So is Dov Lautman, founder of Delta Galil, one of the world’s largest sock, underwear and other apparel manufacturers, and current president of the Israel Manufacturers Association. He truly is a legend in his own time.

shalvi_1.jpgMs. Shalvi, who is an observant Jew, has been at the forefront of speaking out on behalf of women’s issues for most of her life. Here’s part of what Brown University wrote about her when granting her the honorary degree, “Doctor of Humane Letters:”

Alice Shalvi is Israel’s most outspoken and active Conservative Jewish feminist…

Shalvi founded the Israel Women’s Network in 1984, serving as its director until 1997…the organization has effected legal change – particularly in the workplace – and is taking aim at issues concerning women’s health, battered women and rape.

In addition to being thought of as the mother of Israeli feminism, Shalvi is an accomplished scholar and educator. Last July, she was named acting president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. As principal of the Pelech Religious Experimental High School for Girls from 1975 to 1990, she created a highly respected model for liberal religious education in Israel. She also established the Department of English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, serving as its founding chairwoman from 1969-1973. She also was a faculty member of the English department of Hebrew University between 1950 and 1990, and was head of Hebrew University’s Institute of Languages and Literature from 1973-76.

Born in Germany in 1926, Shalvi immigrated to England in 1934. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature from the University of Cambridge, and a postgraduate degree in social work from the London School of Economics and Political Science. After immigrating to Israel in 1950, she received a doctorate in English literature from Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1962. She has published extensively on literature, education, women, feminism and Judaism.

Shalvi retired from Shechter in 2003. At the time, she was interviewed by Ha’aretz. In part, she explains why she “left” Orthodox Judaism – she was affiliated with religious Zionism in Israel – and joined the Conservative movement:

“Personally, I no longer felt a part of Orthodox Judaism. I could not pray in an Orthodox synagogue, where I had the feeling that I was being pushed into some obscure corner, particularly on Simhat Torah [on which, in Orthodox synagogues, it is only the men who are allowed to hold Torah scrolls in their arms as they dance in the chapel – Y.S.], which became one of the saddest holidays in the Jewish calendar for me.

Nor could I any longer countenance the Orthodox attitude toward agunot (deserted wives) and women whose husbands refuse to give them a get (Jewish divorce decree). Even today, despite all the welcome changes that have occurred in the Orthodox world, egalitarianism does not exist, not even in the most open-minded synagogues. There are partitions to enforce separate gender seating, and there are certain things that women are prohibited from doing [such as serving as cantors in central liturgical passages – Y.S.].”

She clearly recalls the moment that made her change her viewpoint. It was when, for the first time in her life, she was given an aliyah to the Torah. That was in 1979, in a Conservative synagogue in the United States: “I had come to see a `women’s congregation.’ Suddenly, I was asked whether I would like to be given an aliyah to the Torah. I was very excited. This was the first time I had ever seen an open Torah scroll close up, and, alongside the joy I was privileged to have bestowed upon me when I was given the aliyah, I experienced an immense sadness – over the fact that I had been forced to wait until age 53 before participating in an experience that is shared by every male Jew from age 13 [the age of bar mitzvah when a Jewish male is recognized as an adult in terms of the performance of Jewish laws].”

There is a brief but interesting article by Shalvi discussing Orthodox Judaism, particularly ultra-Orthodox and its relationship with the state of Israel and particularly as it relates to women. In a way it also provides a brief overview of the status of women in Judaism both currently and to a lesser degree, historically. I’m enclosing some excerpts below but the full article can be found at this link.

Some excerpts:

Contemporary Jewish fundamentalism (like religious fundamentalism in general) may be defined as a fidelity, often rigid, to religious tradition, ideology or sacred text and the literal (or extremely strict) interpretation of such text.

The tradition which governs Jewish fundamentalist thought and practice is, above all, androcentric and patriarchal, drawing a clear distinction between male and female, traceable to that found in the opening chapter of Genesis, which, among other things, narrates the creation of humankind: “Male and female created He them.”

In this respect, Judaism is no different from other religions. What one legal authority has identified as “a core feature of religious fundamentalism,” namely “the vigorous political promotion, and legal reinforcement of gender roles whose explicit intent entails the subordination of women,” exists also in Judaism.1

The gender-based distinction finds expression in a wide variety of elements in Jewish theology and religious practice, beginning with the very language both of the biblical text and of the liturgy which developed only much later. In Hebrew, which is a gender-inflected language lacking the neuter form, the deity is masculine as, in the standard liturgy, is the person addressing Him, the “I” of prayer. Thus, for example, the individual who, in the biblical citation which is part of the daily prayer, is bidden to “love the Lord thy God” is male. Even the tenth commandment, in referring to “thy neighbour” posits both a male subject and a male correlative in the neighbourly relationship. Hence the injunction is not to covet one’s neighbour’s “wife,” rather than his or her “spouse.”

Jewish theology is similarly androcentric. The command which (literally) “embodies” the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people finds physical expression in the circumcision of every male child at the age of eight days. While Jewish prayer, as recited by both men and women, refers to “Thy covenant which Thou hast sealed in our flesh,” Jewish women (perhaps fortunately, given the horrors of female genital mutilation) do not bear that seal.2

The covenant was initially entered into with Abraham and reconfirmed with the successive patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob. Though Jacob had a daughter, Dinah, the tribes of Israel derived only from his twelve sons. Significantly, the only part of the Genesis narrative in which Dinah figures as a protagonist deals with her abduction by Hamor, son of Shehem, and the subsequent bloody avenging of the stain on the family honour by her brothers, Shimon and Levi. Throughout the entire episode Dinah is objectified, silent, her voice unheard and unrecorded. The verb which recurs most frequently with reference to her is “to take,” an action performed on her by both her abductors and her brothers.

Traditional Jewish ritual is also androcentric. The two most significant events in the life of a Jewish male are his circumcision and his bar-mitzva—the “coming of age” on his thirteenth birthday—which makes him responsible for his own actions, imposes on him the practice of the commandments and makes him eligible for inclusion in the quorum of ten adult males, which is a prerequisite both for the recitation of some of Judaism’s most central and sacred prayers (including the mourners’ Kaddish) and for the reading of the Law from a Torah scroll, which occurs on Mondays, Thursdays and the Sabbath.

Women are not eligible for inclusion in the prayer quorum. They are also exempt from fulfilling some of the commandments, most specifically those which are time-bound (that is, have to be performed at specific times of the day or the year). In this respect, women are categorized in Jewish law together with male minors and Canaanite slaves—a significant grouping!

Not only have Jewish women not enjoyed equal status in synagogue and other ritual; they have also been denied the type and degree of Jewish education traditionally deemed essential for Jewish males, whose ideal occupation, in the opinion of traditionalists, is the study of the Law (that is, the Talmud). Forbidden entry into the house of study (Beit Midrash) and the Yeshiva (Talmudic seminary), Jewish women (with only a very few exceptions) have until recently lacked the knowledge required in order to be actively involved in the interpretation of halakhah. Needless to say, this means that they cannot be recognized or ordained as rabbinical authorities.

In legal terms, a Jewish woman is subject to the authority of a male relative, first as daughter and later as wife. Indeed, the Jewish marriage ceremony is an act of symbolic purchase (though no money needs to change hands) in which the bride becomes her husband’s property, while he undertakes to provide for all her needs, including sexual satisfaction. The Hebrew word for “husband” is “owner.” A woman can be released from marriage only if her husband, of his free will and being of sound mind, places in her willingly outstretched hands a get or bill of divorcement. There have never been, nor are there at present, any women on the three-member panels of rabbinical judges which authorize (but cannot finalize) the granting of a divorce. In Israel, the rabbinical courts have sole jurisdiction over personal law and there is no option of civil marriage or civil divorce for any citizen, irrespective of the religion of which they are officially registered as members.

The overriding quality desired in the traditional Jewish woman—and the one most frequently adduced by religious authorities as a justification for her exclusion from the public arena—is modesty. Woman’s voice is decried by fundamentalists as an “abomination,” as is woman’s hair, while other parts of her body are considered inducive to lascivious thoughts in men. Thus Orthodoxy demands that married women cover their hair (or, in some extremely fundamentalist communities, shave their heads upon marriage prior to covering their baldness with a kerchief); that unmarried women and girls keep their hair neatly braided and never “dishevelled” (the latter being a sign of wantonness and even prostitution); that all females wear long-sleeved garments and stockings at all seasons and that their clothing never reveal the contours of their bodies. There is, however, no demand to conceal the face, though cosmetics are frowned upon.

Rabbinical law regarding marriage and divorce has already been discussed. On the whole, that law is in essence compassionate even though it is not egalitarian. Thus although a divorce becomes absolute only through an act voluntarily performed by both spouses, there are halakhically approved methods by which a recalcitrant husband (that is, one who refuses to grant the get) may be “persuaded” to do so. These range from pre-nuptial agreements to annulment by the rabbinical courts. The latter is particularly relevant when the husband has absconded or is otherwise unavailable to deliver the bill of divorcement.

Although civil rights activists and particularly women’s organizations have been actively engaged in attempting to persuade the Chief Rabbis to instruct the rabbinical courts to act in accordance with these halakhically approved remedies, there is no sign of imminent change in the attitudes or decisions of the courts. While the vast majority of recalcitrant husbands continue with impunity to harass or impose unlimited suffering on their wives rather than release them from the marriage bonds, women who similarly refuse to accept the get are designated “rebels” whose husbands may then even be given permission to take a second wife, while they themselves remain undivorced and therefore neither eligible for any kind of financial support or sharing of property, nor able to marry another man.5 Any children a non-divorced woman may bear in an extra-marital relationship will be considered mamzerim (bastards) and neither they nor their descendants for ten generations will be permitted to marry a Jew.

With considerable difficulty and admirable determination, some orthodox women have surmounted innumerable obstacles placed in their way by rabbinical authorities and have qualified as para-legal “pleaders” permitted to appear before the rabbinical courts in divorce proceedings. In 1999, in an historic and unprecedented move, two women graduates of one of the women’s seminaries were accorded the status of “advisors” (but not halakhic “decisors,” as men are called) in the areas of dietary laws and family purity. Their status and legitimacy are being assured by the numbers of Orthodox women who consult them on these two issues and who will in all likelihood ultimately seek and abide by their opinions in other areas. Once again, as in civil societies allover the world at all times, the truth of the dictum “Knowledge is Power” is being demonstrated. However, these women have no official status, nor do they receive payment of any kind from official sources.

In the Orthodox community, political power, like religious authority, is vested solely in men. Apart from the National Religious Party, which is the only truly Zionist of the religious parties and which was until recently comparatively moderate, none of the religious parties has ever fielded a woman candidate for election to the Knesset. Nevertheless, it is well known that in the Ultra-orthodox community the wives of the most politically powerful rabbis exert considerable influence behind the scenes.

All the above should make it clear that the modern State of Israel is a land of innumerable contradictions and paradoxes. On the one hand, it has universal suffrage and a democratically elected parliament, but within that legislature are represented parties that openly declare their desire to replace democratic rule with a theocracy in which Jewish law (halakhah) will take precedence. It is one of the few countries that have had a woman prime minister; yet until 1977 Ultra-orthodox rabbis forbade the women of their communities to vote. In Israel’s Supreme Court, women currently number three out of a total of fifteen judges, yet there is not a single woman judge in the rabbinical court system. Israel has a law mandating universal conscription, yet religiously observant young women may request exemption on grounds of modesty. Furthermore, married women and mothers are exempted from military service, in accordance with the overruling importance placed on marriage and motherhood even among secular women. Israeli theatres, most of which are state- or city-subsidized, boast numerous outstanding women actors and there are equally numerous fine women singers in both classical and popular entertainment. Yet religiously observant girls and women perform only before all-female audiences, while no Ultra-orthodox male will attend a performance by females.

Emancipation, freedom and liberty are countered by reaction and repression. But there is undeniably a light at the end of the tunnel of fundamentalist oppression—a light kindled by women themselves. It is the light of learning and knowledge—for so many centuries the monopoly of Jewish males. Like their non-Jewish “sisters,” Jewish women have struggled against all odds to attain the scholarship that grants intellectual, and ultimately also social, authority. There are already an impressive number of women rabbis in the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel as in the Diaspora. In the opinion of many feminists, the time is not far away when there will also be Orthodox women whose halakhic authority will equal that of male rabbis, whatever title they may be accorded in place of “rabbi.” Re-interpreting and re-visioning Jewish law and practice, collaborating with non-Orthodox women similarly concerned with the secure establishment of a democratic, pluralist, egalitarian civil society, they may well bring about a spiritual revolution which will enable a blending of Judaism with modernity such as will make an ineradicable, irreversible impact even on the currently far too conservative quasi-secular state of Israel.

Go ahead, read it all. You know you want to.

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  • I have always enjoyed reading her and she is deffo deserving of this prestigious award.