Sunday, July 05, 2015

Ruth Colian, a Feminist I Can Support

Ubezchutan party head, Ruth Colian
Charedi women are slaves. So says Ruth  Colian, the woman who founded Ubezchutan, a political party in Israel representing  Charedi women. Her party ran in the last election but did not receive enough votes to qualify for any seats in the Kenesset.

The truth is that this party never will. As the article points out: 
Despite the problems facing haredi women, Ubezchutan’s chances of entering the Knesset are slim, given the way the haredi public, including the women, largely adhere to the instructions of the leading rabbis and vote for the established parties. 
But what about Mrs. Colian’s assertions? If one looks at the facts, one would be hard pressed to see the role of women in the Charedi world as anything but slaves. Albeit willing ones (at least on the surface). They are the breadwinners and the child bearers. They take care of the children and the house. They cook and clean and work menial jobs for meager pay. Even those that work at better jobs do it for a lot less pay than their male counterparts.

I suspect that most Charedi women in Israel are resigned to their role in life. They have been taught from day one to do exactly what they are doing – for the noble goal of allowing their husbands to learn Torah. Husbands that spend as much 18 hours a day studying Gemarah and its commentaries. So if asked, I would think the typical response would be that this is their Avodas HaShem. Something for which they are gladly willing to sacrifice.

But I wonder what they actually feel privately – in the deepest recesses of their minds. I find it hard to believe that at some level Charedi women that have taken upon themselves so much responsibility don’t feel put upon… or downright resentful of what they have been consigned to do in life.

That said I’m sure that there are many exceptional Charedi women who are truly happy with their lot. But I’m not so sure the mainstream feels that idealistic after a while.

This is not to say that mainstream Charedi women want to destroy their lifestyles. But I do believe that many Charedi women would like to see some fundamental changes being made in order to lighten their load. I think this is what Mrs. Colian is saying.

But I wonder just how much efficacy her party would have even if they won seats in the Kenesset. The Charedi politicians are not the ones who set policy in their party. Their agenda in the Kenesset  is set by their rabbinic leadership. A leadership that sees their mission dictated by God through His Torah. They call it Daas Torah. They are thus impervious to the voice of dissent, not matter what challenges the dissenter presents.

This is why for example not a single Charedi party will accept women as members. Their leadership says they don’t belong there and that’s the end of it.

But the issues Mrs. Colian raises are real and need to be dealt with. Why do Charedi women have the lowest levels of life expectancy in the country? Why is their rate of breast cancer and mortality 30% higher than the rest of the female population? 
“Haredi women are ranked eighth in Israel for life expectancy, while haredi men are ranked second. This is an unbelievable gap,” (Colian) continued. 
How Charedi is Mrs. Colian and her party really? There are those that will say that by definition, Mrs. Colian has removed herself form the Charedi world by – in effect – challenging the rabbinic leadership by seeking change which they do not approve of. I suppose that’s probably true. Unquestioning fealty to Daas Torah is the defining characteristic of the Charedi world.  And that is exactly what she is challenging: 
“The community is becoming more aware of this cynical use and manipulation of our great rabbis and will come to understand that something really smells bad with this kind of political model...” 
To say the least, you can’t be Charedi and say something like that!

But the fact is that she comes from that world and considers herself part of it. She is Chareida L’Dvar HaShem. And her lifestyle is otherwise consistent with the Charedi lifestyle.

It remains to be seen if she will eventually have any impact in the Charedi world. My guess is that she won’t. If history has taught us anything about that world, it is that Daas Torah reigns supreme.  I see no reason for that to change. That said the problems in the Charedi world keep nibbling away at their foundation.

Poverty exists and that is due to the very things that make these women into slaves: the idea of husbands learning full time with negligible if any financial contributions. I can’t see things surviving as they are. Somewhere there is going to have to a paradigm shift. Is Ruth Colian a female Don Quixote? Whether she is or not, I salute her.  Whether she will be any kind of catalyst for change remains to be seen.