Rabba Sara Hurwitz, right, is the dean of Yeshivat Maharat in New York, which since its founding in 2009 has ordained 14 Orthodox clergywomen. Photo by Uriel Heilman

A response to the Orthodox Union’s statement on women clergy


Several people have asked me my thoughts on the Orthodox Union’s recent statement regarding women clergy. As you know, the advancement of women’s leadership and scholarship provides one of the fundamental tenets that make Shalhevet High School what it is.  The topic also is important to me on a personal level. I am proud to daven frequently at B’nai David-Judea, a synagogue that employs a female clergy member. My wife has spent this year in Jerusalem studying to become a Yoetzet Halacha. I routinely use my soapbox to call for progress on a host of issues triggering difficult halachic discussions – including women’s issues, LGBT issues, and more – and have received a good deal of flak for those stances.

And yet, I find the resentment towards the Orthodox Union, and these Rabbis in particular, in reaction to this statement, somewhat exaggerated and unfair. Please do not misunderstand me – I have issues with the statement. But I look at the response to this statement (mostly on social media and in private emails) and I see a lot of knee-jerk reactions instead of carefully considered critique. I see individuals demonizing the rabbis who penned the statement, decrying their chauvinism, and declaring their standing on the wrong side of history. Many people I have spoken to do not seem to have read the piece carefully, if at all.

You don’t agree with the decision? Great. Disagree! That is the Jewish way, the Talmudic way, which has charted our course for millennia. I understand that this statement is painful for many people. But let’s not jump to assume the worst about those with whom we disagree. Let’s avoid assuming that its authors acted in bad faith. Rather, collect your thoughts, respond point-by-point, identify what you consider to be any logical missteps, and advance the dialogue on this important issue. All too often these days, people don’t just disagree– they demean, malign, reject and delegitimize. The rabbinic authors of this statement are talmidei chachamim who are filled with ahavat Yisrael, and think day and night about the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the Jewish people.

As I have written in the past on numerous occasions, we need not agree on every issue. I respect and admire Rabbi Kanefsky tremendously. I consider him a role model and a true tzaddik. Rabbi Kanefsky disagrees with the Orthodox Union decision, which is his right. Just as Rabbi Kanefsky retains the prerogative to diverge from the OU’s line of reasoning, so too does the OU have the prerogative to make public that decision and rationale.

I understand the opinion that people often will use halacha to confirm a certain predisposition to an issue. But that is an oversimplification of the halachik process. Halachik decisors draw not only on precedent and clear-cut textual sources but on what they take to be the spirit that animates the halachik system in its totality, a spirit that they have drawn from a comprehensive study of halacha and its sources. Similarly, those who earnestly seek to expand the role of women generally do so in an attempt to advance what they consider to be the goals of the halachik system. We can disagree without arguing that the other side is acting in bad faith.

Given that this debate implicates the overall values of the halachik system, there is enough “give” in centuries of Biblical commentary, Talmudic discourse and Halachik Responsa to justify opposite conclusions on the issue of women clergy. And what’s true of the debate over women clergy is true of a wide variety of other halachik issues that draw upon the relative weight we place on the wide range of halachik values within our tradition. But the existence of multiple values in no way diminishes the integrity of halachik analysis.

Both the supporters and detractors of the OU’s statement approach this issue with important and valid halachik values essential for any honest and thorough conversation over the role of women within the clergy. Let us focus on what both sides in this debate share in common.  A deep commitment to halacha and a recognition that in the year 2017 there is a need for an expanded role for women in synagogue leadership .  The OU document, while saying no to women rabbis, carves out a much greater amount of space for women to serve and lead.  This is significant given the community from which the document emanates.  Yes, many would love to see more; yes, many feel that women rabbis are acceptable in halacha.  Let’s argue, but by all means let’s also recognize how much common ground the two sides of this debate share. The value of honoring Mesorah (tradition) and making religious leadership available to women can both be seen as Torah objectives; the relative weight we give to those values can each support honorable Torah worldviews. And precisely because each worldview comprises Torah values, each position will find halachik support. Should we bemoan this reality? I don’t think so. It speaks to the complexity and depth of the Jewish tradition. We are a tradition of debate, not of unanimity.

There is one reality, however, that we should bemoan: our inability to debate with dignity and respect. We have lost our ability to have genuine empathy for any side that disagrees with our worlviews. If the Jewish community joins our current society at large in choosing this direction, then I struggle to see how we will heal the wounds that have formed in this toxic atmosphere we have created.

When the rest of the world is going so low, should not the Jewish community go high? Does our mission not contain the mandate to shine a light unto the world? If we do nothing but emulate the coarse ways of a polarized world, then who are we?

Modern Orthodoxy can lead the way in shining a Jewish light unto the world. Our rabbinic leadership must begin to define its movement in positive, as opposed to negative terms. Our decisors must describe for us what we as Modern Orthodox Jews can and should be, a vision to which we can aspire, as opposed to offering a steady diet of restrictive pronouncements. Far too many Orthodox Jews feel that the rabbis only show up periodically to offer a “slap on the wrist” when societal norms have gone too far afield. This does not inspire a greater reverence of, and commitment to, halacha. Rabbi Soloveichik, with his writing of the Lonely Man of Faith and other works, inspired a generation. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Amital’s writings inspired yet another generation. While they said no at times, and yes at others, everyone was inspired by them, saw their humanity and sensitivity and understood that they were torn and pained at times when they had to say no.

Developing empathy for both sides should be the starting point for dignified debate. Without that, we rush into another one of those communal food fights that throws out lots of heat and generates little light. We are better than that. We should be better than that. Our ancestors did not struggle for millennia to see their descendants turn into dogmatic warriors who constantly turn on each other.

So, this is a call for dignified debate, for radical moderation. This is a call for empathy before judgement. This is a call for reasoned rebuttal. Finally, this is a call for us to shine a Jewish light unto the world, no matter how deep our disagreements.

Are we up to the challenge?


Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Jean and Jerry Friedman Shalhevet High School.

Mayim Bialik: Let Orthodox Jewish women be called ‘rabbi’


Something is going on in the Jewish world that may be the most important thing to happen in a very long time. In a recent statement, a leading board of Orthodox rabbis reaffirmed that although they encourage many different professional opportunities for learned women, “due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.” (Full statement is here.) For those of you unfamiliar with Judaism, this may seem bizarre and silly (and I will explain it all here, and we’ve included a number of resources below for those of you who want to read more on the subject); but for those of us who are Jewish, it’s incredibly important.

While the Reform and Conservative denominations of Judaism have been ordaining women as rabbis since 1972 and 1985 respectively, the most ‘stringent’ denomination, Orthodoxy, has not, largely because there are certain restrictions about women’s roles in traditional Judaism that have not before been challenged or changed since they came into being. As an example, a woman cannot serve as a witness in a court of Jewish law (other prohibited categories include imbeciles, children and professional gamblers). Why were women banned from being witnesses? Because thousands of years ago, women were typically either too busy rearing children – which they were solely responsible for — or deemed too unstable or emotional (as most every culture in the world has claimed women to be) to make legal decisions with consistency.

These kinds of stereotypes have led to an Orthodoxy that – despite historical shifts that have allowed Orthodox women to enter just about every other arena of society – remains largely devoted to maintaining the roles of women as caregivers and rulers of the home sphere rather than the public sphere. Today, an Orthodox woman can go to law school and become a lawyer and serve as a senior judge in a court, for example, but in her own Jewish community, she could not even serve as a witness or sign a legal document such as a marriage contract.

It doesn’t make us look good, I know. Especially considering the fact that other religions have made significant shifts in their representation of women. It doesn’t make us look good.

In the past decades, the number of Orthodox women who want to join the leadership of the Jewish people in ways that are consistent with Jewish law has been growing. There have been trailblazers in this world of female scholarship and leadership. Reb Mimi Feigelson is a scholar among scholars and a profoundly devoted religious leader here in Los Angeles. Rabba Sara Hurwitz in New York established Yeshivat Maharat, a Jewish seminary to train women who are learned in Torah and devoted to religious life who want to be a part of Jewish leadership in a formal and recognized way. Their titles point to their scholarship and their leadership, but are also a source of controversy. Only in the most modern Orthodox of circles are they seen as equal to the males who hold the “rabbi” title.

Like it or not, Jewish law does not preclude a female rabbi. And that’s not opinion, it’s fact. So what’s the issue here? Why are we having this discussion? As the joke goes: where there are two Jews, there are three opinions. And lots of Jews have lots of opinions on this subject. Here are mine.

The way I see it, there are two issues at hand.

Cultural Relevance

In Judaism, men and women occupy distinct and important roles which are historically relevant and compelling. As a matter of fact, I happen to be a big fan of gradational roles for men and women. However, God did not ordain these roles — history and cultural bias did. When electricity was harnessed in creating the lightbulb, no one cried out, “We should not use lights because God did not put them in the Torah!” So, too, as history and culture have moved forward, the needs of men and women have changed and there is nothing about those shifts that is antithetical to the word of God nor our love for God and the Torah.

The God I believe in cares about the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. The God of Judaism seeks for us to make relationships with a Divine Being so that we can care for the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. Does this God draw the line for compassion and care at gender equality? No, only humans can do that.

The people most in touch with the Torah and Judaism are made to be leaders. Period. If Judaism is a religion of ethics and justice, our commitment to tradition and to authentic Judaism should not preclude a fierce commitment to ethics and to justice in our leadership and in our communities.

Nomenclature/Whatchamacallit

The RCA seems particularly upset about what we call these women leaders. Are they Rabbis? Are they clergy? Are they Rebs or Rabbas, titles derived from the more familiar “rabbi” or “rav,” or – as one local Maharat-trained leader is known – are they Morateinus (meaning “our teacher”) or…? There is a tradition that Moses granted semicha (a conferring of leadership) from Sinai down to the Rabbis of the mishnah (the first part of the Talmud), but that semicha was lost. The title “rabbi’ isn’t even Biblical, and it isn’t God-given. In modern times, a rabbi derives authority not from the heavens, but from the people who recognize what a great master of Torah, spirituality and morality he is. That’s why Jews often call great rabbis “rav,” which is the word for master, or teacher.

A Jewish leader is someone we learn from. In the 21st century, why can’t we honor a woman who is a master by calling her a master? If she is a teacher, do we not call her a teacher? A rose by any other name would indeed smell just as sweet. The RCA’s fixation with nomenclature is a distraction tactic. (To learn more about the issue of naming Orthodox women leaders, see this article from the Jewish Journal.)

As it says in Psalms (19:8): The Torah of the Lord is perfect, satisfying to the soul; the Testament of the Lord is trustworthy, enlightening the simpleminded.

Men and women alike can enlighten us as masters of the Torah. Let them.

Seriously? I guess if this is what we are focusing on and spending our time and energy on, it must mean that we have successfully eliminated all suffering, immorality, injustice and hypocrisy in Judaism and in the world. It must mean that we have all of this time and energy to spend on dissecting what a group of learned women want to call themselves, and if they have a right to lead that is equal to the right that men have to lead? We are picking on women who are so in love with Judaism and Orthodoxy that they are enrolling in seminaries in order to become learned teachers, and we are spending our time placing them under a microscope and we are examining why they are thus devoted.

In Numbers 11:16-29, when Moses asked God for help bearing the weight of the fledgling Jews, 70 elders are made into prophets to help him. Moses’ second-in-line, Joshua, finds that two more than the 70 are prophesying and Joshua asked Moses to imprison them. Do you know what Moses says? “Would that all of God’s people be prophets, and that His spirit rest upon all of them.” Exactly.

Judaism is losing members in great numbers, assimilation is freaking everyone out because the number of Jews in the world is declining left, right and center, and the RCA is upset that there are women this devoted and committed to Judaism that they are devoting their lives to it?

The threat of punishing synagogues who hire these women is absurd, and it’s divisive, and it alone will be the thing that causes the splitting off from Jewish denominations, not hiring competent, learned, God-fearing observant women into our clergy offices.

This conversation also hits me on a personal level. I have already written about the recent hiring by the first Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles of a female leader named Alissa Thomas-Newborn to serve our community as a religious leader and expert of Jewish law and policy. I wrote about how, as a woman devoted to Torah living going through a divorce, I craved the guidance of a woman who was both able to understand me in a way all the male rabbis I spoke to could not, and able to understand Torah and the questions I had about Jewish tradition and how it would affect my life as a divorcee.

What’s more true for me than that is that I have wanted to be a rabbi since I was 15 years old. I told my rabbi in front of the ark at my Reform synagogue as he blessed me on the night of my Confirmation. We were both startled, and he reminds me of it whenever I see him. More than anything else, my desire to serve my people as a leader is the thing that has been consistently true about me since I was 15. I began learning more and more about Judaism from an Orthodox perspective when I was in college, and I have not stopped. My life path took me to marriage and a PhD in the years that – had my life path been slightly different – I might have been one of the women of Yeshivat Maharat who are blessed to spend their lives devoted to studying to become Jewish leaders. I am now a PhD-holding divorced woman and a mother of two sons. I support myself and my children by being a full-time actor. My chance to be a rabbi is gone; my life is meant for something different. But I still remember, understand and feel the desire to lead. That’s why this issue hits so close to home.

I don’t want to be a Jewish leader because I am a woman. I want to be a Jewish leader because I am a Jew who has a deep and abiding faith in the Maker of this Universe, and I know for certain that the fire I have in me for Torah was meant for leadership somehow.

This fire is the fire God puts in people who are meant to touch others through God’s Torah.

And my fire is not the only one. That fire dates back thousands of years to the beginning of creation.

It is in the hearts and the souls of every woman who gives her life to study Torah. This fire is in the hand that held Adam’s as we were sent out of the garden of Eden, and it is in the cries of the women in Egypt we helped as they gave birth to the sons and daughters of the next generation. It is in the songs we have sung since we crossed the Sea of Reeds and it is in the reflections in the mirrors we made out of our jewelry, so we could look attractive to our men to encourage love, when we were slaves and we had nearly given up hope. It is in the judgments of Deborah and the tent-pin Yael used to slay an enemy general. It is in the sacrifice we make on Day 8 and it is in the immersion we make on Day 12*. It is in me and it is on me like black fire on white fire.

It is that it is.

We all believe in the same God. We revere the same Torah. We want a cohesive Jewish community. Let’s build that based on God and Torah, men and women alike. Let’s show the world that we are ready to enter a new time where the cultural customs of the past of keeping women in back rooms is not what we stand for.

One step at a time, gently, so gently, we can do this together. We – all of us – can lead.

*”Day 8” refers to the day on which ritual circumcision (a bris) is performed. In the laws of family purity, a woman is permitted to immerse in the ritual bath (mikvah) on the 12th day of her cycle, as a step toward resuming sexual relations with her husband.

Mayim Bialik plays neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” She holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles, and she is the founder of the web community GrokNation.com, where this article originally appeared.

Frozen in time: Why women don’t have to race the clock


I’d heard of Tupperware parties and Botox parties — but I’d never heard of egg-freezing socials until I had the chance to attend one recently at Beverly Hills hotspot Via Alloro.

Hosted by the Southern California Reproductive Center (SCRC), a Los Angeles-based fertility center, it was a swanky soiree with a three-course dinner and bottomless wine. So I wined and dined at a long table with crisp white linen, socialized with about 25 women and learned more about the human anatomy than I had in any high school biology class.

The first successful pregnancy resulting from frozen eggs dates back to 1986. The process, which has seen extensive advances since then, allows a woman to preserve her eggs in the hope of using them to achieve a future pregnancy.

Although I was a newbie, some of the women had attended as many as three previous egg-freezing socials. I don’t blame them — these things are fun.

“My friends just aren’t informed on egg freezing,” one of the attendees said to herself while scrolling through her phone (though loud enough for women nearby to hear). At age 42, this was her second social. 

Bethany King, director of marketing at SCRC, said the socials target a specific demographic of women who are looking into freezing their eggs as insurance for the future. Mostly, that means working women in their late-30s and mid-40s who want the option to delay having children.

Of course, egg freezing is a viable choice for other women, too. It allows those diagnosed with cancer or autoimmune diseases who will be undergoing harsh treatments -that affect fertility — such as steroids and radiation — to preserve their eggs.

“I grew up in a large family, so family means a lot to me,” Brooke Moore, a 40-year-old blonde with hot-pink lipstick and heart-framed sunglasses, told the Journal, 

“I also think I can be a kick-ass mom,” she added, sipping on a glass of white wine, leaving the faintest stain of hot pink on the rim of her glass. 

Moore, a New Jersey native who grew up in a Catholic family with three sisters and one brother, now lives in Hollywood and works in the entertainment industry. “I just haven’t met my partner yet,” she said. Taking matters into her own hands, she decided her next step would be freezing her eggs.

As the first course, a tricolore salad, was being served, informational PowerPoint slides were projected onto a screen.

“These are your ovaries at age 25,” said fertility specialist and SCRC co-founder Dr. Hal Danzer, showing a split-screen comparison of ovaries at birth (when eggs are copious and resplendent), ovaries at age 25 (by which time the egg count has dropped significantly) and, finally, ovaries at 40 (you can only imagine). I felt my 26-year-old ovaries cower as I swallowed a mouthful of mixed lettuce.

Dr. Mark Surrey, a co-founder of SCRC and member of Ohr HaTorah, said that, physiologically, “We as human beings are built to have children in our early 20s, but that’s just not the case anymore.” 

And although our bodies haven’t evolved to conform to social trends, science has done a pretty good job at keeping up. About three years ago, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine lifted the “experimental” label from the procedure because of advancements in the field via a flash-freezing process called vitrification. SCRC said it receives about 200 patients per year. 

Typically, egg freezing starts at a base cost of $9,000 and can climb to more than $15,000 for injections, medications and the number of collected egg samples. It’s not usually covered by insurance, but some companies, such as Apple and Facebook, will pay for elective egg freezing for their female employees as they try to balance work and family.

Surrey said egg-freezing socials are a good way to educate people in “a relaxed and calming environment,” a hum of chatter behind him as he spoke.

“Everyone knows somebody who’s had their eggs frozen,” said Dr. Shahin Ghadir, a partner at SCRC who goes to Stephen Wise Temple for holidays. 

SCRC’s first egg-freezing social took place in January of this year at Pan Asian restaurant Rock Sugar at Westfield Century City, and it’s starting to become a trend. As someone from an Iranian-American household, Ghadir said the socials are helping to open up discussions on a topic that was once taboo within the Middle Eastern Jewish community. In the future, he sees the egg-freezing process becoming the norm for women after they reach a certain age.

Amid the bustle of waiters clearing dessert courses (a chocolate mousse concoction), replenishing drinks and serving coffee, a ceramic plate crashed and broke. The room fell silent and in that moment, one of the women called out, “Mazel tov!”

Not a bad way to end an egg-freezing social.

A day to learn about women’s wellness


Quick. And no using your smart phone. What is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States? If you answered breast cancer, you’re close. Indeed, breast cancer takes far too many lives each year. But it is No. 2. No. 1 is heart disease.

Ready for another one? Chia seeds: Just the latest contemporary food fad right? Nope. The so-called super seed has been around for thousands of years and was integral to both the Aztec and Mayan diets. And, according to Los Angeles-based integrative nutritionist Marlyn Diaz, ounce for ounce, they contain more Omega-3 fatty acids than salmon. “They make your hair grow and your skin glow,” she says.

Intrigued? Then you may want to attend Hadassah’s Women’s Wellness Day. The all-day program takes place Feb. 9 at UCLA Covel Commons. Although the event is expected to sell out, tickets were still available when this article went to press. Among the scheduled speakers are Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Health Center and the Linda Joy Pollin Women’s Heart Health Program at Cedars-Sinai; nutritionist Diaz; and Dr. Kristi Funk, co-founder of Pink Lotus Breast Center — and Angelina Jolie’s doctor.

Hadassah has a long history of promoting women’s health. The organization’s first mission, in fact, in the early 1900s, sent two nurses to Palestine to provide pasteurized milk to new mothers and their infants. And while Hadassah’s two medical institutions are located in Jerusalem, the research undertaken there benefits women worldwide, notably the discovery of a 10 percent greater frequency of the BRCA genetic mutation (which predisposes women to breast cancer) among Ashkenazi Jewish women. 

Last year, Hadassah launched Every Beat Counts to educate women about heart disease. And February is American Heart Month, so it is fitting that Hadassah’s first major health symposium in Southern California is taking place this month.

Attendees can customize their experience by selecting from several expert-led sessions on topics including “Mindful Stress Reduction” — who doesn’t need that in go-go Los Angeles? — “Caring Options for Your Loved Ones” and “Is Your Food Aging You?” All who attend will hear from Funk, who, along with patient Jolie, brought breast health to the forefront and who will be giving the morning keynote, and Bairey Merz, the lunchtime keynote speaker.

Among other topics, Bairey Merz will talk about the different ways in which women’s and men’s heart disease manifests. 

“Women are more likely than men to have their heart attacks missed,” Bairey Merz said. “Women’s symptoms are not as typical as men’s symptoms.” But, she added, “We always have to point out the reason we think of typical symptoms is that they have been described in men. If we had started the other way around, men would be considered atypical. A lot of health care is set to a male standard.”

We all know what has been dubbed a Hollywood Heart Attack looks like. Not to make light of it, but it generally looks like this: A man is giving a speech (or eating his dinner, or shooting hoops, etc.), and then he is suddenly clutching his chest, turning red in the face and falling to the floor.

Women’s symptoms — and, to be fair, many men’s — are more subtle. So, how does a woman know when to seek medical attention?

“The standard advisement,” Bairey Merz said, “ is any symptom above the waist, above the belly button, that is not routine or otherwise explained. If you always get heartburn after eating a chili dog, it is probably heartburn. But if you wake up in the middle of the night with heartburn, it might be a heart attack.”

Bairey Merz will discuss five health habits associated with reducing heart disease. No. 5, she says, is a favorite of many: “a single serving of alcohol every day taken with a meal.”

“It’s pretty clear that anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of cardiovascular disease is related to lifestyle habits that we have some control over,” she said.

Diaz will be doling out tips as well, including her favorite super foods. The aforementioned chia seeds, raw cacao and Brazil nuts are among them. She will also talk about sugar — not eliminating it, but reducing it — and choosing better sugars. “Food companies have gotten smart,” she said. “There are over 50 names for sugar that they use. So many of us are trained to look for a couple: dextrose, sucrose — the ‘ose’-es. There are a lot of different ways it is hidden in food.”

Rest assured that Diaz will not be making a bogeyman of your latte or bagel. “It’s all about baby steps and elevation: How we can elevate our food choices?” she said. “All the small changes add up to big changes over time.” 

According to Sandi Sadikoff, president of Hadassah Southern California, “This is not an age-defined event. We are encouraging women to bring their mothers, their daughters, their nieces.

“The best-case scenario is some woman sitting out there in the audience hears something that Dr. [Bairey] Merz or Dr. Funk says, or any of our other physicians, and realizes that they have to go to their doctor because there’s a symptom they have been ignoring. We may save someone’s life that day.”

For more information on the event or to register, visit http://southerncalifornia.hadassah.org/womenswellness or call (310) 276-0036.

Israeli gov’t to fund abortions for women ages 20-33


Israeli women between the ages of 20 and 33 will be eligible to receive government-funded abortions in 2014.

The new eligibility is part of the country’s state-subsidized basket of health services for 2014, approved on Monday. Currently, the government only pays for abortions for medical reasons and for girls under 18.

Some 6,300 women between ages 20 and 33 are expected to have abortions in Israel in 2014. All the women still will be required to receive the approval of a government panel before undergoing the procedure; the panel approves nearly all cases.

The head of the health basket committee, Jonathan Halevy of Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, said the goal is eventually to raise the covered age to 40.

Contraception is not covered in the health basket.

The committee announced the approval of 83 new drugs and treatments for 2014.  The basket still must be approved by the Ministry of Health and the Cabinet.

Educated women and children


On the Jewish Web site The Tablet, Michelle Goldberg, a senior contributing editor to The Nation, recently wrote: “In the United States, women tend to have fewer children the more education they have — those with advanced degrees have only 1.67 children each. Jewish women are better educated than the population at large, which is why their birthrates are even lower …”

This statistic provides yet another illustration of the low moral state of our universities. Just think: The more formal education a woman has, the fewer children she will desire. 

For those who care about Jewish or American survival, this should be, to put it mildly, disconcerting. If Jewish and other American women don’t reproduce, the populations of Jews and Americans will decline. And in the case of Jews, this is particularly problematic.

The question that needs to be addressed is, why? Why do the best-educated women have the fewest children?

Here are three explanations:

The first — and, I believe, most important — reason that women who attend graduate school have fewer children than other women is that the longer women (and men) stay in academic life, the longer they are exposed to values that denigrate the family in favor of career.

One can argue until the proverbial cows come home that feminism never pushed career over marriage and family, that it only wanted women to have a choice. But that argument is dishonest. Feminism greatly valued career above marriage and family. The result is that in our post-feminist (post-1970s) world, for a girl or woman of any age to say that she would like to be, or that she is, or that she was a full-time wife and mother takes courage. Among well-educated women, a woman accrues more prestige being in sales at Nordstrom than she does as a “homemaker.” The very word conjures up nightmarish images to most women with graduate degrees.

The more time a young woman spends at university, especially at a prestigious one, the more she is indoctrinated into believing that what really matters is career. Test it: Ask a young woman who attends a prestigious university — especially a Jewish woman who is not Orthodox — what she most wants in life, and it is quite likely that she will respond “a good career.”

Let’s be honest. If you asked a female in her junior year at Yale, “What do you most want in life?” and she responded, “To find a good man to marry and then make a family with him,” you would be shocked.

In fact, you would probably have to look for an explanation. And that explanation would likely be that she is a religious Christian or an Orthodox Jew.

Which brings us to a second reason for the extremely low birthrate among well-educated women — secularism.

The widely offered explanation for why fertility rates drop is affluence. As countries get wealthier, the thinking goes, the birth rate drops.

There is some truth to this, but there is a better explanation: secularism. As societies become more secular, the fertility rate drops. 

This is easy to demonstrate. Wealthy Orthodox Jews, wealthy devout Roman Catholics, wealthy Mormons and wealthy Evangelicals have a lot of kids. Meanwhile, wealthy secular people have the fewest children.

While secularism is good for government, it is a dead end for the individual and society. It is a moral dead end. Without God, good and evil are purely matters of opinion. And it is an existential dead end. If there is no God, life is objectively pointless. We live, we die, there is no reason we are here, and there is nothing when we leave.

So what do people do with that view of life? Some devote their lives to secular religions such as feminism, socialism, environmentalism or egalitarianism. And many simply decide — quite rationally — that in the incredibly brief time they are alive, they will enjoy themselves as much as possible. Hedonism is the most rational response to secularism. 

In such a world, children are often regarded as disruptive to whatever pleasures life affords. With a bunch of kids at home, it is hard to take many trips, and hard to see a movie or dine out whenever you want. 

In the age of birth control and of almost unlimited lifestyle options, one needs good reasons to have more than one — or even one — child. Religion has always provided such reasons: God wants you to be fruitful; it is vitally important to hand down one’s faith; the family is the locus of a religious life, etc.

A third and final reason is age. By the time a woman is finished with graduate school, she is likely to be close to 30 years old. And after all that work, she understandably wants to begin putting her education to good use — you can’t waste a doctorate or a master’s degree. So she further defers marriage. And even if she does marry, she defers having children. By the time she is ready to make a family, she may feel that she is too old to have more than 1.67 children.

American Jewry reveres graduate degrees. But this reverence comes at a steep price. The longer young women (and men) stay at the university (especially in the social sciences), the more secular they are likely to become, the more alienated from Israel they are likely to become (there is no mainstream institution as anti-Israel as the university), and the less likely they are to have more than one child.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012)

Karnit Flug, first female Bank of Israel chief, eyeing economic inequality


Andromeda Hill is a beachfront complex of luxury apartments connected by tree-lined pathways that features such amenities as a spa and business center. Five minutes down the road is Ajami, a low-income neighborhood profiled in the 2009 film of the same name that remains one of this city’s poorer districts.

Such gaps in income have been of mounting concern to Israelis and are high on the agenda of Karnit Flug, the newly appointed governor of the Bank of Israel and the first woman to hold the post.

In two recent presentations, Flug has drawn attention to income inequality in Israel and its potentially adverse impact on social cohesion.

“Our ability to continue existing as a society that is both multifaceted and socially cohesive depends, among other things, on how employment develops in Arab society in the next few years,” Flug said at a government conference on Israel’s minorities last month. “If we know how to maximize the potential for increased growth and how to reduce the gaps, we will all — Jews and Arabs — be able to enjoy the fruits of this process.”

The Occupy protests that swept the world in 2011, decrying the exploitation of the “99 percent,” demonstrated that Israel is not alone among developed countries in facing large inequities in wealth distribution. But among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel ranked 30th in terms of wealth inequality.

A 2011 report from the OECD found that in 2008, Israel’s top 10 percent of earners earned 13 times more than the bottom tenth. The report recommended “creating more and better jobs that offer good career prospects and a real chance for people to escape poverty.”

Flug agrees. Israel’s high income inequality, she says, is a function of low educational attainment and high unemployment among Israel’s poorest communities — Arabs and haredi Orthodox Jews. The explosion of Israel’s high-tech sector in the mid-1980s created many jobs for highly educated employees but left behind the poor and unskilled.

“Inequality in disposable income distribution rose until 2006 before stabilizing at a very high level,” Flug said last week in a presentation at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.

Growing the job market while maintaining a social safety net have been twin goals for Flug, who holds a doctorate in economics from Columbia University. After a four-year stint at the International Monetary Fund, Flug joined the Bank of Israel in 1988 and became its deputy governor in 2011, serving under the well-regarded Stanley Fischer, who departed earlier this year.

After a lengthy selection process in which Flug was passed over multiple times, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed her to the bank’s top post in October.

Flug has served on government committees on the defense budget, market competitiveness and the National Insurance Institute. She also served on the Trajtenberg Committee, which was tasked with formulating a response to widespread protests in 2011 over the rising cost of living.

The protests were partly a reaction to nearly a decade of privatization and cuts in public benefits. Founded on socialist values, Israel in its early years had a strong safety net and lionized the collectivist ideals of the kibbutz movement. But in the mid-1980s, Israel began to embrace free-market policies and privatize key state-owned companies. The outbreak of the second intifada by the Palestinians led to an economic crisis that prompted the government to cut entitlement spending.

The 2011 demonstrations called on the government to restore the safety net. In its report, the Trajtenberg Committee recommended various measures, including raising the capital gains tax, increasing government aid for housing and free early childhood education.

In her presentation at the Taub Center, Flug recommended against direct government transfer payments to poor citizens, but she is in favor of Israel’s negative income tax, which provides a tax credit to low wage earners. Flug believes the measure incentivizes work.

As governor, Flug’s ability to implement such policies is limited. Like the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, the Bank of Israel’s function is to set the country’s monetary policy. Taxes, subsidies and incentives for job creation are determined by the Israeli government.

But Flug could still have an impact. Jack Habib, director of the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, a think tank that researches poverty in Israel, said Flug could advocate for reforms that bolster Israel’s minorities.

“There’s a lot more attention paid to social issues, social inequality, poverty and disadvantaged groups,” Habib said. The Bank of Israel plays “an important role in putting these issues on the agenda of the government.”

Ex-mayor Filner pleads guilty in sexual harassment case


Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner plead guilty in a sexual harassment case brought against him by three women.

Filner was charged on Tuesday in San Diego County Superior Court with a felony count of “false imprisonment by violence, fraud, menace and deceit,” and two misdemeanor counts of battery.

The victims were identified as Jane Does 1, 2 and 3.

Filner, 71, who is Jewish, resigned in August after the San Diego City Council unanimously approved a deal under which Filner agreed to leave office by Aug. 30 in exchange for the city agreeing to pay his legal expenses in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by his former aide.

Some 19 women publicly accused Filner of acting inappropriately and sexually harassing them. He apologized to the city and the women who accused him of misconduct.

Filner was San Diego’s first Democratic mayor in two decades; he was formerly a 10-term congressman.

Which of these American Apparel models is not like the other?


American Apparel, the clothing company best known for ads featuring scantily clad young women, may be taking things in a new direction.

Yoel Weisshaus, a 32-year-old student at New Jersey’s Bergen Community College who was raised in Brooklyn as a Satmar Chasid, was featured this week American Apparel’s tumblr page with peyos (earlocks), a flowing beard, and traditional Chasidic fur hat.

The garments were supplied by American Apparel itself, not a typical source of Chasidic garb. Weisshaus explained that he just wore whatever fit on the day of the photo shoot. But he brought the shtreimel himself.

There is no evidence that American Apparel plans to produce a line of shtreimels, although they would certainly make a striking accompaniment to a gold lame bodysuit. (It would also go well with their signature shade of black nail polish, which is called Chassid.)

The photo shoot is not Weisshaus’s first brush with the media: He’s been featured in the New York Post and CBS News for his determined campaign to sue the Port Authority over bus fare increases. Which might explain why American Apparel described him as a “peasant with chutzpah.”

“Me having chutzpah, that is a quote from the Port Authority itself,” he told JTA. “I am a peasant because we are all peasants, here in Amerikeh. Here, we work harder than we live!”

Weisshaus said that his Satmar family, which still resides in Williamsburg, had no problem with him appearing as a model. “If they had a problem,” he said, “it’s with the other models, not me.”

At Western Wall, showdown between two women’s groups


On the morning of July 8, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, the Western Wall plaza was a cacophonous mess.

Women of the Wall, the activist group that holds women’s prayer services each month at the site known as the Kotel, loudly sang festive prayers at a spot far from the wall itself. Police had barricaded them there, ostensibly for their own protection. A few feet away, a group of haredi Orthodox boys shouted at them, called them Nazis, blew whistles, waved signs and raised a primal scream. A few threw eggs.

But the biggest group on hand that morning was a crowd of some 5,00o to 7,000 young women standing silently in the women’s prayer area, far from the brouhaha and inaudible and invisible from where Women of the Wall were praying. Filling the women’s section and spilling out into the wider plaza, the girls each prayed on their own. When they were done, they left without raising their voices.

“Our goal is to give voice to the hundreds of thousands of women who call the Kotel their spiritual home,” said Leah Aharoni, a founder of the group, called Women for the Wall, which helped organize the Orthodox women’s prayer. “They have a voice. They’re not subjugated, ignorant women.”

Founded less than three months ago, Women for the Wall has emerged as the public face of the traditionalists vying to maintain the status quo at the Western Wall, where rules mandate separation of the sexes and restrict the ability of women to lead public prayer groups. Women for the Wall was able to bring a critical mass of women to the site that far outnumbered the several hundred people who showed up with Women of the Wall, and the traditionalist group was able to physically block the renegade group from approaching the Kotel itself.

Women for the Wall performs a tricky balancing act between defending traditionalist values and using the language of women’s empowerment to oppose the objectives of a Jewish feminist group while presenting itself as an advocate for women’s rights.

In a community in which male rabbis often are the primary spokespeople, Aharoni hopes to galvanize Orthodox women to speak for themselves. But the success of the monthly prayer gatherings depends in large part on the endorsement and encouragement of those same rabbis.

The debate between the two women’s groups “is not a discussion between rabbis and women,” Aharoni says. “It is a conversation between women and women.”

Aharoni hardly fits the profile of what one might expect of an activist opposed to the expansion of women’s rights at the Kotel. Formerly a member of the liberal Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a New York congregation led by Rabbi Avi Weiss, Aharoni, a mother of six, has participated in women’s prayer groups and runs a company that fosters female entrepreneurship.

Her issue is not Jewish feminism, but decorum.

“This site has 1,700 years of tradition,” Aharoni said of the Western Wall. “It’s unthinkable for a small group to upset the tradition against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of worshipers. It doesn’t happen in the Vatican, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, in Mecca or in Westminster Abbey. And it cannot happen here, either.”

As if to underscore that theirs is the majority view, Women for the Wall have joined in efforts to bring thousands of girls to the wall each Rosh Chodesh, when Women of the Wall gather to hold their service marking the beginning of the Hebrew month.

But Women for the Wall says it is not the primary catalyst for these shows of force. That distinction belongs to the haredi Orthodox leaders who have endorsed the initiative and asked Orthodox girls’ schools to send their students.

In May, thousands of girls filled the women’s section of the plaza and much of its larger back section. In July, they packed the women’s section again. Numbers were down significantly in June — a drop-off attributed variously to final exams at the girls’ seminaries and police allegedly blocking women from entering the plaza.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told JTA that the barriers set up in June were meant to ensure only that Women of the Wall exited the space safely, not to block worshippers.

Barring a court ruling or legislative change, the monthly race between the groups is likely to continue each Rosh Chodesh (the next one falls on Aug. 7). And though the two groups do occupy some common ground — both sides reject violence and support women’s activism — both are choosing to continue the fight, with one side singing and the other silent.

“I think they’re trailblazing,” Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman said of Women for the Wall. “They’re women supporting the rabbis, but they’re expressing their opinions in the public square. We have our struggle and they have theirs, and God bless.”

Should women wear tefillin?


Rabbi Professor David Golinkin is president and professor of Jewish law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. For 20 years he served as chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly, which writes responsa and gives halachic guidance to the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at the Schechter Institute, whose goal is to publish a library of halachic literature for the Conservative and Masorti movements. He is also the director of the Center for Women in Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute, whose goal is to find halachic solutions for agunot or “chained women” who are unable to obtain a get from their husbands.

This is the first part of my exchange with Golinkin about his new book, “The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa,” we talk with him about the talmudic attitude toward women wearing tefillin. For more, visit jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.

Dear Rabbi Professor Golinkin,

On Rosh Chodesh Tamuz (the beginning of the Jewish month of Tamuz), I spent several hours at the Kotel watching and talking to the protesters against Women of the Wall, most of them Charedi youngsters. As I reported following this event, it was quite interesting to see these Charedis fiercely debating among themselves the question of women putting on tefillin. As I’m sure you know, the fact that one of the women of this group wears tefillin was the cause for much protestation and at times ridicule, but the Charedi youngsters did know that the Talmud doesn’t exactly forbid women from putting on tefillin (those studying the Daf Yomi met this short Talmud discussion just a couple of days ago).

Your book has a long and detailed discussion of this issue, which begins with the Talmud but then moves to present some interesting facts about women wearing tefillin in later generations. Your conclusion might not surprise our readers — women can put on tefillin — but the way you reach this conclusion is interesting, and while we can’t repeat all the details here, I’d like you to give us a taste of the core reason leading you to reach such a conclusion. If possible, can you also tell us what you consider as the best argument that leads to the opposite conclusion?

Thank you, 

Shmuel


Dear Shmuel,

As we shall see in a moment, the Babylonian Talmud does not forbid women from wearing tefillin at all. Indeed, some rabbis of the Mishnah thought that women are obligated to wear tefillin (Eruvin 96b). Most, however, felt that women are exempt from wearing tefillin every day (Mishnah Berakhot 3:3) because it is a positive time-bound commandment (Kidushin 35a) or for other reasons.

The Babylonian Talmud mentions (Eruvin 96a) that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, used to wear tefillin “and the Sages did not protest.” Rabbi Abbahu, however, reported in the Palestinian Talmud (Berakhot, Chapter 2, fol. 4c) that Michal wore tefillin and “the Sages did protest.” Thus, on the basis of the talmudic sources alone, our ruling would be that women are permitted to wear tefillin, since when the two Talmuds contradict each other, we follow the Babylonian Talmud.

The Rishonim, or medieval authorities, can be divided into two major camps: Rashi, Maimonides and others rule that women may perform positive time-bound commandments such as tefillin without a blessing. Rabbeinu Tam, the Rashba and many others rule that women may perform positive time-bound commandments with a blessing. Thus, all of them would allow women to wear tefillin; they would only differ as to whether they may recite the blessings.

Almost all opposition to women wearing tefillin stems from one sentence attributed to Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293) which says that women should not wear tefillin “because they do not know how to keep themselves clean” or, according to another version, because “they do not know how to keep themselves in purity.” This lone opinion was later codified by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his Ashkenazic glosses to the Shulchan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 38:3), but it contradicts the Babylonian Talmud and almost all Rishonim, as explained above. Furthermore, if Rabbi Meir said “in purity,” this contradicts another talmudic passage that says that “words of Torah are not susceptible to impurity” (Berakhot 22a); and if he said “clean,” no known halachic definition would exclude women.

Therefore, according to the Babylonian Talmud and almost all of the Rishonim, it is perfectly permissible for women to wear tefillin if they choose to do so.

Finally, there are actual precedents of women wearing tefillin in 13th century France, 16th century Italy and among Chasidic female rebbes.

The Charedim at the Kotel are probably familiar with the negative ruling of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, as quoted by Rabbi Moshe Isserles, but the thorough investigation in my book summarized above reveals that this is a minority opinion that is opposed to the Babylonian Talmud and almost all of the Rishonim.

Best Regards,

Rabbi David Golinkin

Women of the word: Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)


On a recent trip to New York, I spent Shabbat morning at The Jewish Center in Manhattan, a vibrant Modern Orthodox community. As services came to a close, the 500 congregants did not make the typical mad rush for the door. Instead, everyone remained seated, anxiously waiting to hear scholar-in-residence Tova Manzel. 

A recognized expert in halachah (Jewish law), she does not hold the title rabbi, yet has as much — and in many cases, much more — knowledge of Talmud, halachah and rabbinic literature than many who hold that title. She is a learned Orthodox woman from Israel who holds the title yoetzet halachah (halachic adviser). She spent many years in batei midrash (Torah study halls) studying halachah at a high level, earning certification to address issues in halachah. 

Hundreds of Orthodox congregants gathering to hear a female expert in halachah is not something that would have happened just 25 years ago, and the modern-day credit goes to Rabbanit Chana Henkin of Nishmat. But the ancient predecessors to the contemporary yoatzot halachah are rooted in the Torah. Their names are Mahla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirza, the daughters of Zelophehad.

Upon the death of their father, these five brave women “stood before Moses, Elazar the Kohen, the chieftains, and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Tent of the Meeting” (Numbers 27:2). They had a personal claim and a halachic question: “Our father died in the wilderness … and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a portion [of inheritance] among our father’s kinsmen” (Numbers 27:3-4).

The Talmud (Baba Batra 119:b) teaches that this scene took place in a beit midrash, where Moses was teaching the halachot of yibbum (levirate marriage). The laws of levirate marriage state: “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies, and he has no child, the wife of the dead shall not be married abroad unto one that is not of his kin; her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her” (Deuteronomy 25:5).

In light of this halachah (the Talmud says), Zelophehad’s daughters raised a creative halachic question to Moses: “We are instead of a son, and if females are not considered offspring, let our mother be taken in levirate marriage by her brother-in-law.”

“The daughters of Zelophehad were learned, were halachic interpreters and were righteous,” says the Talmud, prompting Moses to bring their claim before God.

What did God think of all this? 

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly. You shall certainly give them a portion of inheritance along with their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer their father’s inheritance to them” (Numbers 27:6-7).

Rashi expounds on these verses: “They spoke rightly. Their claim is beautiful and proper. Their eyes perceived that which the eyes of Moses did not.”

Rashi further adds that this portion of the Torah belongs to them: “This section of the Torah should have been written through Moses, but [due to their brilliant exposition of halachah] the daughters of Zelophehad merited to have it written through them.” I shudder to think how Rashi would be treated were he to write this today.

Zelophehad’s daughters prompted a halachah l’dorot, a halachic ruling for all generations, as God says: “Speak to the children of Israel saying: If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter” (Numbers 27:8). 

The trailblazing spirit of Zelophehad’s daughters ultimately led to bold halachic rulings among certain posekim (halachic decisors), especially in the modern Sephardic rabbinic world. These rulings are instrumental sources that helped create the contemporary yoatzot halachah.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Hai Uziel (1880-1953), Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi, ruled that it is halachically permitted to elect women to municipal councils in Israel. 

Rabbi Haim David Halevy (1924-1998), the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, concluded that women are permitted to serve as dayanot (halachic judges).

Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (b. 1941), Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi during the 1990s, authored a bold halachic responsa that concluded: “A woman can serve as a leader, even as a great Torah scholar of the generation. A woman can serve as a halachic decisor and teach Torah and halachic rulings” (Binyan Av Responsa, Vol. 1, No. 65).

The title of Manzel’s lecture at The Jewish Center was: “Evolution or Revolution: Women in Halachic Leadership.” Certainly in the modern Jewish world, the yoatzot halachah, along with the bold aforementioned halachic rulings, are a major revolution. But if you asked Mahla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirza, they would probably wonder what took us so long.


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international organization with its own historic campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. Follow Rabbi Bouskila’s new blog, Through Sephardic Lenses, at jewishjournal.com.

Cleveland kidnappings: We must be our brother’s keeper


It is not our place to judge the neighbors of Ariel Castro. We don’t know enough about the particular circumstances of those who lived near this man who allegedly held three women hostage for a decade to be able to judge whether things could have been different had they been paying closer attention. But a story like the one that developed in Cleveland over the past 10 years compels every one of us to ask the following questions: “Could such a thing have happened on my block? Do I have a Jewish ethical obligation to familiarize myself with my neighbors and their lives so that I can know if something is awry? Or is this degree of precautionary vigilance beyond the reasonable limits of ethical responsibility? And what of the revered Jewish principles of granting people the benefit of the doubt, and of not being reflexively suspicious of others?”

As I thought about these questions, I realized that it would be disingenuous and inaccurate to assert that Jewish law demands that we proactively sniff out trouble. The numerous mitzvot that require us to remediate or at least diminish the travail of suffering of others are all reactive in nature. We must visit the sick of whom we are aware, but have no specific obligation to seek the sick out. The same holds true for the mitzvah to ransom captives, to feed the indigent, to comfort the bereaved. We mustn’t stand idly by the blood of another. But this mitzvah, too, presumes that we have already become aware of the difficult circumstances that another is facing. 

At the same time, though, in numerous different ways, the Jewish ethical tradition recognizes the stark reality that when we are purely responsive and not proactive, we will invariably drop many vulnerable individuals right between the proverbial cracks. Yes, it is necessary to be responsive to people in trouble, but necessary is not always the same as sufficient. 

Three young women were kidnapped and held hostage in Cleveland for a decade. From left: Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.

The most dramatic expression of this recognition comes in the form of a story told in Avot of Rabbi Nathan, a compilation of wisdom and teachings from the period of the Talmud. The story is that of the young Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who is born into a wealthy, land-owning family but whose heart is captured by the voice of study that is emanating from the beit midrash of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, the great master of that generation. Eliezer’s father, who foresees Eliezer’s future in conducting the affairs of the estate, is displeased by his son’s interest in study. The text relates what happens next:

One day, Eliezer announced, “I am going to learn Torah from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai.” Said his father to him, “You will eat not a morsel today until you plow an entire furrow.” Eliezer arose early, plowed the furrow, and set off. It is said that this occurred on a Friday and that he ate that night at the home of his father-in-law, but others say that he did not eat at all. Instead, he placed rocks in his mouth, and some say the excrement of cows. He took up residence in an inn, and came to study before Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. At some point Rabbi Yochanan noticed that a bad odor was emerging from Eliezer’s mouth. “My son, have you eaten at all?” the sage asked. Eliezer was silent. Rabbi Yochanan summoned the innkeeper and asked him, “Did you feed Eliezer?” “I thought that perhaps he had eaten with you,” the innkeeper replied. “And I thought he had eaten with you!” replied the sage. “Between me and you, we lost Eliezer in the middle!”

By the time anyone realized Eliezer was in trouble, it was late, almost too late. What was missing and what was needed was the initiative to inquire, to ask questions, to uncover the circumstances by which this young man had appeared in the beit midrash, and to be in position to help before the trouble began. Simply responding to need is necessary, but not always sufficient. 

The value of being vigilant and proactive is also expressed by one of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai’s students who, when asked by his master, “What is the most important quality a person can have?” responded by saying, “That of being a good neighbor” (Pirkei Avot 2:13). He did not say “a good friend,” rather specifically a “good neighbor,” because it is the neighbor who is the set of eyes and ears able to detect even small changes in the daily routines of those immediately around him, and who can inquire and intervene at the first hint that something is amiss. And this very same value is almost certainly imbedded in the mitzvah to “love the other as yourself.” As is clear from its context, this mitzvah is intended to transcend the long list of response-type mitzvot that precedes it. It is the mitzvah to see and to feel broadly and expansively, including taking the time to wonder what that scream was that came from the house down the block. 

And, yes, at the same time, we are to give others the benefit of the doubt and to avoid being reflexively suspicious. But halachah strenuously sweeps these — and all Torah laws — aside whenever there is even the possibility that human life is at stake. 

I am the first to admit that I am not the neighbor I should be. And I can offer all the same excuses that so many of us can make. But in light of what has been revealed in Cleveland, it’s clear that our religious tradition would identify this particular moment as one when we are required to ask, “Could this have happened on my block”?

Suspected kidnapper Ariel Castro


Rav Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Angelina Jolie has double mastectomy after discovering ‘Jewish gene’


Actress Angelina Jolie had a double mastectomy after discovering that she had the breast cancer gene common to Ashkenazi Jewish women.

Jolie wrote in an Op-Ed in The New York Times that she decided to have the surgery after being told she had the BRCA1 gene mutation and had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer.

Jolie’s mother died of cancer at a young age, and Jolie wrote that she wanted to reassure her six young children that she would not die young as well.

“We often speak of ‘Mommy’s mommy,’ and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us,” Jolie wrote. “They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a ‘faulty’ gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.”

Late last month, Jolie completed three months of surgeries, including breast reconstruction.

“I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer,” Jolie wrote. “It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested.

“I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made.”

‘The Feminine Mystique’: ‘All that I am I will not deny’


In reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique, Stephanie Coontz wrote in the New York Times that “readers who return to this feminist classic today are often puzzled by the absence of concrete political proposals to change the status of women.  But The Feminine Mystique has the impact it did because it focused on transforming women’s personal consciousness.”

I was thirteen when The Feminine Mystique first came out.  I didn’t read it until I was in high school.  Betty Friedan was not only famous, but also the mother of my younger brother’s best friend.  She was simultaneously deeply familiar, a Jewish mother, and at the same time larger than life to me.  I never spent time with her, but I knew her family well enough that she would take my call. 

In 1979 I made the phone call.  I had been a rabbi for three years.  The Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform Rabbinical Association) Convention was scheduled to take place in Arizona, a non-ERA state.  There were just a handful of women rabbis.  It felt important that women rabbis be at the convention, but we wanted to honor the boycott of non-ERA states.  Not knowing what to do, I called Betty.  She not only took the call, but her advice was clear: “Go to the convention and invite me to speak!”  We did, and that speech was the first time Betty Friedan made a public connection between her feminism and her Judaism.

She began:  “…sometimes history books say that the modern Woman's Movement began with my book The Feminine Mystique.  Many people have asked me… what made me do it?  Probably the simplest answer is that my whole life made me do it, or that I grew up as a Jewish girl in Peoria, Illinois.  I grew up isolated and feeling… the burning injustice of the subtle and not so subtle anti-Semitism that was the experience of my generation… the irrationality of being barred from sororities, fraternities, and all the other things, like country clubs, that you were barred from as Jews.  I think that the passion against injustice that I have had all my life must have come from that.  Then, too, I grew up in an era when Jews, if they could, would try to pass.  You'd shave off your nose… you'd change your name. When I went to Smith, some wealthy girls from Cincinnati would… hold their hands behind their backs so they wouldn't talk with their hands.  And when there was a resolution to open the college to any of the victims of Nazism and to ask President Roosevelt to undo the quotas that kept the Jewish refugees from coming here, the Jewish girls from Cincinnati didn't vote for that resolution.  I, who was just a freshman from Peoria, Illinois, with hayseed in my hair, was horrified.  I had this burning feeling, all that I am I will not deny.  It's the core of me.

“I had this feeling as a Jew first.  First as a Jew before I had it as a woman.  All that I am I will not deny.  And if I've had strength and passion, and if that somehow has helped a little bit to change the world or the possibilities of the world, it comes from that core of me as a Jew.  My passion, my strength, my creativity, if you will, comes from this kind of affirmation… I knew this, in some way, though I was never religious as a Jew, and did not feel alien in the male culture of Judaism at that time…

 “You can see why so many Jewish women particularly gave their  souls to feminism, when you think of all these girls brought  up by the book, brought  up to the book, to the worship of the word, as our brothers were.  When you think of all the passion and energy of our immigrant grandmothers, in the sweatshops without knowing the language!  When you think of mothers rearing sons to be doctors, and coping with all the realities of life!  When you think of all of that passion, all of that strength, all of that energy, suddenly to be concentrated in one small apartment, one small house as happened with Portnoy's mother! …A lot of women realized they were not alone and we broke through the feminine mystique.   A lot of women began to say, “All that I am I will not deny.”  The personhood of woman is really what the Woman's Movement is all about. And once we said we are people, no more, no  less… we could… apply to ourselves human freedom, human dignity, equal opportunity:  all the things that should have been our human and American birthright….

“And we who started the Movement did it with the simple concepts of American democracy.  But we applied those concepts to our situation as women, to our unique experience as women. We applied them not to an abstract blueprint for some future generation, but here and now to the dailiness of life as it’s lived. And I always thought that the unique aspect of the Woman's Movement …comes from the unique experience of women.  Later, as my children, my own son and my spiritual daughters (some of whom are in this room), began to educate me on Jewish theology, I discovered that it's also profoundly Jewish…”

Betty went on to challenge the assembled rabbis to devote themselves to the passage of the ERA, and she would continue to challenge us over the years to change the systems that make gender-equity so hard to realize. The moment she catalyzed is not yet complete.  In some ways it even feels that we are losing ground, as rights we came to take for granted seem to be in jeopardy.  Even in Jewish communal work, there are still significant disparities in salaries of men and women in comparable positions, and a dearth of serious family-leave policies in Jewish institutions.  This 50th anniversary reminds us that the personal is the political, and there is still so much work to do.

I am grateful to be one of Betty Friedan’s spiritual daughters… and that she took that call.


Rabbi Laura Geller is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California.

The ‘war of the wall’ secret weapon


It’s easy to dismiss the antics of Warrior of the Wall Anat Hoffman.  Her guerrilla gatherings of women in vocal prayer services at the Kosel Maaravi, or Western Wall, in defiance of an Israeli Supreme Court decision and in affront to the traditional Jewish men and women who most frequent the prayer site, are legend.  That’s largely because Ms. Hoffman, head of “Women of the Wall” and executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, makes sure the media are summoned and present to record her activities and detainments, which number eight at last count.  She can bank, too, on the support – although some of it is uneasy – from the non-Orthodox American Jewish community.

Even those of us, however, who see danger and disunity in Ms. Hoffman’s goal of “liberating” the Wall from Jewish religious tradition – halacha forbids Jewish men from hearing the voices of women singing or chanting – would do well to realize that not all the women who flock to the activist’s side are political agitators.  Some are surely sincere, and deserve our own sincere consideration.

Imagine a woman raised in a Reform or Conservative environment, who read from the Torah at her bat-mitzvah and for whom services led by women in the presence of men are the norm.  When she visits Israel and is drawn to the Kosel she may well feel that something is somehow “wrong,” that while many women are present and praying, only men are conducting group services and reading from the Torah.  Can we not empathize with her? If we can’t, we are lacking. Even misguided feelings are feelings.

There are powerful arguments for maintaining the status quo at the Kosel: Halacha is the historical heritage of all Jews. The Kosel is a remnant of the courtyard wall of the Second Holy Temple, where “Orthodox” services were the only ones there were.  And permitting non-traditional group services at the Kosel main plaza will invite proponents of atheistic “Humanistic Judaism” to claim their fair share of the area, not to mention “Hebrew Christian” groups seeking their own time-share.

Making the case for halachic standards at the Kosel with reason, though, is one thing. More important than arguments in the end is empathy – on all sides.

For tradition-revering Jews, empathy means not confusing rabble-rousers with heartfelt Jews, not dismissing the feelings of differently-raised fellow Jews of good will.

And for those latter Jews, empathy means trying to feel what traditional Jews at the Kosel will feel if they are compelled by their commitment to halacha to leave the plaza during vocal women’s services.

I once queried a young granddaughter of mine about what she brought to school for lunch.  She listed an assortment of sandwiches but an iconic one was missing.  “What about peanut butter?” I asked.  Her eyes widened and she said, “Oh, no.  We don’t bring peanut butter into the         school.  Some kids are ‘lergic to it!”

The following week I was interviewed on a Jewish television program about the “Women of the Wall.”  I had not planned to recount my conversation with my grandchild but it unexpectedly sprung to mind and I did.  It surely inconveniences children with a fondness for peanut butter, I mused to the interviewer, to be unable to enjoy it for lunch.  But concern for the sensitivities of others trumps our personal preferences, as it should.  I suggested that sensitivities come in different colors.  A halacha-abiding man may not be literally ‘lergic to women’s chanting.  But in a way he is.

No doubt, Ms. Hoffman and others would proclaim that they are equally hurt by being unable to hold services “their way” at the Kosel, that their own tradition is insulted by halachic restrictions.  But I think that a sincere, agenda-less non-Orthodox Jew will find the claim unpersuasive.

For more than forty years, the Kosel has been a place – perhaps the only one in the world – where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side. That has been possible because of the good will of non-Orthodox Jews – Israelis and Westerners alike – who, although they may opt for very different services in their own homes, synagogues or temples, have considered the feelings of  those who embrace the entirety of the Jewish religious tradition.

Recapturing that good will amid a manufactured and media-seductive “War of the Wall” will not be easy. We Orthodox, though, might begin with empathy for fellow Jews who were raised very differently from us.  And perhaps, in turn, that will merit us their empathy as well.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.

Jewish women: this one’s for you


Jewish women have a long-standing history of deep involvement in the American feminist movement. Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” was Jewish, as is playwright and activist Eve Ensler, current leader of the international movement opposing violence against women. The connection Jewish women have to their “womanhood” is clear, so why aren’t Jewish community institutions engaging in conversations on women’s issues?

Much of the activism for Jewish women revolves around asking them to donate money rather than creating programs to address important topics that have a huge impact on their lives and their children’s lives. In an age when many women are financially independent or sole income-earners facing a challenging economy, women increasingly need and want more information, education, support and mentorship. Jewish women want to learn about women’s issues and women’s issues within Judaism. We want to meet each other. We want to learn, grow and help each other learn and grow. And we need programs to help us do so.

Interestingly, many women have dropped off the “feminist” map, openly expressing their discomfort with this word. This group includes highly successful women such as Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, who said, “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think, have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that.”

Similar to Mayer, many young women today fear being labeled as militant or overly angry. But at the same time, women are still earning only 77 cents to each dollar a man earns. And are we equal when, as I write this on the eve of Election Day, only 17 percent of seats in Congress are held by women, 12 percent of U.S. governors are women, and 23 percent of state legislators are women?

After the first Jewish Women’s Conference in 2011 in Los Angeles, it was clear that Jewish women had been craving programs focusing on them and their needs. Nearly 90 percent of post-conference survey respondents felt that Jewish organizations, centers and synagogues in Southern California do not or rarely create enough dialogue on women’s issues. The same high percentage of women felt that these institutions do not or rarely do a good job of connecting Jewish women to each other.

Women expressed wanting more professional networking with other Jewish women, meaningful connections with organizations participating in tikkun olam, and educational programs about women’s issues. Many expressed fears that younger generations of Jewish women are apathetic about feminism, activism and the history of Jewish women’s involvement in the feminist movement. A conference attendee in her early 20s responded, “One woman expressed her fears about the next generation being too quiet. That really stood out to me. I need to learn to find my voice on the issues that matter to me.”

Living in a far-flung city marked by traffic woes, Southern Californians face challenges finding mentors, establishing communities and making time to listen to women of different generations share their experiences and expertise. The Jewish Women’s Conference of Southern California, which has its second annual meeting on Nov. 11 at UCLA, is dedicated to creating a space for a diverse group of multigenerational women to learn from, mentor and delve into the more difficult issues that we often don’t want to face. Such topics include how we are going to care for ourselves as we age, what we need to know about our health at various periods in our lives, and how can we financially plan for our futures.

Jewish women face many more concerns than are implied by terms such as  “women’s issues” and “feminism.” The 46 speakers at the upcoming Jewish Women’s Conference, all of whom are fully donating their time, are helping to create a more empowered and inspired community of Jewish women in Southern California. It takes a community to empower one individual, and it often takes only one individual to empower an entire community. It’s time to make a collective effort to increase programs and promote topics important to women within the Jewish community.

For more information on the Jewish Women’s Conference, and to register, visit “>jewishjournal.com/womanwrites.

Lawsuit filed against haredi radio station for excluding women


The religious women’s organization Kolech filed a class-action lawsuit against a haredi Orthodox radio station for excluding women.

The nearly $26 million lawsuit filed Tuesday in Jerusalem District Court against Kol Berama alleges that the station does not hire women as interviewers or invite women to be interviewed.

“From the start, the station adhered to a patently illegal policy, and women’s voices were completely silenced,” the suit says. “At all hours, only men are heard in the station’s programs. A woman who wishes to be interviewed is refused, and is requested to send a fax to the station, which is read by the presenter.”

The station went on the air in 2009; the Reform movement had asked the Israeli Supreme Court to prevent its launch.

Earlier this year, Israel’s Second Authority for Television & Radio ordered Kol Berama to interview women in official positions or who are experts in their fields. It also called on the station to allow women to speak on the air for four hours a week, Haaretz reported.

The station claims to have hundreds of faxes from female listeners that are satisfied with the station’s format.

New glasses blur women for haredi Orthodox men


Charedi Orthodox men in Israel are buying glasses that will prevent them from seeing the immodest women that threaten their way of life.

The glasses, which are being sold for $32.50, have a special blur-inducing sticker on their lenses that provides clear vision for up to a few yards so as not to impede movement, but anything beyond that becomes blurry — including women.

While it is not known how many have been purchased, the devices have gone on sale recently in Charedi Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and elsewhere, reported the Times of Israel.

The Charedi Orthodox community’s unofficial “modesty patrol” has developed a range of products to act as a first line of defense against the threat of seeing immodest women, Israeli media reported.

In an effort to maintain their strictly devout lifestyle, the Charedi Orthodox in some neighborhoods have separated the sexes on buses, sidewalks and other public spaces.

My Single Peeps: Lynn R.


Lynn has been a widow since 1996 and is doing her best to fall in love again. But she’s finding the world of online dating difficult to navigate. On one date, she told me, “I found out the guy was a bookie.” He was in a bad mood because he had just lost $8,000. “There was one guy on the phone — every time we talked with each other, it was fun and great. Then we got together, and he was way overweight. I mean way overweight — which wasn’t disclosed in the profile. There was absolutely no chemistry — nothing. You can’t let yourself be seduced by the voice, because the pictures they put up aren’t representative of who they really are. That’s online dating.”

Lynn’s originally from Los Angeles. “I grew up in the Valley. I was a Valley Girl before the term was created. The last several years, I’ve been writing screenplays, which doesn’t differentiate me much from the other people out here. But I did have a short film made, and one of my screenplays is in the hands of a London producer who’s trying to find a director for my script. So that’s hopeful. That’s what I spend a lot of time doing.”

“I started out as a secretary, but I hated it. I took a Greyhound bus around the Western states when I was about 22 and wound up in Sun Valley, Idaho, and I thought this could really be fun working here in the winter. So I tried to get a job as a maid, which I would have failed at miserably — my parents had a cleaning girl.

“At the last stop before the bus came, there was a coffee shop, and I heard a piano player next door — and he was so bad that I thought I could do better than that. I used to play as a kid. If she had asked me to audition, I couldn’t have done it. But she didn’t.”

Lynn made a deal that she’d work at another bar they were opening if they would send her the train fare. “I went back to my old piano teacher, and I took three lessons a day and practiced 16 hours a day for two weeks and took my first job.  I got fired a week later.”

But that led to a job at another bar and, soon, a singing and piano career.

[For other Single Peeps, visit jewishjournal.com/my_single_peeps]

Although Lynn, who’s in her early 60s, is officially retired, she puts in two to four hours a day on her writing. “I hate the word retired. You see it on profiles and wonder what they’re doing with their lives. I like being productive, and I like for other people to be productive. If he is retired, at least he wants to do other things, like travel. [I want] a man with a good heart, a good mind and financially stable. I don’t mind dating men who are younger than me. It just depends on the man. He could be older and could be a terrific guy.”

I ask Lynn what she likes to do with her free time. “I like to go to movies, I like to read, and I love to swim. I love to travel. My last major trip was to Africa on a safari. [It was] the most amazing trip of my life, seeing the animals in person. I traveled with a girlfriend. Another favorite place I went to is Bora Bora. I went there with my [late] husband.”

“How’s single life?” I ask. “It’s fine. You know, I certainly adapted to it. But I think life is better when you share it. I do.”


Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. You can see more of his work on his Web site, sethmenachem.com, and meet even more single peeps at mysinglepeeps.com.

Jewish lawmakers introduce act to curb international violence against women


Three Jewish Congress members introduced legislation that seeks to curb international violence against women.

U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) are the lead sponsors of the International Violence Against Women Act of 2012 that was introduced Thursday.

The legislation would provide funding to gender-based foreign assistance programs and establish the Office of Global Women’s Issues within the State Department.

“It would give the U.S. State Department new tools ranging from health programs and survivor services to legal reforms to promoting economic opportunities and education for women,” said a statement from Schakowsky’s office.

Jewish Women International welcomed the initiative, calling it “an opportunity for the U.S. Congress to demonstrate its commitment to building a safer and more secure world.”

A number of Jewish groups are backing a Democratic version of the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act passed recently in the Senate that enhances protections for LGBT and Native American communities and preserves statutes that extend legal status to illegal immigrants who report abuses. The groups oppose the Republican version passed in the House, which dilutes the protections for illegal immigrants and removes the enhancements for the LGBT and Native Americans.

Opinion: Dream big, y’all


In synagogue last Friday night, just after her sermon, the rabbi announced she had invited a special guest in honor of Jewish Disabilities Month.

The woman next to me leaned over and whispered. “What’s Jewish Disabilities Month?”

“That’s for Jews who get B’s in school,” I said.

Kidding, of course.

But in a culture that prides itself on education and achievement, there is a tendency to overlook those children, men and women who may never fit into the straight-A, Ivy League, graduate school and away-we-go model. Our norm is pretty exceptional.

One of the most moving stories I’ve reported for The Journal was on Dr. Michael Held, who in 1993 founded an organization called Etta Israel to make sure every Jewish child, regardless of his or her abilities, received a Jewish education. Held told me stories of families who kept their Down syndrome children locked in the house rather than allow the community to see them.

Things have changed for the better since then. Etta Israel now offers group homes, camp and Israel experiences, and Michelle Wolf, who created the first blog on the subject, Jews and Special Needs, at jewishjournal.com, charts the heartening growth of programs and opportunities seeking to include and assist people with disabilities.

These programs succeed — we as a community succeed — only when we stop viewing life as a race where just a select few make it to “the top.”

“What if instead of seeing life as a race,” Rabbi Naomi Levy wrote in her book “Hope Will Find You,” “we begin to see life as a hora?” — as a circle folk dance. “The question a person in a race asks is, How far ahead am I? The question a person in a dance asks is, How wide is my circle?”

It was Rabbi Levy who introduced the special guest at her Nashuva congregation services last Friday. The rabbi and I also happen to be married — I just call her Naomi — and our daughter, Noa, who turned 16 last weekend, has demonstrated each day the persistence and grace required to navigate the world when you aren’t, in the words of her bat mitzvah speech, “all put together.” But much of Noa’s success is due to the circle of educators, doctors, specialists, lawyers and friends who have devoted themselves to children with special needs, and to her.  

The guest Naomi introduced was a 20-year-old Jewish rapper named Rio Wyles.

Wyles, clad in rapper chic — baggy pants, T-shirt, dark shades — stood silently on the bimah as Naomi recited his story.

At age 3, Wyles was diagnosed with autism. Specialists told his mother that his thinking would never rise above the abstract. But a succession of devoted specialists — Dr. Bill Takeshita, now affiliated with the Center for the Partially Sighted; cognitive therapist Shmuel Stoch, at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy; education therapist Carol Essey and others — helped him along. Wyles is now a proud graduate of the Academy of Music magnet program at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, class of 2010.

At the age of 8, while browsing through the bins at Tower Records, Wyles told his mother, Judith Feldman, he intended to work in the music business. Doctors had warned her to keep her expectations in check. 

“Do you want to work here?” Feldman asked her son, knowing even a record store might be a stretch.

“I want to be a rapper and own my own label,” Wyles shot back.  “You gotta’ dream bigger than that, Mom.” 

Rio Wyles transformed himself into the rapper Soulshocka. 

He sought music mentors — Sam Kingston, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame and   producer Joe Seabe at PASW Music Management.

As important as the professionals and friends who helped him were institutions like Vista Del Mar and its Miracle Project — whose founder and president, Elaine Hall, brought him to Nashuva — as well as Hamilton High and Day Jams, a summer rock music camp held at American Jewish University. Wyles was the first Day Jams camper with autism to be admitted — something his mother said transformed his life. Doors didn’t just open for Wyles — people chose to let him in.

Soulshocka performs along with the Miracle Project Fly Ensemble at autism-related charitable events, synagogues and elsewhere. He has a label, and a producer, Seabe.  Soulshocka received the 2011 Autism Genius Award at Carnegie Hall, and a standing ovation last Friday night at Nashuva.

The two songs he performed were “We Will Prevail” and “Malfunction,” with music by Seabe and the lyrics by Wyles himself. 

I’ll leave you with the chorus from “We Will Prevail.” 

Walkin’ in a straight line
and never look back.
Never surrender when you’re
under attack.
Won’t be easy but you gotta stay strong.
Never give up cause the road is long. …
Somehow I know we will prevail.
We will not fail. We will prevail.
Somehow I know we will prevail.
We will not fail. We will prevail.
Somehow I know we will prevail.
Yeah.
Dream big, y’all.
Soulshocka.
I’m out.

Haredi man indicted for harrasment after insulting female Israeli soldier on bus


A haredi Orthodox man who insulted a female soldier after she refused to sit in the back of a city bus was charged with sexual harassment.

Shlomo Fuchs, 44, was indicted in a Jerusalem court Thursday, a day after he was arrested by Jerusalem police for calling the soldier, Doron Matalon, 19, a “whore” and a “shiksa” on a Jerusalem bus; he was joined in the insults by other passengers. The bus driver pulled over and called police.

Also on Thursday, female members of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women rode on a segregated bus from Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem.

Haredi Orthodox male passengers reportedly called out insults to the women, who sat in the front of the bus, and complained of provocation. Some saw the television cameras and opted not to get on the bus, according to reports.

Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch on Wednesday called on the public to file complaints with the police over such harassment, Ynet reported.

Thousands gathered in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh on Tuesday night to protest the exclusion of women in the public sphere.

Removal of modesty signs in Beit Shemesh sparks riot


Haredi Orthodox men rioted against police in Beit Shemesh to protest a crackdown on the exclusion of women in the public sphere.

The clashes occurred Monday afternoon in two neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh, a northwestern suburb of Jerusalem with a population of 80,000. Two residents were arrested.

About 300 haredi Orthodox men threw stones at police and burned trash cans after the police removed a sign calling for the separation of the sexes on city streets, Haaretz reported. The signs had been replaced after being removed the previous day. 

Rioters on Sunday reportedly surrounded and threw stones at the city workers who removed the signs. Some reportedly called the police who came to break up the riot “Nazis.”

One sign called for women to cross the street in front of a local yeshiva; another called for women to dress modestly in public. The sign removal began Sunday evening, when it was assumed that residents would be in their homes lighting Chanukah candles, Ynet reported.

Following media reports of attacks on women by haredi Orthodox men, the Beit Shemesh municipality said it would install hundreds of security cameras in areas where harassment of women was occurring.

News teams from two Israeli television channels were attacked by haredi Orthodox men attempting to film in the city on Sunday and Monday.

Meanwhile, more than 4,000 people have responded to a Facebook group organizing a march in Beit Shemesh this week to protest the treatment of women in the city and the increasing haredization of the city, Haaretz reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend called on the Israel Police to act aggressively against violence against women in the public sphere.

The order came from Netanyahu Saturday night through Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch following a television expose the previous evening showing an 8-year-old Modern Orthodox girl who said she was afraid to walk to school because of harassment from local haredi Orthodox men.

Netanyahu reportedly also spoke with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to make certain that laws against excluding women from the public space were enforced.

Israel takes gender fight to buses, billboards


The women turned heads as they got on Jerusalem’s No. 56 bus on a November weekday.

Startled ultra-Orthodox Jewish men looked away as the group mounted a challenge to growing gender segregation in the holy city by boarding the public vehicle from the front door and sitting in its first rows.

As the male passengers averted their gaze, adhering to a traditional edict to avoid sexual temptation, a religious woman at the back of the bus shouted at the protesters: “Deal with the drugs, the crime and prostitution in your own communities first.”

Buses and billboards, where some advertisers avoid posting images of women to prevent vandalism, have become the latest battlefields in the fight for the soul of Jerusalem, a city sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

The boarding of bus 56, one of several segregated routes crossing ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the city, is just the latest attempt by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), to end separate seating.

“The new fad is to distance oneself from women as a way to measure piety. The idea that sex is dirty is not part of Judaism. We have to plug this leak before it spills over,” said Anat Hoffman, IRAC’s executive director.

But a religious woman on the bus, who gave her name only as Bracha, said there was no humiliation in sitting in the rear.

“It is a response to secular extremism. Look how their women parade along the beach in a degrading way,” she said.

Black-garbed ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Charedim, make up only about 10 percent of Israel’s population of 7.7 million, but their high birthrates and concentration in Jerusalem, where official figures show 26 percent of adult Jews consider themselves Charedim, have stoked fears among the country’s secular majority of religious interference in their lifestyle.

The concerns have also spread beyond the city. A group of Israeli generals wrote to the Defense Ministry on Nov. 14 saying the military must not give in to Orthodox demands to prevent the mixing of men and women in the ranks.

Nissim Hasson, vice president of sales at Zohar Hutzot advertising company, said ads showing women in Jerusalem are routinely vandalized.

When it comes to women on posters and billboards, he said, the holy city demands a different set of rules.

“Jerusalem is a symbol, a capital, built on mutual respect, holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. If you want to be tolerant in this city, you cannot advertise women,” Hasson said.

Advertising its winter collection, an Israeli fashion company cropped out a female model’s head and cleavage from posters it put up in Jerusalem. In other Israeli cities, the full image ran.

The self-censorship prompted Uri Ayalon, a rabbi who is not a member of the ultra-Orthodox community, to start a Facebook campaign called “Uncensored” in which six women had their photos taken for 150 posters that were put up on Jerusalem billboards.

“We object to the sexist use of women in ads. But it is also important to me that my two daughters grow up in a place where they are not occluded because they are women,” Ayalon said.

Tzaphira Stern-Assal, a secular mother of two who volunteered for the photo shoot, said she once put an ad for a dance class in the window of a dance school she runs, only to see it defaced the next day, along with posters of a dance group, with graffiti that read “Blasphemy.”

Whenever the school’s curtains are left more than one-third open, Stern-Assal said, Charedi men soon show up and start banging on the windows.

“It happens all the time,” she said. “Do they want it to be everyone’s city or just the Charedis’? We want to live in dignity, not to be ashamed and hide behind curtains.”

A sidewalk barrier to segregate the sexes went up in October in the Mea Shearim religious neighborhood of Jerusalem during the celebration of a Jewish holiday, mirroring the separation of men and women in Orthodox synagogues.

Secular activists who came to inspect the partition said they were chased away by residents, some of whom threw stones.

Rachel Azaria, a Jerusalem councilwoman, appealed to the Supreme Court against the barrier, which ordered it dismantled.

She was subsequently fired by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, in what political commentators called a nod to the ultra-Orthodox community’s powerful punch in municipal elections.

“Segregation has been happening for a while. What’s new is that the pluralistic public has woken up and is fighting. We won’t stand it any longer,” Azaria told an interviewer.

She said a social change movement that swept through Israel in the summer, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand economic reform, has emboldened those battling segregation.

“The public dares now to say its piece. The penny has dropped,” she said.

Reliant on religious parties to help form governing coalitions, Israeli leaders have largely steered clear of cutting welfare subsidies to large ultra-Orthodox families, in which many of the men engage in religious studies full time.

Critics have pointed to the burden they put on the Israeli economy, but moves to cut the payments would spell political trouble for any of the country’s major parties.

Addressing the religious-secular divide, the Supreme Court ruled this year that women traveling on public buses cannot be ordered to sit in the back.

Signs in Jerusalem buses now say people have a right to sit wherever they wish and that harassing passengers could be a criminal offense.

Critics say that in practice, dozens of bus lines are still gender segregated and that women who want to sit at the front are often subjected to verbal and sometimes physical assaults.

One Charedi woman, who asked not to be identified, said she tried to buy a public transport pass in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, only to be turned away and told the ticket stand was for men only.

Her husband said they received threatening phone calls when word got out that they had lodged a complaint about the incident.

“Separation is important, but in places where it makes sense, like the beach. Now there are calls for it on the light rail. There are segregated grocery shops and sidewalks. There’s no basis for it in Jewish law, and it’s getting more extreme,” he said.

Yakov Halperin, head of ultra-Orthodox Yehadut Ha Torah faction in Jerusalem’s municipality, said people should stay out of the Charedi community’s business.

“If that’s what they want, in their neighborhoods, they have the right to ask for it,” he said.

“In Sodom and Gomorrah, which were annihilated because of the corrupt generation, there were those who kept the Torah’s laws and put up fences in order to protect themselves,” he said.

In the lions’ den: Federation women cap week in the Big Easy


Just down the road from where the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America had concluded a day earlier, more than a thousand of the federation system’s most generous women found a philanthropic sanctuary of their own.

At the Hilton Hotel here, the International Lion of Judah Conference drew about 1,100 of the women that the federation system refers to as “lions”—those who give at least $5,000 each year to the system—for a number of sessions dedicated to showcasing the best of what that system supports and highlighting some of the interesting projects women are running in the broader Jewish nonprofit world.

They told stories about strong women and mothers. And at a conference without men, the humor was decidedly female-centric: Comic Judy Gold, performing at its closing gala, got her biggest laugh in response to a joke involving a yeast infection and Passover.

The absence of men was vitally important to making the five-day event a success, said guests at the Nov. 10 closing gala at the Hilton.

“You can let your hair down more,” Shanny Morgenstern, the president of women’s philanthropy at the Kansas City federation, told JTA.

While annual campaigns have fallen across the country with the recession, women’s giving to the federation has held steady over the past two years, said Kim Fish, the senior director of national women’s philanthropy for the Jewish Federations of North America.

The lions made $19.1 million in pledges over the course of their conference—a 12 percent increase compared to their last get-together in late 2008, just before the recession took hold. In the Big Easy, their average gift was more than $17,000.

The Lion of Judah has become something of a cultural phenomenon within the federation world since Norma Wilson came up with the concept in Miami in 1972.

Her idea was to spur giving by rewarding women who gave $5,000 or more with a gold brooch featuring a roaring lion and a diamond eye. As the idea spread from federation to federation the lion evolved, with the diamond eye turning into a ruby for a gift of $10,000, a sapphire for $18,000 and an emerald for $25,000. The lion turns platinum if a woman has given a gift of more than $100,000—and if a woman endows her gift, the philanthropic feline gets a little gold torch to hold in its outstretched paw.

And while the GA, the annual conference for the federation system’s lay and professional leaders, is more about the system’s functionality, best practices and policy, the biannual Lion of Judah conference is strictly about fund raising—and instilling a sense of feminine camaraderie in some of the most generous benefactors of the multibillion-dollar per year charitable system.

“It’s about sisterhood,” Bari Freiden, a Lion from Kansas City, told JTA between sessions. “You are all the same because you are at a certain giving level or above no matter where you are from. You recognize a lion and all of a sudden you have a connection.”

The idea has worked—big time. The federations may do a better job of raising money from women than any other philanthropy, Jewish or not. About 17,000 women in the United States have become Lions, and they provide the core of the $180 million raised by the federations through their women’s philanthropy campaign.

All told, giving by women accounts for about 23 percent of the annual $900 million general campaign, according to Fish.

At federations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the women’s campaign brings in about 40 percent of the organization’s overall annual campaign, according to Steve Rakitt, the federation’s president.

While some insiders openly wondered whether federations should have spent more time at the GA working on how to articulate their story more clearly, the system clearly knew how to pitch its Lions. Their conference this year was orchestrated to put the federations front and center, and to pull at the heartstrings of its participants.

Sessions ranging from “Slim Peace: Diet for a Peaceful Planet” to “Strong Women and ‘Lipstick’ Leadership” to “Business Women and Politics” generally avoided becoming bogged down in philanthropic theory, instead focusing on making the attendees aware of the more interesting programs being funded by the federations. The sessions told the stories of the programs through women’s voices.

For example, during one session, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee—one of the federation system’s two main overseas partners—focused on a woman it rescued from Georgia and another it saved from Bosnia. The session also highlighted the generosity of Anne Heyman, a major funder who worked with the JDC to establish the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda for orphans of the country’s genocide.

Each presentation drew more on the emotional than on nuts and bolts—and each included a pitch for the federation system.

Plenary sessions were more about positioning the federation and the Lion of Judah as not just organizations offering opportunities to donate to good works, but also venues for making friends and empowering women through philanthropy.

Having no men around was key, participants said.

“You can say things you wouldn’t necessarily say with men there,” said Morgenstern of the Kansas City federation. “If there would be men, the women would be less open to share.”

“It is an exclusive network both because it is women and the giving dollar amount,” said Freiden, a fellow Kansas City lion.

And while that included a bit of feminine high-jinks on Bourbon Street that both acknowledged, the conference all led up to a caucus closed not only to the press but also to all but the highest-level staff, at which the women poured out their hearts and opened their checkbooks.

After spending five days hearing about the power of the federations and of being women associated with the federations, the Lions broke into groups. The women sat in a circle and, one by one, told their stories about how their local federation had personally touched them.

The caucus became a tear-filled affair as the women related their intensely personal stories—and made financial pledges to their local federations, often disclosing the dollar amount or at least the percentage of increase over their last pledge, according to several participants.

Despite the success, some federation insiders say the model would need to be tweaked to attract a younger generation. This year the conference included a service project in which Lions, in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s PJ Library, handed out backpacks of books to underprivileged New Orleans children as the federations become convinced that service is the gateway to a younger generation.

But for now, the federations are banking on inspiring more giving through sisterhood.

“If you put women in a situation where there is abundance and where they can all succeed, they are incredibly cooperative and helpful to each other,” Freiden said. “Whereas if you are in a situation where you are taking from my cubs, they come out with their claws. Here it doesn’t hurt us to share good things. It helps us and we help each other.”

This article was adapted from The Fundermentalist newsletter; sign up at Fundermentalist.com.

Sunday wrapup from Beijing: U.S. swimmer Torres wins two silvers; Israelis lag


BEIJING (JTA)—United States’ swimmer Dara Torres won two more silver medals in Beijing.

Torres won the medals Sunday in the Women’s 50m Freestyle and the Women’s 4x100m Medley Relay.

Jewish-American swimmers Jason Lezak and Garret Weber-Gale both added another gold medal to their collection, joining Michael Phelps and teammates to win the Men’s 4 x 100m Medley Relay.

Israeli athletes did not fare as well Sunday. Alex Shatilov finished last in the Men’s Floor Exercise final, the only apparatus final the Israeli gymnast qualified for in the Beijing Games.

Shatilov fell on his final landing, and received a score of 14.125 after a .400 penalty. The gold medalist in the event was Zou Kai of China, with a total score of 16.050.

Shooter Doron Egozi finished 36th, while Gil Simkovitch finished 38th, in the Men’s 50m Rifle 3 Positions event. Shooters Guy Starik and Simkovich also competed Friday in the Men’s 50m Rifle Prone qualification round, but neither advanced to the final. Starik came in 12th with a score of 594, while Simkovich came in 22nd with 592 points. This finish was an improvement on Starik’s Athens finish of 16th. He joins sailor Yoel Selais as the only Israelis to compete in four Olympics.

Israeli windsurfer Shahar Zubari, who was leading in first place after five races, slipped to third place after his seventh race in the Men’s RS:X competition. Zubari finished 17th in race 5, sixth in race 6, and 19th in race 7. He was able to maintain a first place position after race 5 because he is allowed to drop his worst performance, but after continuing to perform outside of first place, he no longer retains his top rank.

Israeli windsurfer Maayan Davidovitch is 14th in the Women’s RS:X competition after seven races.

Israeli sailing duo Nike Kornecky and Vered Bouskila finished their eighth race in first place, and moved up to number three in the ranking of the Women’s 470 two-person dinghy event. With two more races until the top ten boats in the fleet qualify for the medal race on Monday, the Israeli pair looks solid for advancement.

Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad; ‘West Bank Story’ screening


Saturday the 3rd

Naughty Jewish girls need love, too. Show it to ’em this weekend. “Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad” returns to Los Angeles for three nights at Tangiers. The variety show features comedy, music, spoken word and burlesque, with a healthy helping of kitsch. Klezmer Juice also performs.

March 2-4, 8 p.m. $15. Tangiers Restaurant, 2138 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 666-8666.

Sunday the 4th

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Wondering where to see those short films you’d never heard of before your Oscar pool? The Very Short Movies Festival presents a perfect opportunity. March 8-11, the festival takes over the Egyptian Theater, where it will screen comedy, drama, documentary, animated and experimental shorts, including “The Tribe,” and Oscar-winner “West Bank Story.”

$8-$10 (tickets), $12-$15 (festival packages). 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (866) 376-9047. Oscar 2007: A good year for the Jews!

MOCA’s latest exhibition reveals the early years of the ‘Feminist Revolution’


That women corporate executives are now indicted for malfeasance reminds me of the old Zionist litany that: “We won’t have a normal Jewish state until it includes gangsters and whores.”

If the glass ceiling hasn’t exactly been shattered, it does show a bit of leakage, although it’s still difficult to determine comfort levels about a woman being third in line for the presidency — or even a viable candidate.

Does this move toward egalitarianism now constitute a state of normalcy?

These are just some of the questions that make it worth contemplating the significance of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s bold look back at a pivotal period for women in art in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” an exhibition that opens March 4 at The Geffen Contemporary and runs through July 16, 2007.

Women now make up about 30 percent of the membership of the Association of Art Museum Directors; that’s a huge difference from the early 1970s, when I first became a member and there were only a few women included.

Revisiting the once hot topic of feminism ought to be more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and the inclusiveness of MOCA’s exhibition — curated by former MOCA curator Connie Butler, currently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — suggests a new level of seriousness that ought to be of special interest to Jewish viewers.

We, too, have seen a shift in the way Jews are viewed in the society.

We’re now a long way from the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s, when fears of “special pleading” kept many Jews from boldly protesting events in Europe that we subsequently came to call the Holocaust. But that doesn’t mean we should shun the topic of anti-Semitism, how it shaped the role of Jews in American society, and how it once gave us a special sensitivity to the plight of other groups subject to prejudice and indignity.

The MOCA exhibition “will highlight the crucial 15-year period between 1965 and 1980 during which feminism became a cultural force, and the discourse of feminism intersected with the practices of artists around the world.” This exhibition is not about a particular style, but about attitude and about artists positioning themselves in relation to the art world: As women, as feminists and, foremost, as artists. And that should make for an engaging experience of our perception of this art. And once again, Jewish analogies abound, since there has long been discussion about whether there is any such thing as Jewish art” or whether there are “Jewish artists.”

Regarding either Jewish or feminist art, we may ultimately be stuck with Justice Potter Stewart’s comment about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” And perhaps that will be the most valuable contribution of this exhibition.

Just as I have known artists who didn’t want to be seen in a Jewish context, fearing it might diminish some larger connotations of their work, I have known women artists who wouldn’t want to be shown in Washington’s Museum for Women in the Arts. Strange, since the artist never knows how she will be absorbed by the viewer.

Do we know what people are thinking when they look at Chagall’s painting of a Jew wearing tefillin at the Art Institute of Chicago?

Do people looking at the abstract color-field paintings of Helen Frankenthaler or the sculptures of Louise Nevelson — two women, artists, and Jews — make associations to specific gender or ethnic issues?

Probably not, since they are among the handful of successful women artists who overcame typecasting to make it to the mainstream prior to the advent of feminism, which may suggest why they are not included in this exhibition.

Using scholar Peggy Phelan’s definition, as stated in the show’s advance materials, that “feminism is the conviction that gender has been, and continues to be, a fundamental category for the organization of culture” and that “the pattern of that organization favors men over women,” the exhibition suggests an enormous diversity both in the range of work and in the range of attitudes about what feminism means to women artists (presumably men aren’t capable of expressing ideas about feminism in their work).

Again, Jewish analogies abound, since there is surely no Jewish style, but various Jews have expressed themselves Jewishly in their art, while others have emphatically eschewed such an approach. And what about artists embracing issues that don’t “belong” to them? For example, artists using the Holocaust or racism as a theme, even if they themselves have no personal relation to either issue.

As with any interesting and provocative exhibition, “WACK” promises to raise more questions than it likely will be able to answer. Which may well be all to the good, since we surely need thoughtful questions more than we need simplistic answers. Jewish viewers might approach this work by considering whether there’s any connection between feminism and Jewishness in the work of the many Jewish women in this exhibition (indeed, so many they can’t all be listed here).

Is it fair to suggest that in the 1970s Jews were still in the forefront of what might be thought liberal politics, and that this explains Jewish women embracing feminism? Or did Jewish women feel a special need for stridency, considering the long tradition of male domination in traditional Jewish religious practice. (Yes, I know, women have “special” obligations, such as lighting Shabbat candles; but let’s admit that the Jewish tradition has relegated women to the back of the bus. Indeed, even today’s gender-sensitive liturgies, citing the four so-called matriarchs, omit the two poor handmaidens who went through the pains of childbirth to help make that full dozen of Jacob’s boys!)

There’s no question that such issues inform the work of Chicago — one of feminist art’s most vocal and visible presences. But Jewish questions also enrich the work of Eleanor Antin, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Hél?ne Aylon (the latter, strangely, missing from this show), and it will be worth pondering, in the presence of the work, in what way they do or don’t feel evident in the work of Eva Hesse, Miriam Schapiro and others.

Holy Doubt


This week’s Torah portion contains a story that most of us skipped in Hebrew school — the story of Dina.

Dina goes out to “see the daughters of the land.”

Shechem,
the eponymous local prince, sees her, sleeps with her and vaye’aneha — sexually forces or humiliates her.

His soul clings to her, he loves her, and he speaks tenderly to her.

This begins a protracted negotiation, in which Jacob remains silent and his sons, Dina’s brothers, maintain their outrage.

Shechem invites Jacob and the brothers to name any amount for a bride price.

The brothers answer with guile, seeming to accept Shechem’s proposal with the proviso that he and all his male subjects undergo circumcision to become “one people” with the Israelites.

Three days after all the males of Shechem are circumcised, while they are still in pain, Simon and Levi, two of Dina’s full brothers, enter the city, confident. They kill all the men and remove Dina from the house.

Jacob’s sons appropriate the property of the slain and take the women captive. Jacob objects: “You have stirred up trouble …[with my neighbors] while I am few in number, so if they band together against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”

The sons answer: “Shall our sister be dealt with like a whore?”

The story raises many questions, particularly from Dina’s perspective.

Did she learn of her impending marriage? If so, from whom? What was it like for her in the three or four days after the rape and before the “rescue”?

How did she feel when her brothers stormed in, killing the men and taking the women who were to be her new family? Was this similar to the way she had been taken captive? What was she looking for when she “went out to see the daughters of the land”? Had she and the local women already forged the kind of friendship and alliance that the men were negotiating for?

Or could Dina have been a spy against the women? (“To see” and “to spy on” are the same verb in Hebrew.) Can we imagine her as a Mata Hari figure, conspiring with her brothers to conquer Shechem? Or did Dina’s soul cleave to Shechem’s as improbably and enduringly as his cleaved to hers?

The Torah focuses on the men’s motivations, yet these, too, are far from clear. Jacob’s political objection to his sons’ actions ignores the harm to Dina, the sons’ deception and violence, and the murder of innocents. Is Jacob cautiously protecting the clan after a traumatic loss, or has he ceded control and leadership? Is he indifferent to his daughter’s suffering, or so distraught that he becomes passive?

Are the brothers overzealous defenders of their sister’s honor (perhaps in response to Jacob’s passivity) and/or do they see an opportunity for a land grab?

On his deathbed, Jacob will condemn Simon and Levi’s excesses and bar the two tribes from owning land (Genesis 49:5-7). Is the crime that most troubles the brothers rape — or theft? The males of Dina’s family should have commanded a bride price for her in advance, and the brothers seem more interested in orchestrating revenge than in facilitating Dina’s release.

Is Shechem a rapist? It is certainly not typical of a rapist to love his victim, want to marry her, offer to pay any amount of money and undergo genital surgery to be with her. Shechem more than fulfills all the requirements later imposed on Israelites (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) who bed an unbetrothed girl without gaining permission first.

Perhaps Shechem, prince of the land, thought that Dina, visiting among the daughters of the land, was one of his subjects, and therefore legal and eligible to him.

Long before Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent,” the ancient rabbis wondered if Dina chose — before or after the fact — to be with Shechem.

One midrash suggests that Dina was enticed by his uncircumcised body, and had to be removed from his house because she would not leave voluntarily.

Other midrashim don’t attribute sexual volition to Dina, but posit instead her extraordinary spiritual power: she would have caused Esau to repent had she been paired with him; she was Job’s second wife and healed him. Dina was indeed raped, but she inspired a rapist to repent immediately and completely.

The verb vaye’aneha — usually translated as “he raped her” — comes from the root ayin-nun-hey, which has two meanings: to answer or respond; or to force, afflict or humiliate, especially sexually.

Translating according to the first definition, it is possible to read vaye’aneha as parallel to vayidaber al lev hane’ara, he spoke to the girl tenderly (Genesis 34:2-3). This supports the interpretation that Shechem seduced Dina, rather than raped her. Similarly, it is possible to reverse the usual translation in 34:13: the brothers didn’t just answer Shechem with guile, they afflicted him with it.

It surprises me how confident people sometimes are about exactly what the Bible intends. What is meant, literally and in context, by “frontlets between your eyes” or “a man lying with a man as with a woman” or even “your neighbor?”

The Bible is laconic, allusive, ambiguous, layered.

It is not always clear to me, after years of study, which stories are cautionary tales and which are examples to be emulated.

Torah urges us: read again, review again, and don’t be so sure.

Approach with holy doubt, and humility.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at makom.org.