The tension between religious and secular Israelis has been the subject of intense discussion in the international news media for the past few weeks. An incident in Beit Shemesh wherein a Chareidi man assaulted a female child from a Modern Orthodox family for what he perceived as immodest attire has in turn led to the harassment of Chareidim by secular Israelis, and intensified the friction among the various segments of Israel’s population, both socially and politically.
The Puah Institute, an organization founded in 1990 to help couples experiencing fertility problems, has become embroiled in this latest religious clash. In their annual conference being held this week on “Innovations in Gynecology and Halacha,” Puah has declared their intention to segregate their audience using a cloth divider or mechitzah and allow only men to lecture from the dais. Prominent rabbis and physicians will have the ability to speak on a variety of medical issues and their Halachic implications; women can only listen and ask questions. The religious basis for this programming format has ignited an intense debate concerning the moral and pragmatic aspects of the conference’s structure.
Those opposed to the Puah conference have voiced several reasons for their position. The most popular argument offered against the conference revolves around from what some observers perceive as a misogynistic aspect of the organization, and points to the “exclusion” of female physicians and their right to freely express their views. According to this opinion, gender equality is a time-honored value that should never be compromised.
Kolech, an orthodox feminist group affiliated with the New Israel Fund, expressed this sentiment in a letter to conference-participating physicians. “Women of knowledge, understanding and authority in the relevant areas are excluded,” the group wrote. “We expect you to exclude yourself as well and let Puah know that your conscience does not allow you to participate.”
A statement released by the Ethics Bureau of the Israel Medical Association also made explicit mention of this moral imperative. “A doctor will not take part in phenomena of women’s exclusion in the medical system…The doctor, including the medical manager… will lead social processes that contribute to equality between the sexes… The doctor will not participate in any medical or scientific event in which women’s exclusion takes place, whether the women are patients or doctors.”
Opponents of the conference have also mocked what they see as its impracticality. Problems of infertility primarily plague women, and yet women are prevented from effectively expressing themselves. “If you excluded women from a gynecology conference – from now on, your clients will also only be men!” exclaimed one slogan propounded by “Be Free Israel,” a non-governmental organization tied to the NIF.
“Out of 25 doctors and rabbis set to speak about gynecology and issues which are essentially female issues, there won’t be even one female expert talking about the issue,” explained Kadima MK Rachel Adatto. “I expect all doctors to avoid participating in this conference…”
A third argument being employed to undermine the conference involves what critics say is the religious incongruity inherent to the conference itself. There is nothing problematic about men hearing detailed assessments of fertility issues, some say, but there is with them hearing the voice of women elaborate on such topics. “There is of course a sick irony to [such religiously based] thinking,” opines Elana Sztokman in an editorial for the Jewish Daily Forward.
“Somehow it is okay to talk about women’s intimate parts in a company of all men, but it is not okay to hear a woman, even an expert woman, educate by describing her research, knowledge and experience.”
The Puah Institute has offered answers to these objections. To the claim that the rights of women are being undermined, the organization has explained the reasoning behind the setup of the conference.
According to Rabbi Gidon Weizman of Puah, the ultra-Orthodox structure of the conference is enforced in order to be inclusive of Chareidi medical professionals. Without the implementation of such boundaries, the ultra-religious will not attend the conference and be deprived of a wealth of Halachic and medical insights. Weizman explains Puah’s goal to spread its ideas to all Jews, and how the conference reflects this commitment. “Thanks to the Puah conferences throughout the years, new Halachic rulings have been instituted to benefit women’s health in the religious sector. In light of these aims, it is of major importance that all rabbis and professionals be able to attend the conference. Those who are sensitive to the needs of the religious sector are aware that many will not attend other medical conferences because of the differing modesty standards, which they consider a serious Halachic problem.”
Rachel Sylvetsky, the managing editor of the Arutz Sheva English site, further explained that opponents “missed the mark” in their criticism of Puah. “[Properly helping people] means meeting the people you are going to help on their own terms, because your overriding mission is to bring them top medical care and that is the only way you can reach them. Your mission is not to reeducate them, you are not the “Great White Father” and they are not the “White Man’s Burden”, and even though their stringency may infuriate and repulse you, it is not your mission to change it.” According to Sylvetsky, feminist complaints are meaningless in such a context, where the aim is not political, but practical: helping improve the quality of healthcare for women in Israel, including the Chareidi community.
In response to the assertion that it is impractical for men to lead and women be left out of fertility discussions, Puah has responded that the annual conference is the only day in which women are not given the opportunity to lecture. “364 days a year, we serve the entire public, and women appear before women,” noted Rabbi Menachem Burstein, Puah’s founder. “[The structure of the annual conference], however, is the way to reach the Chareidi populace, and the conference’s numerous successes in its 12 year history attest to that.”
While the religious justification for the conference has been questioned, Puah asserts that its decision has been sanctioned by several revered Israeli rabbis. According to Weizman, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu ruled from the beginning that the organization “should allow attendance to men and women with separate seating and to invite [only male] lecturers” and that “this directive was reinforced by all the major rabbis from the Chareidi and national-religious sector.” Though such a policy may seem outlandish to some, Puah claims that its approach is actually well-founded.
While both sides employ such moral and practical bases for their contentions, Puah advocates also note the current religious climate and how it has adversely impacted them. “We are sorry that instead of appreciating the great advances we have merited to see in women’s health in general, and in particular within the religious sector, as a result of our conferences, there are cynical, aggressive elements who try to block us by using the prevailing public ambience. These elements are riding on the back of the Puah Institute in order to advance their personal agenda,” the Institute charged.
The response to the current controversy surrounding the Puah conference has generally leaned in the secular direction. “This year, for the first time, people are taking an interest, and maybe something will happen,” said Hanna Kehat of Kolech. Rabbi Burstein testified to the threatening letters that participating lecturers have received from physicians and others, who have vowed to dissociate themselves from those who speak at the conference. “[These are] threat[s] that constitute a criminal offense,” he said. “We checked [into it]. A consumer boycott is a common thing but threats and boycotts among doctors are a completely criminal matter.” A partnership of more than 40 organizations advocating feminism and pluralism—including Wizo, Na’amat, and the Israel Women’s Lobby—petitioned the Israeli Health Ministry for the inclusion of female lecturers in the conference, but the Ministry chose not to respond. It discontinued its financial support of Puah this year.
Whatever the outcome of the conference, it is clear that this latest controversy has galvanized considerable debate concerning the ultra-religious presence in Israel.
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