Recent weeks have been punctuated by wildly misogynistic remarks from prominent rabbis and politicians in Israel, largely though not entirely focused on innovations in army policy which allow for women to assume roles in the air force and tank corps previously closed to them. To serve in these roles, of course, all candidates must pass eligibility and performance tests. There have been all-women as well as co-ed combat units for years; their performance is assessed and attested by an army which, well, has a pretty good record for military competence.
Yet, after the Israel Air Force chief’s recent decision to appoint the first-ever female squadron commander, MK Bezalel Smotrich from the Bayit Yehudi party pronounced – with God his authority – that “there are positions suitable for men... and positions suitable for women... that is how God created the world and that is what is good for the world.” Women’s full integration into the IDF would result in their “becoming” men, he said. The IDF’s policy was motivated not by military considerations (why arbitrarily limit the pool of potential recruits for difficult jobs?), but by “all kinds of enlightened and liberal values” – horrors to Smotrich, who has advocated segregated maternity wards to separate Jewish and Muslim women.
A few weeks ago, we learned that Rabbi Yigal Levinstein of the prestigious Eli pre-military academy (mechina) told hundreds of its graduates that women were incapable of retaining their religious convictions during army service, which made them “crazy.” Women who served in the all-women combat unit Caracal were all “ugly,” he said. Putting on camouflage paint would be strange practice for applying makeup on their wedding day, but not to worry, no one would marry them, he said. “We,” he said, must not allow such service.
Now another rabbi of the Eli academy, Yosef Kelner, has pronounced even more sweepingly that women are “weak minded” and capable of only “limited” spirituality; women with careers are “gorillas.” University educations are wasted on women, who are naturally less intelligent than men. When he has taught in women’s seminaries, Kelner says that he insisted – insisted – that his students crochet yarmulkes during class because women are skilled at crafts and “sometimes art,” but not in spiritual and intellectual endeavors. “I said, whoever doesn’t crochet can’t attend my lesson. Otherwise, she is just wasting time.” All this did not prevent him from taking a salary there. Or the school from allowing the teaching of racism against women.
Outrage and refutations have followed these and related pronouncements from others. But to focus on the comments, much less to dignify them with substantive responses – what does one say to such allegations about half the human race, or is it just half the Jewish people – is to miss the point.
The point is not the content of whichever primitive pronouncement these men issue but the fact that they feel entitled to pronounce about women. Flattering pronouncements about “women,” also as some essentialized entity, objects of superior male “knowledge,” might be less worrisome on the level of social policy (though not necessarily; flattery and condescension are tools of suppression). But fundamentally, such comments would be no less problematic. The fundamental problem is the male presumption to pronounce about women.
These rabbis and politicians arrogate this presumption to themselves by virtue of being male. It is this assumed privilege which is the real problem. To engage specific pronouncements, even in denunciation, is to cede the prerogative and support its perpetuation. Favorable male pronouncements are not the solution.
To begin to grasp the enormity of the problem of male presumption, imagine it being flipped: imagine politically, religiously powerful women engaging in “learned” debates about men’s “essence”; about which invariably inferior and subordinate roles God ordained for men; about men’s limited intellects and deficient spiritual faculties. In lighter moments, some do indeed indulge such imaginings, for instance Purim projects to write the missing Mishnaic tractate “anashim” – “Men.”
There is a word for male presumption to pronounce about women: patriarchy.
This is hardly new. Yet there is a particular context to the recent stream of hysterical male pronouncements about women.
Religious patriarchy fears loss of control over women. The Chief Rabbinate has opposed women’s army service categorically; of course, the above-named rabbis and their allies do. Yet women from national religious backgrounds increasingly ignore such instruction. They go to information evenings run by the army, geared to women’s recruitment. Some of their schools even host such evenings, defying the rabbinic authorities who are their nominal heads. When asked about the rulings of rabbis forbidding service, prospective religious soldiers, those serving, and those who have finished service, say that the rabbis don’t know what they are talking about and are absurd.
Orthodoxy is built on the acceptance of, indeed, reverence for, rabbinic authority. Women’s awareness that their rabbis are men and that their views are androcentric and assume patriarchal privilege is revolutionary stuff. “We” must not allow women’s integration into all areas of military service, says Levinstein. “We,” not you, will decide, increasing numbers of women in the religious world are saying. We are subjects, not objects of your presumptions and pronouncements.
Haredi women who are founders of an all-women's party, established because haredi parties allow no women candidates-- a stance decreed by haredi rabbinic leaders, which these women reject-- recently sued to force haredi papers to run their ads. Haredi papers censor images of women from news reports and even ads. The women's suit argued that banning their campaign ads violates Israeli law against discrimination. A Magistrate's Court recently rejected that petition but we can expect an appeal.
This struggle will not simply be linear. But clearly, we are in a new phase. Pathetic pronouncements by threatened men are a sure sign of that.
Which makes it the more important to focus on the real issue and not chase diversions, however incendiary.
The author is professor emerita of Jewish studies and history at Oberlin College.