of oppression.”

Jewish Family & Children’s Services released two downloadable haggadot related to healing and wholeness: the Chaverim Shel Shalom Haggadah and the Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing Friendly Visitor Passover Seder.

Haggadot.com has a tool called Let’s Make Your Passover Haggadah Together, with a platform that allows you to create a custom seder, using content aggregated from more than 150 individuals, artists and 13 organizations. These can be tailored and either downloaded or printed for your seder.

I’m probably not banning Maxwell House completely. I have a soft spot for a wine stain that may have been created by people who have since passed away. It’s also useful to have multiple copies of at least one haggadah with every single verse of Dayenu! But as the four children remind us, it’s better to have a multitude of voices around the table, asking questions and heightening our awareness of what the holiday means.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

Let’s Treat Women as Less than Men: My Response to Rabbi Kelner

By Rivka Neriya Ben Shahar

 

Last week, a video surfaced that reminded us once again that Jewish and Israeli feminists still have work to do. Rabbi Yosef Kelner, one of the rabbis in Eli mechina, a training course for Modern-Orthodox male students preparing to undertake army service, told his students unbelievably chauvinist things about women as part of a special series of lessons about marriage.

Rabbi Kelner said that women “are weak-minded. They just babble, that’s it,” that education is turning them into “girlillas,” and that “women were less intelligent than men,” saying, “just because they send them en masse to universities they’re suddenly all great geniuses? No!”

He also attacked them religiously, saying they don’t have spirituality. I don’t really know where to begin, but I would invite him to my shul, Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem (he will not come, obviously, like most of my family members), to meet women with so much spirituality that he could get some to bring back to his yeshiva.

But I still ask myself: why did he say these things? He had a goal, and I think that I figured it out.

In the 1950s, the Ultra-Orthodox community needed to create a huge change in girls’ education. Because of the agreement between Ben Gurion and the rabbis, Ultra-Orthodox men were—and are—not allowed to work until they take part in the army service. They became a “society of scholars,” a term coined by Prof. Menachem Friedman to describe the Ultra-Orthodox men who stay for many years in the yeshiva and don’t work.

Who would marry such men? Rabbi Avraham Yesha’ayahu Karelitz, known as Chazon Ish, who helped chart the course of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism in the period between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, and Rabbi Avraham Yosef Wolf, a dean of the Beit Ya’akov teachers seminary, had a great idea: They would tell the young women that they should have an agreement with the men like the one that Yisachar had with Zebulun.  In that story, it was agreed that the Zebulun tribe would work while the Yisachar tribe studied Torah. They would share income in this world, for the promised of shared benefits in the next world.

The rabbis made a similar deal with the young Ultra-Orthodox women, telling them that they should be the breadwinners in this world to enable their husbands to study Torah. In turn, they would both be rewarded in heaven. This strategy has worked. For more than 60 years, the young Ultra-Orthodox woman’s dream is to marry a yeshiva bocher and enable him to study.

I have thought a lot about this question: How could a community “produce” brides for specific groups of men? For example, how could Israeli society educate young women to agree to marry men that will stay in the army for 20 years? For a long time, it was considered a great honor, but more recently, the IDF has realized that they need to pay a higher salary to the standing army if they want them to be able to attract spouses and support families.  In this case, secular Israeli society is thinking about the reality of this world.  The poor Ultra-Orthodox community is still talking about the paycheck for the next world.

The Eli mechina needs to find a solution for another problem. Their students have one year in the mechina, and then they serve in the army for at least three years. Many of them stay longer. The young women in the Modern-Orthodox community, the potential brides of these young men, usually go to universities and get at least a B.A. degree, and many have M.A. degrees.  How could these men, with high school educations and long service in the army, live with the fact that the women that they will marry are going to be much more educated than them? Rabbi Kelner has the solution! He teaches the men that the women are not really smart, that their minds are shallower than men’s minds, they are not really multitasking, that they go to the universities “just to spend their time,” and if they get Nobel Prize or become famous thinkers they are mutations.

It’s a clever idea. If you can’t be higher than someone else, just make her/him lower than you. Rabbi Kelner can’t stop the young women from studying, from pursuing their professional and academic careers or spiritual development, so he tells the young men that all of these developments are not important. Great! Such a nice way to help your students to have a good family life. Rabbi Kelner, like the Ultra-Orthodox, needs to “produce” a group of young people that can find a match in specific situation.

I must respond to one “fact” that Rabbi Kelner mentioned.  He said that according to statistics, women are more likely to have car accidents in American intersections, because when they want to turn, it’s hard for them to understand that somebody else is also using the road. Maybe Rabbi Kelner would tell me that cars are “man tools” and women are not supposed to drive. U.S. transportation statistics, however, show that women have less accidents, and less serious accidents. The data is not in his favor.

One thing I know for sure, next time my students ask why we need to talk about feminism and claim that everything is fine nowadays, I’ll suggest they watch this amazing talk.

Rivka Neriya Ben Shahar, Ph.D. is a Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar in Residence at HBI.  

Beginning a Conversation about American Modern Orthodox Jews

By Sylvia Barack Fishman

Are Modern Orthodox communities ready for female clergy or synagogue presidents? How comfortable are they when women say Mourner’s Kaddish without men?

These and other issues are the subject of a JOFA Webinar on Wednesday January 31, when HBI Co-Director Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman will introduce and moderate a discussion with researcher Dr. Mark Trencher, author of the new Nishma: Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews, survey research sponsored by the Micah Foundation. Among other findings, the Nishma survey spotlights sweeping liberalization among Modern Orthodox Jews in attitudes toward expanding women’s roles in public Judaism, including the synagogue.

Key findings regarding women’s roles include:

  • Three-quarters of Modern Orthodox respondents said that women should be eligible to be synagogue presidents.
  • The mekhitza (divider between men and women) should be “woman friendly.”
  • More than two-thirds said women should be eligible to speak from the bima (front stage)
  • More than two-thirds said women should be able to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish even if no men are reciting it.
  • More than half agreed that women should have expanded roles in the clergy. Younger Modern Orthodox men (57 percent) were much more likely than older Modern Orthodox men (48 percent) to agree with that statement.

Another key finding is that Orthodox retention rates today are dramatically better today than they were 30, 40 or 50 years ago.  Younger Modern Orthodox Jews as a group have different attitudes, behaviors and values than their parents’ generation. However, the broad range of Orthodox institutions, including liberal Orthodox day schools and rabbinical training institutions for both men and women, provide a space for Jews who in earlier generations migrated out of Modern Orthodoxy into other wings of Judaism. Orthodox retention rates reflect this shift towards diverse Orthodox institutions that provide spiritual homes for the people who in earlier generations often left Orthodoxy. Their presence strengthens the Modern Orthodox community as a whole.

Survey respondents were highly educated Jewishly. The vast majority had substantial Jewish education (95 percent of men and 89 percent of women). Respondents almost universally view their Jewish education as an ongoing lifelong process: 97 percent of men and 95 percent of women participate in regular Judaic study at least once a week.

In addition, Modern Orthodox Nishmah survey participants are transmitting Modern Orthodox Jewish culture to the next generation. 83 percent of their school-age children in grades 1–12 attend Orthodox day school. Significantly, despite often-articulated anxieties that Orthodox co-education may be on the decline, 75 percent of the day schools these children attend are coeducational—indicating that they are adapting to shifting gender roles and expectations.

This educational continuity is especially important because Dr. Trencher, the survey author, is concerned that the broad range of attitudes may lead to a schism between right- and left-wing institutions, leadership, and laity in the American Modern Orthodox community. But one may argue instead that Modern Orthodoxy’s broad continuum of attitudes, behaviors and values is a positive development in contemporary communities.

The JOFA Webinar, Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews, will be streamed live from JOFA’s Facebook Page, Wednesday January 31 from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit, JOFA’s event page.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Judaic Studies
and the Co-Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

What Do Rabbas Mean to Me?

By Rachel Putterman

rachel_puttermanWhy am I, a non-Orthodox female rabbinical student, brought to tears at the recent images of Modern Orthodox women being ordained as rabbis in both Israel and the U.S?  Why does this historic shift resonate so deeply with me, given that the liberal movements have been ordaining women for decades?

Part of the answer has to do with the fact that I have been advocating on behalf of women for most of my life, first, as a public interest attorney, and now as a rabbinical student.  Thus, on a basic level, I am incredibly moved by the fact that real concrete change is happening, and at such a rapid pace that it appears to constitute a paradigm shift.  I don’t think anyone could have predicted that two cohorts of Orthodox women–one in Israel and one in the U.S.–would be granted semikha in 2015.  Indeed, at the JOFA Un-Conference held a mere nine months ago, in response to participants’ urgent questions regarding when women would be ordained as rabbis, a prominent male leader of the Modern Orthodox establishment said that the structure of rabbinic leadership would look very different within one to two generations. The ground is literally shifting beneath our feet!

Another part of the answer has to do with me being a decidedly non-Orthodox rabbinical student.  Despite my utter freedom to pursue the rabbinate, and the multiple options I had regarding where to receive rabbinic training, I was never able to shake an awareness that the path that I was pursuing was essentially off limits to women within an entire branch of Judaism.   And, I experienced that exclusion of women as a type of Jewish glass ceiling. I felt stigmatized by the fact that being a female rabbinical student automatically signaled that I was not Orthodox.  [For purposes of this discussion, I am putting aside the issue that all non-Orthodox rabbis are not considered valid rabbis by most Orthodox].  Whereas a male non-Orthodox rabbinical student could “pass” as Orthodox, so long as he dressed appropriately, the minute I said I was a rabbinical student, it was a given that I was not Orthodox.  I find it extremely liberating that with the ordination of Orthodox women that is no longer the case.  I am elated that my Modern Orthodox sisters have gained the right to become rabbis if that is their hearts’ desire, albeit with much more risk attached to their endeavors than to mine.  These women and the men who are supporting them are truly heroic, given the extreme censure and backlash that they face from the ultra-Orthodox.  They are the trailblazers, while I am the beneficiary of courageous women who preceded me.

I have met or corresponded with two of the newly-ordained female Orthodox rabbis and they have been so happy to connect with me that I’ve realized that we have more in common than I originally thought.  I met both of these women in the context of working towards solutions to the plight of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce).  Perhaps it was our shared journey, combined with our mutual goal of helping agunot that overrode our denominational differences.  And this is yet the last reason why I’m moved to tears. The nascent expansion of the tent of Jewish women clergy has the potential to lessen the painfully entrenched division between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox, which will in turn lead to the further empowerment of all Jewish women.

Rachel Putterman is a Helen Gartner Hammer scholar-in-residence at HBI and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College.

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