Monday, January 2, 2012

Continuing the Struggle for Women in Israel

I returned from Israel four days ago, and one thing I learned on this trip is that Israel is second in the world to Japan in per capita sushi consumption. That's right: Israelis eat more raw fish than any other nationality in the world, save the one that came up with the idea.

On Wednesday, my son and I were in Tel Aviv, and we stopped into a sushi restaurant for lunch. I was struck by the fact that the sushi chef was female, something which I had never seen before, in Israel or America. The manager told me that she was Chinese, and had learned to make sushi in China. He also told me that there are in Israel only about 4 or 5 female sushi chefs (out of what I assume to be hundreds, given the aforementioned popularity of sushi).

In the context of events that occurred in Israel over the past two weeks, the presence of this woman behind the array of cuts of salmon, tuna, and yellowtail is worth noting. A confluence of events have led many commentators and regular Israeli citizens to ask if Israel might be taking a step backward with respect to women.

The country that was once led by the original “Iron Lady” of world politics, Golda Meir, has been roiled by controversies in recent weeks related to the freedom of women.  The two that most captivated the attention of the Israeli public are:

1.  Tamar Rosenblit, a woman from Ashdod, boarded a bus headed for Jerusalem, and took a seat in front.  This was, as it turns out, a bus line that is known by some to be “Mehadrin,” meaning that it is the custom of people on this bus (neither supported by nor discouraged by the Egged bus company) to sit gender-segregated, with men in front and women in back.  Soon, a Haredi man started to board the bus, and when he saw Ms. Rosenblit sitting in front, he refused to sit down, instead standing in the doorway so that the doors could not close, thus preventing the bus from moving for half an hour.

2.  Naama Margolese, the 8-year-old daughter of American immigrants to the city of Beit Shemesh, was spat upon and called horrible names while on her way to school by a group of Haredi men for being (in their opinion) “dressed immodestly.”  The school, by the way, is a religious school for girls only, and Naama was of course dressed appropriately, in the fashion of Orthodox girls her age.  The school also happens to be located on the cusp of a Haredi neighborhood in Beit Shemesh, and on the front lines of what appears to be a growing social fracture in Israeli society between the Haredim and everybody else.

I could point to a number of other problematic incidents in recent years perpetrated by religious extremists, but these are especially important because they have caught the attention of the Israeli public, the government, and the police.  Almost all Israelis, secular, religious, and even Haredi, are against this creeping extremist violence against women.   (On one of the morning news programs, the male and female anchors were wearing shirts that echoed the berakhah that we say every morning: Barukh She-asani Ishah - Praised is the One who made me a woman.)

Coupled with other recent events (the religious officers in the IDF who refused to listen to women singing at an army ceremony, the disappearance of women from billboards in Jerusalem), there is a growing sense of, “Now is the time to act.”  I hope that we shall soon see how the Israeli government tries to handle the extremists who do not acknowledge any voice of authority other than their own.

The “70 people” identified by the Torah in Parashat Vayyigash, which we completed reading this past Shabbat, as having gone down into Egypt with Jacob leaves out most of the women; as progressive Jews, we acknowledge that the story of women in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), in rabbinic literature, and Jewish text throughout the ages is just as important and relevant as that of the men.  That is one of the many reasons that we are egalitarian in practice.

What is equally as important for us here in Great Neck to remember as to those in Israel is the following:

1.  Nobody has a lock on “the truth” in Jewish tradition.  One of the beautiful features of Jewish life across the board is that customs vary, and that there are, as the rabbis tell us, Shiv’im panim laTorah, there are 70 faces to the Torah.

2.  Nobody has the right to defend their take on Jewish tradition by behaving badly against another person, be they 8 or 80 years old.

3.  We should never resign ourselves to believing that those who seem more pious are (a) good people, (b) better Jews, or (c) more authentic.  Our traditions and our Jewish choices are just as authentic and just as powerful.

One of Chairman Mao’s most famous proverbs was, “Women hold up half the sky.”  That is as true in Israel as it is in China, and it is upon us to make sure that this principle continues to be reinforced into the future.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, December 31, 2011.)

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