Chassidot and Chutzpah
Anat Hoffman, head of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), addressed Congregation Beth Am in February of this year. Hearing her talk gave me a good perspective on a recent statement written by Chaya, an anonymous Chabad woman, in the XOJane blog on May 22.
Chaya declares, in short, that women in her Chassidic community are happy, empowered, sexually active, in love with their husbands, and in touch with their bodies. And they are also in possession of good kugel recipes and can speak a bit of Spanish. She concludes:“The next time you see a Jewish lady in a wig pushing a baby carriage through Brooklyn, I hope you won’t see an imprisoned waif who is just waiting to be liberated. Cuz we’re not like that. We’re strong. We’re invincible. And we make delicious kugel. L’chaim, chicas!”
In Israel, where Anat Hoffman works, they are also the only one in their homes who work. In many Chassidic households, it is the women who deal with the outside world while the men sit and study. One of the things the men study, amazingly, is how to control women’s lives. Hoffman theorized that the “black hats,” the Haredim in Israel, silence and marginalize women in public because, in private, they would starve without them.
Hoffman’s work is fighting illegal and misogynistic policies enforced by local rabbis and government employees. Her organization has fought everyone from bus drivers who let women be moved to the back of the bus, to clerks who tear up completed paperwork for women they do not think are dressed properly enough to obtain Israeli citizenship as Jews.
“There are many shades of black,” she said. “Women walk into my office and say, ‘thank God for you Reformim.’” While IRAC initiates a lot of lawsuits, so do a few Orthodox women ( most notably Naomi Ragen, the outspoken American author who is frank on the subject of misogyny in the Orthodox community, yet militantly observant). “Orthodox women,” Hoffman stated, “are some of the bravest feminists I know.”
Hoffman goes to court about sixty times a year to uphold civil rights in Israel that are written into the law of the land but undermined by ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
The audience at Congregation Beth Am overwhelmingly agreed that getting a non-Orthodox rabbi on the payroll of the Israeli government was important. Hoffman has been fighting to get Miri Gold, the Reform rabbi who lives on Kibbutz Gezer on the goverment payroll, and recently won. The fight took seven years.
Gold joins the ranks of rabbis who draw salaries from the Israeli government. “There are 4000 rabbis in Israel, and they are all men.” Hoffman said. “The chutzpah! I’ve visited many schools that are no more than post office boxes.” These male, Orthodox rabbis all draw salaries. Now Miri Gold will too, which is why Reform, Masorti, and Modern Orthodox Jews consider the precedent a victory, and why the strictly Orthodox religious establishment is livid.
It’s part of the dialectical nature of Jews. One does, the other questions. Men rally, women do what they want. Observed on a 747 going from JFK to TLV in business class the day after the ‘asifa,’ or meeting, on the subject of the Internet that happened at Citi Field: An Orthodox man in a black hat talking about the rally, and his wife, sitting next to him, reading a book. It’s title? ’50 Shades of Grey.’