September 16, 2019

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.  

Comments

  1. lillian breen says:

    Beautiful response. Makes me so angry. As a 75 yr. old married woman, grandmother of 5, 4 girls & “prince” Noah, I have to remember what Queen Esther said…I was made for a time like this. I’m quoting without quotes since I’m just paraphrasing!
    I found my voice in the early 70’s & it continues loud & clear.
    Thank you, again.

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