In Israeli State-funded Religious Schools, There Are Still No 'Outstanding Women'

Religious schools give their students two historical figures to study as examples every year – and they are always men

Students in a religious school, Jerusalem, November 2019.
Students in a religious school, Jerusalem, November 2019.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Students in Israel’s state-funded religious education system will still not be exposed to any female “outstanding figures” in 2020-2021, for the tenth consecutive year.

Since 2011, as part of the “Leoram Nelech” ("Following in Their Light") project, the religious education council chooses every year two prominent personalities in the religious-Zionist world. An illustrated book is especially produced and distributed to preschoolers, while older pupils get dedicated lessons.

Shosh Nagar, who heads Hemed, the Education Ministry’s religious schools administration, announced this week that Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Yaakov Meir, the first two chief rabbis of the Land of Israel under the British Mandate 100 years ago, had been chosen for the next school year.

In the first years of the project, only men were chosen as the outstanding figures: Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, who was the first chief rabbi of Israel; Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the founder of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva and the spiritual father of the settler movement Gush Emunim; Rabbi Haim David HaLevi, a major Halakhic figure and the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and Rishon Letzion; and Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, an Israel Prize laureate who headed the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva after the death of Zvi Yehuda Kook – and who also espoused a vehement ideological line against evacuating Jewish settlements in the Palestinian Territories.

As a result of public criticism, the spouses of the figures were later included. Hemed says that “women have a central place in the Jewish world, and... the Hemed has included them as part of the yearly subjects of recent years.” They argue that the program has featured Bracha, wife of Rabbi Yosef Kapach; Tzfia, wife of Rabbi Shlomo Goren; and Rachel, wife of Rabbi Moshe-Zvi Neria.

But a woman has never been chosen as an outstanding figure on her own, and the rabbis’ wives were often presented as secondary characters. In the book given out to preschool children about Rabbi Neria and his wife, two stories are devoted to the rabbi and one story focuses on his wife - as a woman of good deeds and someone who dedicated her time to typing up her husband’s religious teachings. The next year, out of 11 of the pamphlets with short stories from Rabbi Goren’s life given out in preschools, only one focused on his wife. Almost nothing was said of Victoria, wife of Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, former Sephardic chief rabbi and the 2019 object of study. And this year - there are no mentions of women at all.

A class in a religious school, Jerusalem, 2019.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Two years ago, the religious Zionist Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah movement attempted to shake things up. In a letter to the heads of the religious schools administration, they proposed more diverse figures who did not come from the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva or the Chief Rabbinate. One was Pinchas Kehati, a commentator on the Mishna, a written collection of Jewish traditions also known as the Oral Torah, who worked and made his living as a bank clerk. They also suggested that teaching about Nechama Leibowitz, a commentator on the Bible and educator, could have “great importance in strengthening religious education in a way to educate our sons and daughters to take a part in the Torah.”

Hemed responded to the criticism by arguing that, as this coming school year is the 100th anniversary of the Chief Rabbinate, the two chief rabbis at the time of the founding of Israel were chosen. But rabbis’ wives will be back on the agenda in the 2021-2022, the state religious education administration assured.

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