This year, I knew a month in advance what I would be doing to mark November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I am affiliated with a variety of feminist organizations, plus I am a graduate of Barnard College and a university faculty member in gender studies, but this year I was made aware of the upcoming date not thanks to my participation in any of these communities. Instead, I was alerted thanks to an announcement by Rabbi Benny Lau, the renowned Israeli scholar, teacher and rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem.
To me, the simple fact of this announcement is extraordinary. First of all, the well-known, highly influential rabbi of a longstanding Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem has made it his business to know of such a date. In other words, he has put himself in communication with the world of feminist activism and global reform efforts organized by the UN. This is not simple for Orthodox rabbinic authorities who often fear affiliation with secular movements will call their authority into question. Second, it is not simple for Israelis who often come under the condemnation of such organizations. Yet HaRav Benny, as he is known to his students and congregants, has chosen to publicize such a date to his community, thus bringing it under the rubric of the norms and demands of a life structured by the teachings of Torah and halakhah, Jewish law.
Working for the elimination of violence against women has always been a task inherently linked to Jewish values (even those who argue that such violence does not exist among Jews are articulating Jewish opposition to such behavior), but that doesn’t mean it has been “kosher.” It takes the stamp of figures such as Benny Lau to bring outside terminology in, to make the global Jewish, to both allow and encourage observant Jews to see women’s issues as our own issues. Most American feminists probably remember the moment in 1995 when Hillary Clinton, in her now iconic speech at Beijing, popularized a fundamental paradigm change by saying that women’s rights were human rights. Lau’s point, no less revolutionary, is that women’s issues are Jewish issues.
The announcement of November 25 came during a weekly study session at the Ramban Synagogue, now home to the Beit Midrash for Social Justice. When I arrived in Israel in late August, I scanned the many announcements of study halls, lectures, “shiurim” (classes in Torah study) and public learning that go up on highly visible walls and billboards here. This has always been to me one of the marvels of Jerusalem: the assumption and the realization of a popular culture of Jewish study that invites random passersby to come hear scholars teach on subjects ranging from the relationship between democracy and Jewish law, to the role of the arts and the cinema in Jewish life, to the laws of Sukkot, the history of Hasidism, and renewal in Jewish prayer.
I am a Jerusalemite who stops to read the billboards and gets stuck at crosswalks for minutes at a time. In late August, the walls of South Jerusalem advertised a Beit Midrash or House of Study for Social Justice meeting just blocks from my home; the weekly group would spend one night a week over the course of an entire year studying classical and modern Jewish texts addressing the theme of violence. Not a pretty subject to be sure, but a realistic commitment to life in Israel and in a world none of us inhabits alone but must share with others: from our intimates to those we have never met.
The opening session was the night before Yom Kippur, a critical moment in the life of observant Jews. The questions raised by the speakers — a poet, a rabbi, a police officer and a psychologist — regarded mercy, justice and violence. How do we mitigate violence? Is there a necessary place for violence in our culture? Is there a way to regard not only others, but ourselves, without violence? Can we ask God to forgive us in ways so dramatic that mercy reshapes our grasp of all other relations?
From that evening forward, I have attended the Bait Midrash weekly and come to appreciate not only the extraordinary Rabbi Lau, but the hundred or so Jerusalemites, who struggle with ideas of violence and repair, as they have been construed by Jewish texts that have, over the ages, worked at these problems too. Members of the synagogue can attend the year’s sessions for free while others can attend for sums ranging from $120 to $180. Soldiers receive a discount and in fact, in recent weeks, including the week of Nov. 25, four female soldiers have come in uniform for the Torah study session, and I cannot help but think how important such sessions may be as these young women navigate the world of the military.
It is important for Americans to understand that in Israel, Jewish texts offer usable wisdom for populations of both traditionally observant and non-observant modern Jews who seek to link the past with the future. But that is a topic for another post. For now, let me say that the last two weeks of study sessions have been devoted to issues of violence against women: abuse, rape, the relation between women and their husbands, and the relation of the Israeli rabbinical courts to women facing the realities of abuse and the desire to divorce. This has not been uplifting. As Lau said last week closing a difficult session that overlapped with the most recent Israeli-Palestinian violence in Gaza: “lo hivtachti lachem gan shel shoshanim” (I didn’t promise you a rose garden).
True, rape and abuse and the gap between law and lived reality is no rose garden. There might be more pleasant ways to spend an evening. But social justice is worth the difficulty. And making women’s issues Jewish issues is a step in the right direction.