"Women are forbidden from holding public office in Israel and ideally should not even vote in the general elections.”
When Rabbi Shlomo Aviner recently made the above proclamation, it created consternation in religious circles, because he is not from the Charedi anti-Zionist world, but part of the mainstream, national religious community, where he holds respected positions as Chief Rabbi of the city of Beth El and head of a Jerusalem yeshivah.
His words were immediately condemned by former Chief Rabbi of Norway and Deputy Foreign Minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, who pointed out that far from needing to exclude women, Israel actually suffers from a shortage of talented women in the Knesset and more should be encouraged to join. Others highlighted the distasteful nature of Rabbi Aviner’s comments. A leading scholar, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, warned, “Rabbi Aviner is simply convincing the public that a woman is a threat and that any woman taking the stage is a sexual object”.
The debate is actually a rerun of one that took place in Mandate Palestine, at a time when many democracies were debating women’s suffrage. In September 1919, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was then the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, argued that allowing women to vote would lead to domestic strife and a lack of modesty. He also claimed that while Zionist leaders were campaigning for the establishment of a Jewish state, giving women the vote might alienate support from other countries, who would see this as foreign to their perception of the People of the Book.
Rabbi Kook said that “our enemies. . . make much use nowadays of the libel that the young settlement in Israel has lost its link to the Holy Book and therefore has no right to the biblical land.” The western world would not stomach a true Jewish democracy.
Though he was a brilliant scholar, his views were not infallible and he was challenged by Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Rabbi Uziel argued that it was unconscionable to demand that women accept the rule of an elected leadership, if they were excluded from the ballot. The idea that women’s suffrage would cause domestic strife made no sense since many homes contained several adults with a wide range of opinions held by men and women with various levels of maturity and intelligence. There was no reason to single out Jewish women for gagging.
He also ruled that there was no prohibition of a women standing for office, since elections were a democratic process which did not thrust any leader on people or give anyone unbridled power. On the contrary, the person elected was the servant of the electorate.
Most fascinating is Rabbi Uziel’s rejection of the argument that women’s suffrage would lead to immodest mixing. “If we start considering such activities as licentious, no creature would be able to survive,” he wrote. “Women and men would be prohibited from walking in the street or entering a shop together; it would be forbidden to negotiate in commerce with a woman lest this encourage closeness and lead to licentiousness. Such ideas have never been suggested by anyone” (Mishpatei Uziel 44).
Ironically, it was a strictly Orthodox, ideologically right-wing, female member of the Knesset who forced Rabbi Aviner to backtrack. Tzipi Hotovely who heads the Knesset committee on the status of women wrote to the rabbi asking him to clarify his position and its implications for her own political career. He replied, “For sure, the Torah ideal is that women should not be involved in politics, but clearly, if there will be women in the Knesset anyway, then certainly one should vote for those women that will bring the most blessing to the nation”.
This is not Rabbi Aviner’s first outburst on women. After the Itamar massacre in March 2011, he ruled that out of modesty, media showing photographs of the victims should blur the face of 35-year-old, mother of six, Ruth Fogel. This summer, he called for religious schools to create separate staffrooms for men and women.
Jewish legal rulings are largely the province of experts, but where they disagree, the final outcome of intractable halachic debates may sometimes be determined by the practice of the religiously observant community.
In the Talmud, it is not uncommon for a rabbi to establish his ruling by saying, “Go out and see what is done in the markets”, for we are a holy people with an intuitive sense of what is the appropriate Jewish tradition.
In this case, common sense has prevailed. The religious schools that I have seen function as before, photographs of women continue to be published and a combination of religious ideology, self-esteem and self-interest leads most religious woman to the ballot boxes, while a number stand for office. The dignity, rights and responsibilities of over half of the Jewish people is assured.