For Heredi Women, Living within Invisible Walls

March 24, 2015
WSRP Research Associate Yakir Englander
WSRP Research Associate Yakir Englander

While he was living in Jerusalem, Yakir Englander, research associate at the HDS Women's Studies in Religion Program, said there was an invisible wall between genders, and another wall that divided race and nation.

It's those walls that serve as the basis for Englander's talk on March 26 on the HDS campus, titled, "Dignity vs. Honor: Gender in Post-Holocaust Ultra-Orthodox Theology."

HDS reached out to Englander, who is also Visiting Lecturer on Women's Studies and Judaism, for insight into his research and the changes taking place in Israel.

HDS: The original title of your talk was "Within and Without the Walls." Where did that come from?

Englander: The previous title reflects the experience of my life as a person living in the city of Jerusalem for 15 years. During those years I lived as an ultra-Orthodox (now Haredi) yeshiva student with an invisible wall between genders. I also lived with an invisible wall dividing race and nation, since my yeshiva was built inside a Palestinian village, half of which was occupied by the State of Israel in 1948, and the other half in 1967.

In Jerusalem walls of holiness exist, too—the Western Wall, the cultural relic of the Jewish temple. But the holiness of the Western Wall also involves violence, since many American Jewish women can’t practice their way of feeling holiness by praying in their special way. More than that, I have never seen a Palestinian who even asked to approach and touch this kind of holiness.

I served in the Israel Defense Forces in a special unit responsible for identifying bodies of victims on both sides. I witnessed the construction of the Israeli West Bank Wall, a wall separating Palestinian families, a wall that also determines what is "ours" and what is "theirs," a wall that was experienced by Israelis as life-saving.

But new walls are being created these days in Jerusalem, such as the separation of the public transportation in the Haredi communities. There are walls between people but also between voices, namely, what kind of voices can be heard and who can speak out and who cannot.

It was a gift that I was born in the Haredi community, as an Israeli. But I also decided to move between the different walls and to live in the non-Haredi society of Israel, and to live with Palestinians as a peace leader, with Muslims and Christians. I am moving inside and outside, changing my clothes, language, and feelings at the different checkpoints, "a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth" (Genesis 4:12) with no home for myself.

HDS: What is the status of ultra-Orthodox women in the Jewish public sphere in the last three decades?

Englander: Naturally, as every society is changing, the experience of Haredi women in the public sphere is changing, too. There are places now that in the past were acceptably inaccessible to Haredi women, but now the exclusion bothers them.

There is a paradox: on one hand, Haredi women are excluded in the Haredi public sphere. On the other hand, we must remember that Haredi women are the main bread winners of the community since the leaders decided that almost all men need to dedicate their lives to the study of the Talmud.

As a result, women have access to many other public spheres that men cannot touch and access. As an example, Haredi women are working in the secular neighborhoods in Jerusalem and meet with the general Israeli society much more than men. Unlike men, Haredi women receive an academic education. Also, the fact that they are the breadwinners allows them access to cyberspace and media.

At the same time, one cannot ignore the fact that in recent decades community rules about women's dress have become stricter. It is incongruous for the community to demand that women be women of the world, but at the same time expect them be submissive to their husbands, as people who cannot touch and learn the most important Jewish text—the Talmud.

HDS: You aim to examine the definitions "public sphere" and "private sphere." What are the differences regarding exclusion in those two spheres?

Englander: Some feminist scholars already claimed that there is not a real differentiation between the public and the private spheres. For example, in recent years, as the Haredi community started to give access to therapists and social workers to help the community, we have learned that the division of the public sphere deeply influences the psychological identity of women.

We are learning about the ways women get hurt in the private sphere, too, and the information I get from these few female therapists is that they are only touching the tip of the iceberg. This is true also of the other walls we have in Jerusalem. These walls create deep emotional and psychological separation between people that we feel part of "us" and people who are the "other"—or those who we are not responsible for.

From the other side, the Haredi community understands, rightly so, that if they don't keep the gender separation, they will lose the unique beauty, sanctity, and sensitivity that exists only in the Haredi community and not in any other societies in Israel or abroad.

The fact that the Haredi community separates the genders does not mean, in most cases, that this separation includes discrimination against women. At the same time, it gives men and women the gift to develop intimacy between men and men, women and women, which I have never seen in Western society.

The ability to share deep feelings, to touch each other in an asexual but very intimate way, to cry and sing, to demand from themselves emotional development, and to ethically push themselves to the highest level of personhood—all those tools also exist  because of the separation between genders. This is why Haredi women, who are very aware of the prices that they pay, still prefer to keep the walls and to support them.

HDS: Following a Justice Ministry report within the last two years, Israel's attorney general recommended that government ministries end certain practices, including gender segregation during funerals, national ceremonies, public events, and in public health clinics, on buses, and during broadcasts of public radio stations. Does this provide reason for optimism?

Englander: There is a big gap between the ways these important discussions are done in the State of Israel and the ways they are presented in the American (Jewish) media.

One example, which is connected not only to the Haredi community but to the relationship between religion, the State of Israel, and the American Jewish community, is the demand of many American Jews to let women pray at the Western Wall according to their understanding of what Jewish prayer is and where women can pray as they wish to connect to God.

American Jewish women see the Western Wall as a global Jewish sphere. Therefore, they demand to pray there according to the ways they experience their Jewish identity. By contrast, Israeli Jews experience the Western Wall as an Israeli Jewish sphere, and they see American Jews only as guests.

In the Israeli Jewish population, even those who are opposed to Judaism as a religion and identify themselves as totally secular Jews think about the religious aspect of Judaism only within Orthodox definitions. Consequently, even Israeli-feminist secular women don't join the struggle of American Jewish women to pray according to the American interpretation of Judaism. It is no wonder that while this issue is reflected broadly in American Jewish media, it is hardly known to the average Israeli.

The State of Israel doesn't want to intervene in the separation between genders unless it affects the general Israeli Jewish society, which is against this separation. As long as the separation happens only inside the Haredi community, the government almost never intervenes. This is why the state lets Haredi schools for men refrain from teaching any general subjects, like mathematics, languages, and literature.

One fascinating point is how the Haredi community influences the general Jewish Israeli society. For example, in the last year, also as a result to the gender separation in Haredi buses, a Facebook group was created by general Israeli women, where thousands of women have been describing how they were sexual assaulted in the general public transportation by men who sat next to them. The actions of the Haredi community gave the opportunity to these secular women to understand that there are other options—and that the fact that men can sit next to them can be changed—in case society and the government will not support their security.

As a scholar, this critique is very important since it teaches me that although Western society doesn't separate between genders, it doesn't mean that our Western culture provides security and freedom to women.

This also applies to the dating scene on campuses, etc. As a man who experienced the way of dating in the Haredi community (before I left) and saw how hard it is, I can unfortunately say clearly that the situation in Western society, in Israel, and in the U.S. is much worse. These facts appear again and again in the Haredi media, which claim that when the general Israeli society critiques the Haredi society, it fails to suggest any interesting and better alternative. 

HDS: How will the results of the latest election impact any progress that's been made?

Englander: In recent years we have witnessed very important changes in the life of religious Jewish women in the Haredi, but also in the Zionist Modern-Orthodox community.

In the Zionist-Orthodox community, there is a shift in the discourse about Jewish law from books to the virtual sphere. As a result, for the first time in Jewish history, women have access to rabbis and also ways to influence them and to disagree with them. Since the rabbis write their Jewish law on websites, women can write comments and to explain their opinions.

I dedicated my first book, Sexuality and the Body in the New Religious-Zionist Discourse, to this phenomenon. (The book, co-authored by Bar Ilan University Professor Avi Sagi, was published in Hebrew in 2013, and the English version will be published in fall 2015).

Another major change happened to the Israeli government in recent months in preparation for the election. For the first time, a group of Haredi women demanded to have female representatives in the Haredi parties: Agudat-Israel and Shas. When the leaders of the community didn't agree to their demands, the women came with a campaign under the slogan: "Not elected, do not elect."

According to their claim, since women are the main bread winners, they must be part of the government decisions about their lives and economy. These courageous women received a lot of critique from men inside the Haredi community and didn't succeed to convince the rabbis. However, it will be fascinating to see how this phenomenon, and many others, will change the face of Haredi society in the future.

–by Michael Naughton