November 30, 2021

Motherhood’s Vast Possibilities: Four Biblical Mothers

By Sari Fein

While the modern observance of Mother’s Day almost universally presents a one-dimensional version of what it means to be a mother, the biblical construction of motherhood shows much more diverse constructions. You certainly won’t find anything in the Bible quite like the greeting cards that declare, “When a mother says ‘I love you,’ she means ‘I’ll do anything for you,’” and “Moms do it all, and they do it with ease,” but you will find complex, nuanced versions of motherhood that resonate with us today.

The same critique can be made of the popular understanding of Jewish motherhood. Stereotypes of the American Jewish mother have persisted for nearly a century. She is frequently depicted as an overbearing “Yiddishe mama” nudging her offspring to eat, to become doctors (especially sons) or get married and have babies (especially daughters). These caricatures sometimes veer into meanness, making the Jewish mother “a universal metaphor for nagging, whining, guilt-producing maternal intrusiveness,” according to Joyce Antler in You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother. The caricatured Jewish mother appears regularly in many comedic settings, such as the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” (2007-2019), where Mrs. Wolowitz (who is only ever heard, and never seen) provides many opportunities for laughter at her expense.

In full disclosure, I’m a mother of two young daughters, and I’d happily receive the praise of the greeting card or a good Mother’s Day brunch.  But, how we imagine mothers on Mother’s Day comes nowhere near the full spectrum of mothering experiences or the actual history of the American holiday of Mother’s Day, which is much richer and more complex than contemporary practice might suggest, dating back to the Civil War era, and taking some inspiration from the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Motherhood, as we know, is much more complicated than sitcoms and cards suggest. Jewish art and literature, as far back as the pages of the Bible, provide wildly diverse portraits of motherhood, each one rich and multifaceted. They challenge our contemporary understanding of both Jewish motherhood and motherhood in general as something natural, innate, and universal. In my dissertation project, I investigate four case studies of early Jewish texts that “retell” stories about biblical mothers. These investigations reveal variant depictions of motherhood that are uniquely constructed by social, cultural, and intellectual forces. Such revelations beg the question—if depictions of motherhood throughout history are so diverse, can we open up our understanding of motherhood today to allow for alternative expressions of what it means to be a mother?

Mother as a Prophet: Hannah

Early Jewish audiences, in attempting to work through what it meant to be a mother, turned to the framework of maternal prayer. Targum Jonathan, a Second Temple-era Aramaic translation of the biblical book of Samuel and other prophetic texts, greatly expands the prayer of Hannah, originally found in 1 Samuel 2. Surprisingly, Targum Jonathan’s expansions effectively make Hannah an apocalyptic prophet. The biblical text of 1 Samuel 2 relates a prayer supposedly uttered by Hannah at the occasion of her dedication of her firstborn son Samuel at the local temple. Her prayer can be categorized as thanksgiving to God; it offers general praise of God’s power, especially God’s ability to raise up the lowly, which readers are left to assume refers to Hannah’s particular situation as she has been raised from a barren woman to the mother of a favored child. Targum Jonathan elevates the urgency of Hannah’s prayer and adds an eschatological dimension to it. It explicitly states that Hannah prays “in a spirit of prophecy,” making Hannah one of Jewish tradition’s few women prophets. Targum Jonathan also makes extensive additions (noted in bold, below) to Hannah’s prayer, in which Hannah predicts divine destruction of the cosmic enemies of Israel, which will result in a new, messianic age. She prophesies:

“The Lord will shatter the enemies who rise up to do harm to his people. The Lord will strike down on them from the heavens with a loud voice. He will execute vengeance of judgment against Gog [considered a cosmic enemy of Israel], and the armies of the robber nations who come with him from the ends of the earth, but He will provide strength for his king, and he will increase the kingdom of his Messiah.”

These changes shift the text’s portrayal of Hannah from a mother singing a song of thanksgiving and praising to the Lord, to an apocalyptic prophet predicting the arrival of the messianic age. By describing Hannah speaking “in a spirit of prophecy” and inserting additions which describe the defeat of Israel’s enemies and the rise of God’s messiah, Targum Jonathan suggests that she not only gives birth to the child Samuel, but she also gives birth on an additional, cosmic level to a new eschatological age. Targum Jonathan expands the possibilities of the maternal body to imagine the birth of a whole new world.

Mother as Activist: The Widow

Another model of motherhood in the early Jewish imagination was the maternal activist. An example of this model can be found in the wall paintings of the Dura Europos Synagogue, a third-century synagogue on the banks of the Euphrates. On the western wall of the synagogue, one painting depicts a scene from 1 Kings 17, which scholars have called “Elijah Reviving the Widow’s Child.”

Figure 2: Elijah Revives the Widow’s Child; http://media.artgallery.yale.edu/duraeuropos/dura.html

What scholars fail to capture in this naming is the important role the Widow, the mother of the child, plays in saving her child’s life. In 1 Kings 17, when the poor, widowed woman’s son falls so ill “that there was no breath left in him” (v. 17, NRSV translation), she turns to Elijah the prophet and demands “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” (v. 18, NRSV translation). It is these words that prompt the prophet to act, as he then takes the boy, performs a series of ritual actions over him, and restores him to life and health. The visual interpretation of this scene at Dura Europos expands the woman’s agency in this narrative by depicting her in active physical poses. On the left, she gives her child to Elijah, rather than the prophet taking her from him; she gazes at her child to emphasize the mother-child connection. On the right, after her child has been restored to her, she extends her arm in an echo of the Hand of God above her, suggesting that they are both partners in the miracle of bringing her child back to life. This visual “text” shows another form of motherhood in the early Jewish imagination; a mother who stood up to authority in order to protect her child—and who received divine approval for her bold actions.

Mourning Mother: Rachel

While the Widow’s story has a happy ending, early Jewish communities were also forced to confront the reality of high infant mortality rates in the ancient world, and thus another theme on which they focus in their writing is maternal grief. The rabbinic midrash Lamentations Rabbah from the fourth or fifth century CE imagines a scene where Rachel, one of the matriarchs from the biblical book of Genesis, leverages her grief over her lost children to convince God to return the dispersed Israelites to their land. Because the book of Genesis does not describe the death of any of Rachel’s children, Lam. Rab. takes as its jumping-off point a line from the book of Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD:

    A voice is heard in Ramah,

lamentation and bitter weeping.

Rachel is weeping for her children;

she refuses to be comforted for her children,

because they are no more.” (31:15, NRSV translation)

Like Jeremiah, the rabbis imagine Rachel as the “mother” of all the people of Israel, whose land has been conquered and who are forced into exile after the destruction of Jerusalem. Rachel is not the only mourning mother in rabbinic literature with a voice—other texts describe Sarah’s grief after she hears of Isaac’s (near) death in the akedah (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayera; Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer; and Vayikra Rabbah), and Sisera’s mother’s grief as she waits for her son to return (though readers know he has been killed by Yael) (Rosh HaShanah 33b). The rabbis compare these mothers’ wails to the sounds of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is blown on solemn occasions such as Yom Kippur. Rachel seems to be unique in that she uses her grief for her children as the basis for an eloquent accusation against God. She castigates God: “How come then you are jealous of idolatry, which is nothing, and so have sent my children into exile, allowing them to be killed by the sword, permitting the enemy to do whatever they wanted to them?” God immediately responds to Rachel’s grief by agreeing to return the Israelites to their land. This text thus imagines mourning mothers like Rachel to be endowed with the power to “stand in the breach” between the divine and human realms, precisely because of the grief they feel for their children.

Valorizing Martyrdom: Mother and her Seven Sons

The aforementioned three narratives of motherhood all assume a mother’s love and devotion for her children leads to prioritizing their health and safety. The story of the “mother and her seven sons” complicates this notion in its valorization of martyrdom. In a tale which appears in 2 and 4 Maccabees and rabbinic texts such as BT Gittin and Lamentations Rabbah (but not in the canonized Jewish scriptures), we learn of a mother whose seven sons are brought before a “tyrant” and ordered under threat of torture to violate the laws of Torah. Rather than attempt to protect her children, as modern audiences might expect, their mother encourages them to stay true to their principles and even sacrifice their lives for them. The texts describe the gruesome tortures and deaths of the seven sons, which culminate in the death (described in different ways in different texts) of the mother herself. 4 Maccabees lauds the mother for these actions in flowery terms: “Yet that holy and God-fearing mother did not wail with such a lament for any of [her sons], nor did she dissuade any of them from dying, nor did she grieve as they were dying. On the contrary, as though having a mind like adamant and giving rebirth for immortality to the whole number of her sons, she implored them and urged them on to death for the sake of religion” (16:12, NRSV translation). This narrative presents yet another contrasting version of motherhood which teaches that a “good” mother is one who raises up children who are so firm in their religious convictions they would rather die than violate them—and she would even encourage her children to do so.

These four texts from the early Jewish period demonstrate that even in antiquity, motherhood was understood to encompass vast possibilities. Different ways of being a mother were valued by different communities at different times, depending on a unique confluence of social, cultural, and intellectual forces. Let us take a lesson from Jewish history and expand our understanding of motherhood to include all the ways it can be expressed. And, let us begin on Mother’s Day.

Sari Fein is an HBI Scholar in Residence, and a Ph.D. candidate in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University.

Creative Legal Solutions to Prevent Get-Refusal

By Shanna T. Giora-Gorfajn

Over the past 50 years, laws across the U.S. have evolved to recognize that a person should not be forced to remain in a marriage that is irretrievably broken. But as women in particular have made progress with no-fault divorce and financial independence, religious law has ironically—though perhaps unsurprisingly—gained traction as a way for men to assert power over their would-be ex-wives.

To effect a divorce under Jewish law, the husband must give his wife a get (a religious document of divorce), which can be issued and delivered only with his consent. The classical definition of an agunah (literally, a “chained woman”) described a woman trapped in marriage to a man who could not give her a get—either because he had gone missing or because he lacked capacity to form the requisite intent. Over time, this term has come to also refer to a woman whose husband is purposely obstructing the religious divorce process by withholding a get.

Tomorrow, the day before Purim, is Ta’anit Esther, commemorating the fast declared by Queen Esther—herself a woman chained to an unwanted marriage. Tomorrow we will also observe International Agunah Day, raising awareness of the plight of agunot today and standing together with them in solidarity.

It is also a time to highlight the work of the Boston Agunah TaskForce, a part of HBI’s Project on Gender, Culture, Religion, and the Law. BATF is devoted to research, education, and advocacy for fairness in the Jewish divorce process. We believe that withholding a Jewish divorce is a form of domestic abuse. Together with our allies in the movement on behalf of agunot, we seek to employ a range of remedies to change the culture around get-refusal.

Some use get-refusal as a means to an end, demanding custody or financial concessions before fulfilling the religious requirements. Others seem to engage in this vengeful power play for its own sake, a demonstration of continued control preventing a woman from moving on with her life.

Both men and women can find themselves at the mercy of a recalcitrant spouse. However, there are more dire consequences under Jewish law for women who remain technically bound to dead marriages. A man whose wife refuses to cooperate in receiving a get may seek rabbinic dispensation allowing him to remarry. For a woman, there is no such loophole. Any new relationship with another man would be deemed adulterous. A woman’s status as an agunah is not only a barrier to remarriage; it may also affect the woman’s freedom to begin dating again and the legitimacy of any future children in their religious communities. But there is no simple remedy at civil law; because a Jewish divorce requires the husband’s knowing consent, a court order directing the husband to give a get could be viewed as forcing his hand, rendering the get invalid under Jewish law.

One popular approach has been to encourage couples to sign a binding arbitration agreement  (approved by the Beth Din of America) before they are married, whereby they commit to cooperate in the get process should either party seek a divorce. Despite increasing acceptance among engaged couples, this sort of agreement has not been adopted universally—and it can be of no help where it does not exist.

BATF has engaged in a collaborative effort by rabbis, legal scholars, and practicing attorneys to develop the GetReady initiative—a procedure to be implemented during a divorce, allowing for meaningful enforcement in civil court without invalidating the get under Jewish law. Both parties agree to engage in binding arbitration limited to the issuance, delivery, and acceptance of the get, identifying a mutually acceptable rabbinical court as the arbitration board and committing themselves to completing their roles in the process quickly (ideally within a matter of weeks).  The rabbinical court may then hold back the “receipt” needed to prove a religious divorce until after there is a final judgment in the civil divorce matter.

In most circumstances, tension between the parties will only increase as the case progresses. Therefore, we encourage individuals to raise the issue of the get with their attorneys from the outset, even if get-refusal seems unlikely in their particular situation. It is an unfortunate reality of divorce that even formerly loving spouses can turn aggressive, nasty, or downright unethical as they become entrenched in divorce proceedings.

There is often a window of opportunity when the parties initially separate, as they work together to sort out immediate logistical issues such as weekly parenting schedules or paying bills for the marital home. These things need to get done now, irrespective of how the final settlement will shake out, so the lights stay on and the children know where they will be sleeping next Tuesday night. If that line of communication is open, it’s also a good time to have both parties agree, in writing, to cooperate in the get process as simply another thing that must get done. Addressing the get early on removes the incentive for either party to leverage get-refusal as a weapon in later negotiations. If one party resists making this commitment, that’s a red flag that trouble may be brewing.

Even if the parties intend to negotiate a full divorce agreement in mediation or with the assistance of lawyers, we suggest that they address the get as one of the first steps in that process. They can sign a memorandum of understanding or interim agreement dealing solely with the issuance, delivery, and acceptance of the get. This memorandum should state that both parties intend for it to remain in effect even if negotiations break down and one or the other files for a contested divorce.

Finally, we encourage every divorcing Jewish couple to include a section in their divorce agreement referencing the get, even if they have already resolved this issue to their mutual satisfaction. This acknowledgment helps raise awareness of the get requirement among lawyers and judges. As it becomes more commonplace, we anticipate a somewhat easier road for agunot seeking intervention of the civil courts in their fights.

It is important to find creative solutions and to educate family law attorneys and judges about these issues.  Get-refusal is emotional abuse. Unlike other forms of abuse, however, a judge cannot enter a restraining order to curb this behavior or mitigate its effects.

Through both the Beth Din of America’s arbitration agreement and BATF’s GetReady initiative, couples commit to a fair and equitable religious dissolution of the marriage. The ultimate goal is to reduce emotional abuse in the Jewish community by publicizing and normalizing get-cooperation.

We anticipate that we can help shift community norms through widespread adoption of all these procedures: to commit to equity prior to the marriage; to address issuance of the get early in the divorce process; and to routinely acknowledge the get in divorce agreements. This also shifts the balance of power, by tying the religious divorce process back to a more egalitarian civil process and providing an avenue for enforcement within the court system.

The Boston Agunah Taskforce is proud to be a member of CHEIRUT, a new international network connecting organizations throughout the world whose mission is to help agunot. There’s so much we can accomplish when we work together, most importantly showing agunot that they are not alone—that we “get it.”

Too many of us know women who have gone through traumatic divorces, experienced get-refusal, or received their get only after making steep concessions. On this Agunah Day, please help us amplify support for agunot by using the hashtag #iGETit on social media. Together, we can make a difference!

Shanna T. Giora-Gorfajn, Esq., is the Chair of the Legal Advisory Board for the Boston Agunah Taskforce and an associate at The Wagner Law Group P.C., where her practice focuses on family law and estate planning.

The Boston Agunah Taskforce is funded by a generous grant from the Miriam Fund of CJP and other donors. We welcome donations to support our continued work.

Sukkot: Imagining the Framework for a Better World

By Wendy Amsellem and Mike Moskowitz

This is the week in the Jewish calendar when we shift focus from repentance and introspection into the world of action. We move from the preparations and reflections of Elul, and the fasting and praying on Yom Kippur, to the immediate building of our sukkot. We try hard to live up to the ideals of our newly penitent selves and to persevere in the goals we have recently set. One of the best ways to prevent falling into old patterns and habits is to step away from our familiar structures and systems, and to reposition ourselves anew in the sukkah.

An important step in creating a better society (and sukkah!) is having a clear sense of what we are trying to construct. Sometimes it is hard to imagine the possibilities. When I (Wendy) was a student, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told us that during her first year of law school, in 1956, she and the handful of other women in her class were asked by the law school dean to justify taking the place of a man at Harvard Law School. Justice Ginsberg explained that at that point in her life she had not yet fully discovered her feminism and she was fearful of sounding too aggressive. She told the dean that she had come to law school to better understand her husband’s career and that maybe one day it would lead to a part-time job. When we heard this story, we were deeply moved that Justice Ginsburg herself could not foresee how her career would develop.

In a 2016 essay in the New York Times, Justice Ginsburg reported that school children visiting the Supreme Court often asked her, “Did you always want to be a judge, or more exorbitantly, a Supreme Court justice?”  Ginsburg noted, “To today’s youth, judgeship as an aspiration for a girl is not at all outlandish.” Things which are hard to imagine today can swiftly become commonplace. Justice Ginsburg taught us that it is important to challenge the assumption that the way things have been is itself a justifiable reason for them to continue that way, even if we are not sure what the replacements will be.

As the people of Israel traveled through the wilderness, they also did not know from day to day where they were going. The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 11b) explains that we dwell in sukkot to commemorate the “Clouds of Glory/Clouds of Dignity”(annanei hakavod) that protected the Israelites in the wilderness and directed them on their journey. Bavli Taanit (9a) teaches that there were three miracles that God performed for the people of Israel in the desert. God provided the people with water, manna, and clouds of glory. Our rabbis ask why it is only the cloud that merited having a festival or scriptural commandment to remember it?

Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) explains that the clouds of glory are evidence of God’s special love for us. Food and water are basic necessities, but the clouds of glory provide comfort and honor to people living in a wilderness. Maimonides explains (Laws of Shabbat 2:3) that the laws of the Torah provide mercy, kindness, and peace “רַחֲמִים וְחֶסֶד וְשָׁלוֹם” and so God’s kindness to us in providing clouds of glory is memorialized each year in the commandment to build a sukkah. It is not coincidental that the numerical value of peace (שלום) is the same as the phrase mercy and kindness (רַחֲמִים וְחֶסֶד) because one is dependent on the other. In our evening prayers, we ask that God spread out over us “God’s Sukkah of Peace.” By creating structures that advance dignity and not just survival, we help to build God’s Sukkah of Peace.

The three gifts that God gave the Israelites in the desert are associated with their three leaders (Taanit 9a). The water was provided in the merit of Miriam; the manna in merit of Moshe; and the clouds of glory are in the merit of Aaron. Aaron was a person who valued dignity, peace, and love. According to the rabbis, Aaron was a perennial peacemaker, rushing to settle quarrels and promote affection between spouses, friends, and enemies. We are taught (Avos 1:12) to be disciples of Aaron; love peace, pursue peace, love creations, and bring people closer to the Torah.

The Sukkah then is not only a commemoration of God’s love for us, but also of Aaron’s values of collegiality and peace. As we remember one of our more contemporary leaders, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg z”l, we recall that she too valued collegiality and friendship. Justice Ginsburg had clear and strong ideals but she was famous for cultivating warm friendships with colleagues who held dramatically different opinions about law and society.

Aaron, as the Kohen Gadol, also was also instructed to wear garments of honor and dignity, as part of his job description, Exodus 28:2. Aaron used his dignified position not to seek more power for himself, but to pursue peace in the world of action. He was successful in orchestrating resolutions because people felt how deeply he cared about them. Aaron understood that peace, not money or power, was the greatest blessing. The commentators point out that the phrase “good grace” has the same numerical value as “Kohen”, 75, because that is the essence of the priestly role; to extend the divine presence to the people, not to hoard or exploit it.

King Solomon wrote in Proverbs (22:1), “A good name is preferred to wealth, and good grace (chein) is better than silver and gold (נִבְחָ֣ר שֵׁ֭ם מֵעֹ֣שֶׁר רָ֑ב מִכֶּ֥סֶף וּ֝מִזָּהָ֗ב חֵ֣ן טֽוֹב׃). Proverbs reminds us that what we may see as our “permanent” acquisitions are really external to who we are and often quite temporary. There is a false grace that is superficial and fleeting, but the good grace is empowering and instills a sense of responsibility for the greater good to prevent injustice. The first letter of the first four words of the verse which spell “נשמר – to guard”  allude to this.

The Talmud (Bavli Sukkah 2a) tells us that we must leave our permanent houses and move into temporary homes. But later, (Bavli Sukkah 28b) advises us that for the seven days of Sukkot we should make our sukkot into our permanent houses. One way to understand this apparent contradiction is that we must look at socially constructed privileges as temporary and external, and utilize the time in the sukkah to remember that we were dehumanized in Egypt and God reminded us of our worth. The festival of Sukkot is a time to plan for a better model that prioritizes human dignity as essential. Then, we can then make the temporary permanent by disrupting the systems that perpetuate injustice and protections for the entitled at the expense of those who are truly afflicted.

The struggle to take our resources and use them for the greater good is observed by the Talmud in Shabbat 104a through the order of the Hebrew alphabet. “If we do acts of loving kindness to those in need (gimmel and daled) then God (heh and vav) will sustain (zein) and provide good grace (chet tet). The rabbis point out that if we misuse those resources selfishly then it is the root of evil and sin (cheit ‘חט).

Building a more just and equitable society is complicated, difficult work. It requires us to re-examine fundamental assumptions about how our communities work and to be willing to dismantle structures of injustice. The way forward is not always clear, but as we build our sukkot we can begin to imagine setting up the framework of a better world. In his eulogy, Chief Justice John Roberts remembered, “Ruth used to ask, ‘What is the difference between a bookkeeper in Brooklyn and a Supreme Court Justice?’ She would answer: ‘One generation.’” Our actions, to continue the struggle for equality and dignity for all, will make what comes next possible.

May the memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg be a blessing in that it motivates us to be agents of graceful change.

 

 

Rabbi Wendy Amsellem teaches Talmud and Halakha at Yeshivat Maharat and is the Director of the Beit Midrash Program. (Pronouns: She/Hers)

 

 

 

 

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence in Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him)

 

The Second Pandemic: Domestic Violence and Femicide in Israel During Coronavirus

By Tally Kritzman-Amir

(Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series that examines domestic violence issues in the Coronavirus era).

Coronavirus and the Female Experience

As an Israeli feminist scholar and activist, I read the news about the Coronavirus thinking about the experience of women. Much of what is written about women in the Coronavirus era is obvious to anyone who is interested in gender disparities. Women are more susceptible to overburdening by unpaid or underpaid care jobs, household responsibilities, and children. They risk over-working and paying a toll in terms of their health or mental stability, or losing their paid jobs as they try to balance other responsibilities. They are more likely to be exposed to the pandemic risks as women make up 70% of the global healthcare workers, and less likely to have access to adequate personal protection equipment. Finally, I read the news about a second pandemic of violence against women that accompanies the Coronavirus pandemic. While these concerns are generally applicable to any country, I will focus specifically on Israel.

Since the beginning of 2020, 11 Israeli women were murdered by their domestic partners, one was critically injured by her husband, and a ten-month old baby was murdered by her father. Six of the women were murdered in the last two months, since the Coronavirus outbreak in Israel. In addition, four more women committed suicide as a result of the domestic violence they had endured since the pandemic outbreak. Several of the women were Palestinian or recent (Jewish and non-Jewish) immigrants to Israel, two populations over-represented in the victims of femicide in Israel both this year and in the past. But, it is not only femicide that we should worry about. Reports indicate that this past April there was a 16 percent increase in the number of reports of incidents of domestic violence and a 30 percent increase in the reports of domestic sexual crimes. Specifically over the period of two weeks between mid-April until the end of April, the number of reports to the welfare ministry of domestic violence quadrupled, in comparison with the first month of the pandemic lockdown. Wizo, Women’s International Zionist Organization, also reported a 40 percent increase in reports of domestic violence of women. For these women, staying at home during the Coronavirus outbreak was not a safety measure. Home was anything but safe or bearable for them, and the circumstances of high pressure and seclusion increased their vulnerability.

The social problem of femicide has become a concern in Israel, increasing in frequency in the last few years. It has been a challenge to frame it as the social problem that it is, rather than an accumulation of private domestic disagreements that derailed. Public campaigns against femicide changed the discourse that way,  leading to the formation of several committees and a designation of tens of millions of dollars that were never actually transferred to any of the governmental offices responsible for preventing femicide and domestic violence. Instead, the most significant allocation of funding is spent on the incarceration of abusive domestic partners, which is an ineffective measure when it is not accompanied by any meaningful measures of rehabilitation. The result is recidivism – 70% of the men are repeatedly detained for acts of abuse, including some of the men who later commit acts of femicide. To a large extent, the policy of Israel regarding femicide was consistent before and during the pandemic. Both times Israel did little or nothing to prevent violence, protect women, and save lives. The only exceptions were the decisions to open an additional shelter for women who are victims of domestic violence during the pandemic, and the to remove some of the abusers (rather than the victim) from their homes to alternative housing. Also consistent with pre-pandemic behaviors was the public response – many were outraged by the frequency of the acts of femicide, and gathered to protest on several occasions and several locations against the acts of femicide and the failure to prevent them despite the pandemic.

Opportunity for Change?

One of the common catch phrases of this pandemic is that “we are all in this together”. Indeed, nothing quite clarifies the mutual dependency of our times more than this pandemic, which requires us all to #stayathome in order to flatten the infection curve and make sure that medical services are not overburdened. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the pandemic is no great equalizer, but rather that it stresses and emphasizes pre-existing inequalities and disparities. This is true in Israel and in the United States, with respect to racial and ethnic disparities – but also, as this post highlights, with respect to gender inequalities. Femicide and domestic violence existed before COVID 19, and I shared concerns over the racial and ethnic aspects of it, namely the particular vulnerability of Palestinian and (Jewish and non-Jewish) immigrants to femicide and domestic violence. The pandemic did not detract from this being a crucial, pressing social issue, but instead deteriorated the social conditions that make women more vulnerable. Emergency measures around the pandemic did not  plan to address this vulnerability – either with a general plan against femicide and domestic violence or a specific one for the stressful times of the pandemic, thus more women were victimized.

Clearly there can be nothing good about a pandemic that has caused the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands around the globe. This post is about those who suffered or died during the pandemic outbreak but are not a part of its statistics. I think it is important to think about their experience of domestic violence and femicide which to some extent is attributable to the social conditions  facilitated by the coronavirus. By saying that, I do not want to excuse the perpetrators of the acts of violence. They are responsible for their acts of violence and murder, for which there can be no excuse. But the lockdown created an environment in which the female victims were much more vulnerable, far less likely to be seen or heard by others due to the heightened tensions and minimal social interaction of this time. The isolation created limited abilities to cry out for help.

Many have engaged in discussions over the course of the last few weeks since the outbreak regarding what life in the post-corona times – the “new normal” – will be like. Discussions of the “new normal” sometimes mention the shifts in the work-life balance and the added flexibility that the work from home created as potential structural changes in the labor market from which women can benefit. It is now clear that many of us can work from home, a matter that will potentially make it easier for women to navigate the needs of the domestic unpaid work they do with the requirements of the paid work. This could be an equalizer which could potentially diminish the gender pay gap, in a way that anti-discrimination legislation hasn’t been able to. As we have these important discussions about our emerging new lifestyle, it is important to also note that losing opportunities to informally interact with each other carries a risk for women and may come with under-reporting of violence. Homes are often a place for happiness and intimacy, but for some they are unsafe.

To diminish the social problem of femicide, Israel needs to divert resources to it and make the protection of victims of domestic violence a priority. This requires focusing attention on vulnerable women – Palestinians, newcomers, migrant workers and asylum seekers – women that are generally marginalized in Israeli society, but there also needs to be a lookout for women from more privileged groups. As mentioned above, this priority was already decided a few years ago, but never materialized. In the course of the battle against the Coronavirus, Israel formed a unity government with the largest cabinet to date – 32 ministries, incurring heavy costs to an economy in recession, and requiring budget cuts. In this reality, it is hard to imagine much progress is likely to be made on this front. To the extent that the pandemic is also an opportunity to introduce change, this change is likely to be minor for women victims of domestic violence, and continued efforts of the civil society will be required in order to substantially promote this cause.

 

Dr. Tally Kritzman-Amir is an Israel Institute Visiting Associate Professor, Harvard Department of Sociology, and a Senior Lecturer at the College of Law and Business, Israel. She is a 2018 GCRL Scholar in Residence and an HBI Research Associate. The statistics in the blog are effective up to June 11, 2020. 

Shavuot in a Heightened State of Grace

By Rabbis Wendy Amsellem and Mike Moskowitz

Chen is sometimes hard to describe but we know it when we see it. It is that extra measure of grace that makes a person or an action especially appealing. Chen elevates the ordinary, exceeds our expectations, and inspires us to be more graceful as well.

It is perhaps because grace transcends the natural limitations that it is so difficult to articulate and achieve. In our tradition, the number seven represents the spectrum of the natural order and the cycle of the seven days of creation. From Passover to Shavuot, we count seven weeks, for a total of 49 days. This number seven, multiplied by itself, represents the greatest expression of the essence of nature. But it is only on the next day, the 50th that goes beyond these boundaries, that we are able to receive the Torah.

Like the relationship between our body and soul, the Torah is where the finite meets the infinite. Chen is spelled in Hebrew חן – the numerical value of נ = 50  and ח = 8. Both the number 50 and the number 8 exceed the regular natural order which is based on factors of 7.  Chen is above nature.

Megilat Ruth is replete with acts of chen that break natural assumptions. Ruth and Orpah, the Moabite daughters-in-law of Naomi, escort her on her way back to Bethlehem. Naomi explains that there is no future for the young women there and urges them to return to their parents’ homes in Moab. The word Moab itself has the Hebrew numerical value of 49, indicating that returning there would be the natural thing to do. Orpah makes the reasonable choice to turn back, but Ruth clings to Naomi fiercely, pledging her unswerving loyalty.

Ruth goes beyond what is expected of her, choosing not only Naomi’s company but also her God, her people, and her way of life. In truth, all Jews by choice do this – they break from the assumed rhythms of their lives and embark instead on an extraordinary path of spiritual expansion.

We read Megilat Ruth on Shavuot because Shavuot is about going beyond the letter of the law. On Shavuot, the people of Israel break with their previous patterns of behavior and perform the ultimate elevating act of accepting the Torah. In doing so, they model the kabbalat mitzvot, accepting of commandments, that is traditionally the most essential part of the conversion process.

Boaz also exceeds expectations. As a field owner, he is obligated in the mitzvah of leket, allowing the poor to pick up sheaves dropped by his gleaners. Boaz not only performs the basic mitzvah of leket, but he instructs his workers to drop extra sheaves (Ruth 2:16) so that Ruth can collect them. He takes notice of Ruth, a defenseless stranger, and he speaks kindly to her. Ruth responds to him by asking (Ruth 2:10), “Why have I found chen in your eyes, even though I am a stranger?” Boaz explains that he has heard of her devotion to Naomi and then he blesses Ruth. She responds, (Ruth 2:13) “May I find chen in your eyes sir because you have comforted me and spoken to my heart.”

Ruth understands Boaz’s behavior to be motivated by chen. He is showing her kindness above and beyond expectation. Boaz replies that his acts of chen are directly in response to Ruth’s extraordinary behavior.

Boaz uses Abraham-like language to describe Ruth, saying to her, (Ruth 2:11) “It has been told to me. . .how you left your father, your mother, and the land of your birth to go to a nation that you did not know.” Abraham is the first and most potent example of a person leaving their expected life to go forth on a spiritual journey. By veering from the norm, Abraham is the model for all of his spiritual descendents, converts who leave their former lives to follow the God of Abraham. As Maimonides says in his letter to Ovadiah the Convert, “Whoever converts . . .is counted among the disciples of Abraham our father.”

How does a person make these choices and acquire this state of grace? The Gra (Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, 1720-1797) explains that chen comes from the language of chenam (free). One cannot buy chen. Rather it, like the Torah, is a gift from G-d, for those who choose to exert themselves. By giving freely of ourselves to others and offering more than is expected of us, we emulate G-d and are imbued with Divine grace.

The MidrashTanchuma, a collection of early rabbinic homiletic teachings, observes that in the Book of Ruth, except for eight verses, every verse begins with the Hebrew letter vav. These eight non-vav verses highlight Ruth’s connection to the number eight and her journey to the supernatural. She goes above and beyond the physical, for the sake of the spiritual. Even her name רות, with a numerical value of 606, alludes to this. Ruth chooses to add 606 additional commandments to the basic seven Noahide laws, (the seven commandments given to Noah and his descendants), so that in the end she accepts the 613 commandments of the Torah.

Men are often taught that to be responsible one must respectfully follow the rules, but in truth, it is not nearly enough. Systems are maintained by people continuing to do what people have done and expected in the past. Societal constructions of gender and their roles perpetuate assumptions as norms that actually limit and distort our true purpose and potential. We must expect more if things are ever going to improve.

It is especially challenging to strive for chen because it feels amorphous. Every year Shavuot invites us to re-experience the beyond.  By adopting a stance of generosity and pushing above standard expectations, we can all experience, and emerge from, Shavuot in a heightened state of grace.

Rabbi Wendy Amsellem teaches Talmud and Halakha at Yeshivat Maharat. (Pronouns: she/hers)

 

 

 

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence in Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him)

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