As a woman, I sometimes feel like I’m in a catch-22. I want to bring attention to issues concerning women, but I also want men to pay attention. When women are doing all the talking, we run the risk of marginalizing ourselves, of turning our ideas into “women’s stuff.” By inviting men to speak about women’s issues, we may gain credibility and breadth, but we contribute to the problem by having men speak on our behalf, muting our voices once again.
I found myself in this frustrating predicament the other day. I was speaking on a panel at a conference organized by Rabbi Marc Angel’s Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah. The conference, titled, “Is Modern Orthodoxy an Endangered Species?” examined mostly theoretical issues facing Modern Orthodoxy today, but included also a discussion of conversion as well as a panel —the one I participated in — on the issue of agunot and mesoravot get, women denied divorce. The panel consisted of Susan Weiss, founder of the Center for Women’s Justice, and me, representing Mavoi Satum, the organization that provides a package of legal and social services to agunot.
While I fully applaud the inclusion of this critical issue in the conference, I confess that I had mixed feelings about the fact that we were effectively two women on stage.
Certainly, this is an issue that affects primarily women, and women are undoubtedly the leaders in the field working for change. According to statistics collected by the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status of Bar-Ilan University, an estimated one out of every seven women going through divorce in Israel is at high risk of becoming a mesorevet get. Then there is the Haifa University research showing that one out of every seven women in Israel is abused. Thus a clear picture emerges: Recalcitrance is the last stage in an abusive relationship, where men who have been hurting their wives seek ultimate control by permanently denying their freedom.
Jewish women are thus at greater risk of becoming an agunah than, say, of getting breast cancer (statistically one in seven versus one in eight). This is not a marginal issue that affects a small, irrelevant segment of the community. This is a huge issue that not only affects those one in seven women but can also affect the other six out of seven who know the story and are often pressured into extortion — that is, paying off their husbands in exchange for the divorce — because they are petrified of the system. I would like to say that all married women in Israel are affected by this, living a life that can, potentially, leave them “chained” and bound to unwanted marriages and unable to live their own free lives.
It is not a marginal issue, but it is still basically a women’s issue. Although some people like to argue that men can become “chained” as well, the two issues are hardly parallel. Men have options: They have a halachic loophole called the “signature of 100 rabbis” through which they can divorce even against their wives’ wills, a loophole unavailable to women; moreover, men who ignore civil and religious law and live with another woman while still married to the first face no consequences whatsoever. Women, by contrast, risk turning any future children into “mamzerim”, communal bastards, forbidden from being part of the Jewish community for 10 generations. So, yes, this is very much a women’s problem.
Given this reality, I’m thrilled to be in the company of women like Susan Weiss who spend their lives fighting for women’s freedom and justice. Yet, at the end of the session, several members of the audience came up to me with the same remark: Too bad there were no men on the panel. As if to say, if men were on the panel, it would have had more effectiveness, more influence, and more power.
Men’s voices on behalf of women — even if they are artificial, patronizing, or overpowering — still give women’s issues a “gushpanka”, a seal of approval. I really hate that. I want society, which means men AND women, to listen to women’s voices and relate. And yet, if the men’s voices will increase the chance of bringing women to freedom, who am I to argue? Shouldn’t I be willing to work within the system — chauvinistic as it is — in order to strengthen the cause? I don’t know. This is the dreaded catch-22 of women’s activism.
Ultimately, I want to send the message that women’s suffering is a problem for the entire community. When there is even one agunah in our midst, this is a problem for anyone who cares about Jewish life. Because as long as Jewish law — our Jewish law — can cause human beings this much pain, we are all responsible.