Bar-Ilan - Keidar - 14.3.12
Women participating in Bar-Ilan University’s “Marital Communications” class on Tuesday. Photo by Nir Keidar
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A class in "Marital Communications" was held Tuesday in Bar-Ilan University's Midrasha, an advanced Torah study program for women. The course has an unusual prerequisite: It is meant only for women who have been married for at least one year.

"There are topics that could frighten an unmarried woman," argued one undergraduate in political science and history who is in the class.

"It starts with the assumption that anyone who registers for the course is a datiya [a religiously observant Jewish woman]," said the student, who declined to give her name. "We learn the philosophical aspects of marriage as well as those related to halakha [Jewish religious law] - about the laws of family purity and the relationship between the couple. It could be scary, because it's about life, not theory, and it's logical for there to be requirements for professional training."

The university's official explanation for the unorthodox requirement is that the course is indeed a vocational one, meant for women who plan to become bridal counselors. But it is also open to students who are not in the bridal counseling program, who receive credit for it toward their Jewish study requirements. And that is what has sparked objections.

"When it gets to the point where you want to take an academic course at the university for credit, but you can't because you're not married, that's unacceptable," an undergraduate in Jewish studies said yesterday. "It's not an academic requirement anywhere. How is my marital status relevant? And if I marry six months from now, or tomorrow, then what?

"A vocational course for academic credit cannot have nonacademic prerequisites," she continued. "Anyone who wants to take it should be able to. It's not a scholarship where someone decides who receives it and who doesn't. It's ridiculous to judge suitability by means of marital status."

A request from Haaretz to attend one of yesterday's classes was refused. But the head of the Midrasha, Dr. Ruth Ben-Meir, explained the reasoning behind the decision: "We want to serve as a bridge, to train bridal counselors, with an emphasis on brides who are not religiously observant. It's not a classic academic course ... Prior knowledge is necessary to be part of the course. We are in favor of academic freedom and offer a parallel alternative course for unmarried women."

"Bar-Ilan seems to be confused," said the executive director of the Masorti (Conservative ) movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess. "They forget that a university class isn't a Bnei Akiva [religious youth movement] activity, and that academia isn't an ulpana [religious high school]. A university isn't supposed to hold a course only for married women, or, even worse, to go into the bedroom of an unmarried female student. It's discriminatory and patronizing, with a dash of Jewish fundamentalism."

In a response, Bar-Ilan University said: "The Midrasha, which offers Jewish studies for woman, operates at the university alongside the Institute for Advanced Torah Studies for men. Among other things, the Midrasha offers courses in Judaism that are equivalent to the fundamental Jewish studies courses that students at Bar-Ilan are required to take.

"In addition, the Midrasha offers an external course in training bridal counselors. This course is not an academic course. It is open to women who have been married at least one year, and admission is conditioned on an interview and on payment. However, regular matriculated students are also permitted to enroll in the course in order to satisfy their mandatory Jewish studies requirements, at no extra charge."