October 29, 2020

Epidemic-sponsored empowerment: Jewish Feminists and Social Media

By Moria Ran Ben Hai

“They closed shul for minyan, I can’t go to Seder, but guess where I can go? The mikvah! What does that mean? Where do I stand in terms of the value of my life in rabbinic and halachic authority?” asked Ariele Mortkowitz moderator of the “Online Panel Discussion: mikvah and COVID-19” held on April , 2020.

Mortkowitz, founding director of the “SVIVAH” community of Jewish women, raised that loaded question at the end of the panel as a way of asking the more important question. Do the rabbinical authorities consider women when they make halachic laws, especially those related directly to women?

At the end of January, I gave a talk at HBI about the role of Facebook in modern Orthodox feminism in Israel. I concluded that social media gives women a stage and power, creating social structures of knowledge and new hierarchies in religious society that differ from the traditional gender-knowledge hierarchies. At the time, I did not think that we would reach the current COVID-19 crisis. But, now I see that the crisis has both strengthened the social media platform for women while actively undermining the Jewish legal hierarchy in Israel and abroad.

The COVID-19 epidemic brings challenges for observant halachic couples and families —  one of them is keeping family purity. Should a woman go the mikvah at the end of her monthly period, and allow the couple’s romantic and sexual closeness, or should she postpone the ritual until the epidemic ends?

To make this decision, there are many issues to consider. Is this an essential need? Is there a safe halachic alternative? Can we create one? How can we make sure women do not get exposed to the virus inside the mikvah, or on the way there and back home? What will happen if governments forbid the mikvahs from opening? Who has the authority to decide how to guide families if the mikvahs close?

One answer is clear. Both the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, allegedly representing the Orthodox halachic establishment in Israel and abroad, (as argued in Hebrew in Unbuttoned – The Disputes That Split Religious Zionism, 2019, by Yair Ettinger) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) have decided that women should immerse as usual, but with adherence to the social distance guidelines and frequent disinfection of the site. They chose an approach that continues the Jewish family purity tradition of thousands of years.

Female halachic consultants (yoatzot halacha), doctors, and Orthodox feminist activists provide more nuanced answers. Some are actively fighting to stop the monthly immersion. They want to prevent women who use the mikvah and mikvah attendants from being infected with the virus and potentially spreading the virus to their families and the public.

Interestingly, there is a new category emerging from the fray — that is the grassroots groups of women on social media. Modern Orthodox women in Israel have formed several Facebook groups, with titles like,  “Immersed in leisurely women” (“Tovlot Be’nakhat” in Hebrew), “I am a religious feminist and I also don’t have a sense of humor”, and “Halachic feminists.” Though some of the Facebook groups existed before the COVID-19 crisis, they are all expressing outrage on the social platform about the mikvah rules during a pandemic.

In long discussions about religious obligations in times of life-threatening virus, their rage includes themes of adherence to a spouses’ remoteness required by Orthodox Jewish law and the power of the rabbinical establishment over the public in Israel and abroad. Efrat Tamir of the public group, “I am a religious feminist, and I also don’t have a sense of humor” wrote on March 22, in what seemed to be a cynical comment that I translated from Hebrew,  “Of course that the generation’s decisors will order that we must have to continue to immerse in the mikvah. After all, they have been pumping us for years that thanks to righteous women, we got redeemed from Egypt. So Corona? A small task for us. Go ahead, righteous women. Go ahead and immerse in the mikvah near your home. Endanger yourself and your children. Your parents and the general population will come into contact with you. And save the people of Israel from the Corona.”

Some express the opposite view. On the same day, in the private group, “Halachic feminists,” one woman responded to several days of viewpoints against immersion, and wrote in favor of the use of public mikvahs, even with the risks involved. She gave me permission to use and translate her comment, as she still stands by it.  “You know what, if God forbid I would catch the Corona, I would rather be proud and happy that I went to the mikvah. I do it with my head up and with immense pride!”

A significant and practical result of the discussion’s application in Israel is the manifesto of Rabbanit Sarah Segal Katz and Rabbanit M.D. Hanna Adler Lazarovich, in which they state that the mikvahs should be closed for now. They explain that with no coordination between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Religious Services regarding the supervision of the mikvahs, the sole responsibility then falls to the balanit (mikvah attendants).  And, because there is no supervision of the sanitation of the mikvahs, the situation poses a real danger to the public. Therefore, women shall not come to immerse.

There is a similar discourse in the United States. In several Facebook groups that started in the U.S., but include voices from around the world, including “Rising tide,” “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy,” and “Halachic/Religious Discussion Group for Women,” members expressed frustration. Sarah Bronzite, a member of “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy” wrote on March 14,  “… and yet, even in these unprecedented times, the one area of practice that is not cancelled (unless a person has symptoms) is … mikvah. why? WHY? Why can rabbonim make exceptions for everything else except this? Why does a youth leader get to stay at home but not a balanit? Why can rabbonim paskin (decide) that it is no longer ok for ten men to daven in a room together (even with space between them) but married menstruating women are still required to go to a place where by definition there are lots of shared surfaces? Why is it not a reasonable thing to ask the WOMEN THEMSELVES to make a judgment call and not go to mikvah if they would rather avoid the risk? “

The global debate led to widespread awareness, but not to unequivocal statements like the Israeli debate. However, many women online are demanding something safer. This post received dozens of comments including a call for vital practical information. In comments, one person asked directly,  about an alternative, wondering if rabbis can just permit sexual relations without mikvah at this time? Or maybe allow the use piped water in home baths?

JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) posted Rabba Dr. Carmella Abraham’s article on their Facebook page, highlighting her conclusion.  “Let us consider other safe halakhic options for those in need (for example, women experiencing fertility issues) until we can safely reopen our mikvaot. Shutting down our mikvaot in the face of the coming peak may be the most responsible and urgent communal response necessary for this moment.”

It is one of the only authoritative statements in American Orthodox feminist groups on social media, and it is based on the Israeli Manifesto. In fact, in these groups, we can find many reports on what is going on in Israel regarding the mikvahs, but in the Israeli groups, I have not seen similar reports from other countries. This is probably because Israel is the country with a national Jewish establishment. The eyes of the Jewish communities around the world are monitoring Israel closely on these issues.

Another halachic solution offered by Israeli religious Facebook groups was home immersing. The detailed halachic ruling of Rabbi Haim Amsalem was brought to the social network by his daughter, Efrat Chocron, and received harsh responses from significant figures in “halachic feminist” groups, such as Rabbait Tirza Kelman. What could have been a practical solution to the problem, turned out to be impractical, as it is not possible in an average home bathtub. Ritual immersion requires non-tap water and full immersion. The controversy around this halachic ruling points to the reasons for the group’s criticism and more importantly, to their deep commitment to halacha.

During these online discussions, activist women in Israel and the U.S. expressed their views in Zoom panels. Both events took place on Sunday, April 1 and were recorded. The similarities and differences between the panels illustrated the relationship between modern Orthodox feminism in Israel and the U.S., a blog for another time.

In addition to the Manifesto, Nishmat’s halacha counselors published their guidelines for all aspects of immersion and family purity on their Facebook page and in various groups, in Hebrew and in English, while continually updating the data according to developments in the Corona reality. They are available for personal counseling, as they have done for the last two decades. Similarly, halachic counselors work locally in Jewish communities abroad.

In recent weeks, Manifesto writers, Segal-Katz and Adler-Lazarovich, together with the Itim Institute, began collecting data from the women and the balaniyut about the mikvahs throughout Israel, checking mainly whether the mikvahs are observing the health guidelines or violating them. They have posted questionnaires on social networks and analysis of the data that accumulates. The information collected is available to all women to enable them to make informed decisions regarding the mikvah.

The bustle of activity around this issue, from questionnaires posted on social media through the publication of Halachic guidance, private counseling and the Manifesto, indicates the direct connection between social networks and activism. The Facebook platform allows women to share with other women and to mobilize, to rebel against institutionalized bodies such as the Chief Rabbinate in Israel or the RCA in the U.S. It shows the possibility of bottom-up growth in practical halachic authority.

This did not occur in a vacuum. It is preceded by phenomena such as female Torah scholarship, the training of female halachic counselors for family purity issues and the entry of social networks to religious audiences. Furthermore, this is not the first time women have harnessed social networks to gain status in the religious sphere. Five years ago, a trial held in the Israeli Supreme Court led to the enactment of the “Mikvahs Law-2016,” allowing more religious freedom for women immersing in the government mikvahs. That struggle was waged mainly on social media and it allowed women to influence the law and practice of halacha together. Now, during a global pandemic, women have chosen to combine medical knowledge, Torah knowledge and public activism. They refuse to be passive or to wait for male halachic rulers to “see” them. Instead, they are acting as rulers of their own for their own. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a real revolution for Orthodoxy.

Moria Ran Ben Hai is a scholar in residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Her research examines the journey in Orthodox feminism in Israel and the U.S., looking at both Kolech and JOFA.

Comments

  1. No name says:

    A small detail, Israel’s Minister of Health is an ultra-Orthodox Gur hasidic. He does not make decisions on his own, but only according to his Rabbi. As Gur hasidism is known, it is extremely radical in the aggravations it practices, far beyond the true Halacha and the patronage that hasidism has toward women. So it’s not so surprising that men’s minyans have been canceled but women’s mikvah not!

  2. Shaul says:

    First of all, a fascinating blog! I really enjoyed reading. Secondly, the opinion of Rabbi Amsalem that was presented here really stood out. Rabbi Amsalem was a Israeli Knesset member on behalf of the “Shas” party (the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party) who retired from it following the moderate line that he advocated and believed in relations between the ultra-Orthodox and the State of Israel (recruitment to the Israeli army, work, academia and etc.).
    I followed his publication and I noticed that those rabbis who condemned Rabbi Amsalem were all Ashkenazi. No Sephardi rabbis condemned Rabbi Amsalem’s opinion, and not even one of the “Shas” party rabbis came out against him – even though he is “red sheet” for them.

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