I Wish People Would Be More Fanatic about Moderation

A former Professor of English Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Alice Shalvi was born in Germany, educated in England and has lived in Israel since 1948. For fifteen years she was principal of Pelech, a unique progressive high school for Jewish girls in Jerusalem. A life-long feminist and peace activist, she was the founding Head of the Israel Women's Network, a wall-to-wall coalition and lobbying group dedicated to advancing the status of women in Israel. She has been honored with the President's Award for an outstanding contribution to the quality of life in Israel, the annual Emil Grunzweig Prize of the Association for Civil Rights, and the Rothstein Education for Peace Prize of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East. She has written widely on drama, education and women's related topics. Alice lives with her husband Moshe in Jerusalem and the Shalvis have six children and 14 grandchildren.

Dan Leon: As the Chairperson of the Israel Women's Network, as an educator and as an orthodox Jewess, how do you see the general role of women in Judaism? Many observers receive the impression that women did not and do not enjoy equality in orthodox Judaism. Is this so? And if so, how can the situation be changed?

Alice Shalvi: It is certainly so. Orthodox Judaism draws a clear distinction between male and female characteristics, functions, duties and rights: women are perceived primarily, almost exclusively, as active in the framework of family and home. The sphere of activity of men is in work and the public place - the synagogue, the Beit Midrash (House of Learning) and civic life in general. Women are virtually excluded from public places and public office.
Though I think that on the whole women are respected for fulfilling what are perceived as their "God¬-given" functions of home-maker, spouse and mother - there seems no doubt that the exclusion from public activity has adversely affected the position and status of women in comparison with men. A hierarchy has been created in which the male is clearly superior. Even today there are areas of traditional Jewish study in the Yeshiva (Talmudical seminary) which are not considered suitable for women. (By the way, I am happy to say that nowadays more and more orthodox women are demanding the right to study Talmud and are
actually studying it).
Nevertheless, the admission of women into the orthodox rabbinate remains inconceivable, and this is of course the only officially accepted rabbinical authority in Israel. However learned a Jewish woman may be, she cannot be ordained as a rabbi, nor can women sit as dayanim (judges) in religious courts, which are the sole authority in Israel for jurisdiction on issues of personal status - marriage, divorce, some cases of legitimacy, etc.
Accordingly, these distinctions have clearly led to a discrimination against women which amounts to a kind of religious disenfranchisement.

How do you personally feel as an orthodox woman in Judaism?

Very much discriminated against, especially in the synagogue, where I feel like a second-class citizen. My own main response to the present situation is expressed in my criticism of the current Israeli rabbinical establishment, which has totally failed to continue the millennia-old Jewish tradition of reinterpreting the Halacha (oral law) in light of changing norms. Thus they have become fossilized.
I consider it important to stress that it is the rabbinical interpretation of Judaism on which I place the blame, not Judaism itself. For me this is a vital distinction. I can and do feel comfortable with my Judaism and with my adherence to its basic principles even though the present situation as described above distresses me.

The Conservative and Reform movements have introducted many changes in the campaign for the equality of the woman in Judaism. What is your opinion of these developments?

I am wholly in favor a pluralistic religious scene in Israel and opposed to the delegitimization of the Conservative and Reform trends - particularly of the Conservatives, who are close to Halacha and continue the tradition of interpreting it. In this they have a lot to offer Israeli society. I consider it a great injustice that the Conservative (Mesorati) movement in Israel does not enjoy the same status as it has in Jewish communities outside Israel, where there is no all-powerful religious establishment like that in Israel.
The Reform and Conservative movements have proved that women have equal ability to learn and to fulfill the role of rabbi, particularly in the area of pastoral care, which includes caring for the individual needs of the congregants, comforting, guiding and teaching, rather than the task of making Halachic rulings. Women have excelled in offering spiritual assistance and in Jewish life this sort of work goes hand in hand with their age-old roles of teaching and caring for others.

There is much material in this issue of the Journal on what is popularly known as "mixing religion with politics", among Muslims, Christians and Jews. How do you see this as regards the Jews?

I don't know how others react but I feel a bit uncomfortable with this question. After all, a significant number of the opponents of the peace process are orthodox Jews who have a Halachic-Messianic vision of a Greater Israel. This is of course inimical to peace when Halachic arguments are used to justify outright opposition to the peace process.
Rabbi Shlomo Goren, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, has just issued an edict that decisions on Eretz Yisrael by a Knesset founded on a majority based on non-Jewish (Arab) Knesset members is Halachically illegitimate. What is the basis for this ruling? Such a concept is indefensible in a democracy: our mode of government is democratic and not theocratic and I would hope that a Jewish state - or a state with a Jewish majority - would be guided and based on the great moral concepts of Judaism such as respect for all our fellow human beings. It is on this ethic that Halacha (i.e. rulings on right action and behavior) should be based.
In any case, over the centuries Halacha has constantly been reinterpreted, in different times and in different places, by the various rabbinical authorities who related to social change. Furthermore, these authorities don't necessarily agree with each other even at anyone specific point in time. I find Rabbi Goren's view to be incredibly impertinent - an absolute Chutspah and an insult to democratic government.

The Gush Emunim settlement movement has pioneered what you call the Messianic Greater Israel concept. How do you feel about them?

Many of them seem to be people with closed minds and with a totally rigid pattern of thinking. To conduct peace negotiations, to deal with one's fellow-humans, be they within Israel or in neighboring countries, demands three characteristics which most of the Gush Emunim members lack: great tolerance, great openness, great flexibility. They ardently refuse to move from their dogmatic positions because they see everything in static terms, which is typical of fanaticism. I wish people could be equally fanatic about moderation - that this were not an impossible contradiction in terms.
Gush Emunim originally had admirable pioneering qualities but when these were used for the wrong purposes, the movement became an obstacle to peace and justice. I see our main objective to be the striving for a just settlement with our neighbors. My criticism of Gush Emunim is that they are basically opposed to this. One has to be ready to give and take; what upsets me about Gush Emunim and so many of the Israeli hawks, is their failure to see the mutuality of the situation and to recognize the justice of the Palestinian cause. The concept that things are not black and white in the conflict is commonplace, and yet there are still those who refuse to accept it.
I for my part find neither empathy nor humanity in Israeli statements denying that there will be a Palestinian state. On this particular issue I even find it hard to understand Yitzhak Rabin's position.
Two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians have legitimate claims to the same piece of land, and they must learn to live together side by side. I have a feeling that some of Gush Emunim people would like to get rid of the Palestinians, to empty the region of them. I ask what is more important ¬that Jews have the right to live in Hebron because of our historical-religious associations with the place, or the acceptance of the fact that Hebron and places like it will at a certain stage in the peace process be outside Israeli sovereignty? It is as if the Christians were to insist that they and only they have to rule over their holy places - a demand that Israel would not accept.

Do you see an element of racism here?

Returning for a moment to the Rabbi Goren affair, why are Israel's Arab citizens less "legitimate" than non-Zionist Jewish citizens, like many of the ultra-orthodox? His attitude is basically racist, because it is founded on a sense of superiority which implies a demeaning view of non-Jewish citizens just by virtue of their being non-Jewish.

Is this justified in Jewish sources?

It is not. The Torah (Jewish law) perceived the Ger (stranger) living with us as deserving of respect and consideration. This is one of the remarkable aspects of Judaism, particularly since when the Jews themselves were strangers in alien lands they rarely received such treatment.

Daniella Weiss was one of the most extreme Gush Emunim spokespeople and Miriam Lapid said on TV soon after the funeral of her husband and son, who were killed in a terrorist attack, that there can be no peace as long as there are Arabs in Eretz Yisrael. Do you see any significance in the fact that such uncompromising views are expressed by religious women?

Not really, I think that women are as varied as men in their political opinions. However, it does appear to me significant that there seem to be more women than men active in the Israeli peace movement. The Intifada led on the Israeli side to a mushrooming of women's dialogue groups like the Women's Peace Net in which Israelis, Jews and Arabs, meet with their Palestinian counterparts. Yes, Miriam Levinger was a pioneer in the Beit Hadassah (Hebron) settlement and was ready to live in appalling conditions for the cause - a cause which, to my mind, lacks legitimacy. But I think she went there as a settler rather than as a woman and I take consolation in there being so many women on the side of peace.

In spite of movements like Oz Ve'shalom and Meimad, the Israeli peace movement is largely secular. Why is this so?

Because of the religious basis to "the Jewish claim to Eretz Yisrael" as this is interpreted by the Greater Israel people. A religious peace movement requires greater depth of thought, a more profound philosophic approach when it poses its arguments on prophetic rather than Halachic Judaism. It is more difficult to explain an attitude stemming from an ethical point of view rather than from a strictly pragmatic or even visceral response. The religious peace movements may be too philosophical to attract the average "person in the street".

Do Diaspora Jews, religious or not, have a right to influence Israeli policy - for example on the peace process?

I believe that the Jews are one people and that Diaspora Jewry has a right to express its opinion on every aspect of life in Israel. On the other hand, I am against their interfering politically in Israeli affairs, lobbying and attempting to impact on voting patterns, not to speak of threats and "economic sanctions". I see the use of force (such as placing a bomb outside the offices of Friends of Peace Now in New York) as particularly reprehensible. It is like the Irish Americans sending weapons to the IRA.
While only Jews who live here have the right to participate actively in Israel's democratic process, Jews in the Diaspora have every right to hold and publish their views on Israeli problems as long as they find reasonable forms of expression. Our Ambassador to the USA, Itamar Rabinovitz, was pelted with eggs by members of a synagogue where he was invited to speak about the peace process. I am disgusted by such lack of decorum and even elementary courtesy.
Something similar happened to me in California in a debate before a Jewish audience to which I was officially invited. When I spoke of religious pluralism I was cheered, but I was booed and told "to go back to Israel" when I spoke of the need for Jewish-Arab rapprochement. Those who were "liberal" on the first topic turned out to be most illiberal on the other.
I am always surprised anew by the way people can compartmentalize their views and fail to see the internal inconsistency implicit in being open and tolerant when one category of human and civil rights is concerned, but intolerant and discriminatory vis-a-vis another category.