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The Battle of the Beit Midrash Has Been Decided

רחל עזריה
Rachel Azaria
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Prof. Vered Noam
Prof. Vered Noam
רחל עזריה
Rachel Azaria

After having fought them for years, now religious Zionist rabbis glorify learned women like Professor Vered Noam and hold them up as a shining example

The welcome and well-deserved awarding of the Israel Prize in Talmud Studies to Noam is another stamp of approval for the success of the religious feminist movement, and a moment of triumph for liberalism in Israel.

Noam is the first woman to win the Israel Prize for Talmud Studies. It’s not surprising that no woman has been awarded this prize before, because there were no potential candidates since women did not have the opportunity to study Talmud. The fight over teaching Gemara to women was the first struggle of religious Orthodox feminism in Israel, and in the beginning, nearly seemed like a mission impossible.

In 1971, my late mother-in-law, Hava Frankel-Goldschmidt, sent a carefully explained proposal to the Education Ministry’s religious education department, requesting that Gemara studies be permitted for girls in the state religious school system. Her letter was published in the journal of teachers of Jewish subjects in the state religious school system and the opposition was swift and adamant: Four letters opposing the idea were published and not a single letter in support. The objectors argued that this idea muddled the distinct roles of the sexes, that it would lead to sin and the ruin of the Jewish home, and that it attested to the foolishness of the person who proposed it. One letter quoted the words of Rabbi Eliezer in the Mishna: “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he taught her tiflut (variously understood as ‘lasciviousness’ or ‘vanities’).”

Her proposal was rejected out of hand and that was the end of that discussion. But a few years later, when Professor Alice Shalvi took over the administration of the Pelech religious school for girls, she introduced Talmud studies there and made the school into a stronghold of religious feminism. Meanwhile, the process of founding the first Beit Midrash for women, Midreshet Lindenbaum, was also beginning.

What aroused such strong opposition in the 1970s is now accepted even by conservative groups within religious Zionism. The fight over the Beit Midrash has been decided. The fact that Rabbi Rafi Peretz, a representative of the conservative hardali (haredi religious Zionist) wing in the Knesset, is awarding the prize, is further proof of the revolution’s success. Religious Zionist rabbis now glorify learned women and hold them up to today’s religious feminists as a shining example of how to conduct a revolution quietly and with humility. Because this is how traditional societies operate: They will never welcome a revolution, but once it has taken root, they will treat the change as something obvious and turn their attention to heading off the next revolution.

Professor Shalvi spoke of the three houses (batim) in Judaism: the Beit Midrash (study hall), the Beit Knesset (synagogue) and Beit Din (rabbinical court). She believed that in order to complete the religious feminist revolution, the status of women needed to change in each of these three houses. Following the success of the Torah study revolution, what remains is to change women’s status in the synagogues and rabbinical courts.

Now we’re in the heart of the struggle in the synagogue, for the right of women to pray as equals among equals. Lately it has been gaining momentum and there are already dozens of women’s minyans around the country and egalitarian minyans in which women are called up to the Torah, read the weekly portion and lead the services. This is a long struggle that has been going on for several decades in religious Zionism, but in recent years even in the more conservative regions of religious Zionism, women dance with the Sefer Torah on Simhat Torah and read the Megilla on Purim – acts which were typical of the first stage of the feminist revolution in the synagogue.

Not long ago, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a leading figure in the conservative wing of religious Zionism, wrote in his column in B’Sheva, the popular weekly paper for a religious Zionist audience, that it was not worth fighting women who want to read the Megilla or dance with a Sefer Torah. Even regarding women being called up to the Torah, he expressed a relatively moderate position. So even in the hardali strongholds, the revolution in the synagogue has already begun. And as with Torah study for women, here too the conservative wing will embrace yesterday’s revolution of women’s Megilla reading but will oppose the next stage of the struggle about equal status for women in the synagogue.

The big struggle that has yet to begin is the struggle for equal status for women in the rabbinical courts. It’s hard to imagine such a change, to picture women dayyanot (religious court judges) and arbiters of Jewish law, but recall the reactions to the initial suggestion that women learn Gemara. That process is one of the greatest victories of liberalism in Israel. Liberal ideas are also seeping into the strongholds of Israeli conservatism. The idea that women are of equal worth, that women have liberties, that they have the right to study and be part of the congregation, and in the future to also be dayyanot in the religious courts – This idea was born out of the values of liberalism and has been too deeply assimilated for anyone to uproot. Even in the strongholds of Israeli conservatism, no one can now envision life, or the State of Israel, without liberal ideas.

Unlike conservatism, which embraces yesterday’s revolution and resists the current struggle, liberalism encourages the next struggle for freedom, dignity and equality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Professor Noam teaches at Tel Aviv University – a stronghold of Israeli liberalism. The university hired her in the late 1990s when Talmud studies for women was not something to be taken for granted. Thus it was liberals who enabled her to ultimately win the Israel Prize, which will be presented to her by Rabbi Peretz, representative of the conservatives in the Knesset. Noam receiving the prize is a reminder that even the staunchest conservatives in Israel will eventually adopt more liberal ideas, but only after a fight and with some delay. After the uproar that was sparked by the interview with Professor Nissim Mizrahi (Haaretz Magazine, December 26) and at a time when liberalism is under attack, here we have a moment of satisfaction and a reminder that liberalism is one of the cornerstones upon which Israeli society and the State of Israel are based.

The writer is a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and MK who served as chairwoman of the Knesset Reforms Committee, and is a leader of the fight against the exclusion of women in the public sphere.

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