December 9, 2018

Ultra-Orthodox feminism: Not a contradiction in terms

I am an ultra-Orthodox feminist. And no, that’s not a contradiction in terms. Furthermore, my identity and the social processes that my colleagues and I are leading, aren’t merely personal journeys and struggles: We may just hold the key to the future of Israeli society.

The Israeli ultra-Orthodox (Charedi) community is changing. These changes are mostly happening under the radar, away from the shrill headlines. A new generation of Charedi social activists is slowly emerging, inspired not only by the beauty of Jewish tradition, but also by values of individualism and equality. Charedi feminism is part of this trend, which also embraces integrating Charedi men into the Israeli workforce and society.

Charedi feminism is mostly focused on gaining equality of opportunities, opinions and representation. In this sense, it plays out quite differently from religious Zionist feminism, which is rooted in Rav Kook’s approach that, “The old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified” — in other words, recognizing the authenticity of modernity and the need for religion to be integrated into every layer of life. On the other hand, the Charedi world is built on the Chatam Sofer’s famous line that, “Anything new is forbidden by the Torah” and its consequent opposition to anything that smacks of change.

Ironically, this enables, rather than prevents, Charedi feminism. One of the central tenets of Charedi life is separatism. That separatism plays out not just as a physical separation of Charedi communities from the outside world, but also through internal cultural mechanisms of separation between religious values and other values. Torah study, the joy of the Charedi lifestyle, the value of learning without concern for material gain — these and other Charedi values are considered pure and separate from the outside world, with no attempt to integrate them. While that sounds draconian, the advantage of this system is that it leaves vast areas that can be considered simply “secular” or “mundane” — like getting a secular education or going out to work. These areas can be separated from Charedi values, without the baggage of needing to integrate them into one synthesized worldview.

So this mechanism of separation is actually what has opened the window for these groundbreaking recent developments. If you make a total separation between the value of Torah study and its communities of dedicated scholars on the one hand, and the harsh reality of poverty and the economic necessity of earning a living on the other, then it becomes acceptable to encourage Charedi women to go out to work. We just compartmentalize: When we need to, we close off our “holy” compartment, and open up the one marked “secular,” where there’s room for earning a living and even enjoying it. This philosophical understanding has created a new generation of middle-class Charedim whose members use it to take part in Israeli society without feeling that they are compromising their values.

These so called “New Charedim” thus effectively live in two worlds simultaneously. One is value-laden and spiritual, full of beauty and daily wonders but also cloistered and isolationist; the other is pragmatic, anchored in Western values, and collaborates with the rest of Israeli society.

Things aren’t perfect. In the areas where people fear that the secular can blur with the holy, there are still barriers. A Charedi woman can talk about earning a living, but not about a career; a Charedi man can go to college to learn a profession, but to study Torah through the prism of academic scholarship is still utter heresy.

What about the New Charedim’s attitude to Zionism? Charedi society has in recent years developed an Israeli and even a Zionist identity. Charedi Zionism isn’t the same as classical religious Zionism, and doesn’t talk in terms of the holiness of Israel or messianic redemption. Charedim are voting in greater numbers in the elections, and though Charedi members of the Knesset play increasingly active roles in government, they still mostly avoid taking on full ministerial appointments. You see Charedi families having barbecues on Yom HaAtzmaut, but you won’t find Charedi synagogues where they sing Hallel thanking God for the State of Israel. The Zionism that the Charedi community has adopted is, ironically, a secular Zionism of symbols and cultural identity.

And the same goes for Charedi feminism. It’s a secular feminism. It’s focused on secular areas such as representation and equal opportunities. The hot potato issues of mainstream religious feminism, like the equality of women in prayer, aren’t even on the radar screen of Charedi feminism.

I pay a price for my split existence. It’s not easy — sometimes even impossible — when the gaps between the isolationist Charedi worldview and modern society get bigger and bigger. But there are more and more people like me in the Charedi world. You won’t believe what kind of magic has been brewing there recently. You won’t believe how honestly we want to be an inseparable part of this people. There are more and more seeds of hope.

My colleagues and I are paving a critical path for Israeli society. The Charedi communities aren’t going away. If Israel is to survive, then we all need to find a way to enable us to participate in Israeli society.

Racheli Ibenboim is a leading Charedi feminist activist and heads Shaharit’s Charedi programs. She is the founder and director of Movilot, a program that places Charedi women in high-quality jobs through internships.


This is the first in a series of essays by writers connected to Shaharit (shaharit.org.il), an Israeli nonprofit that brings together activists to re-imagine local and national politics. Shaharit’s leaders come from across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum of Israeli society, and work together to create policy and strategy built on open hearts, forward thinking and shared vision.