Have you seen the new Wonder Woman movie?
I have been thinking about Wonder Woman this week, because of some recent news commentary. The Israeli Woman who sued El Al airlines for sexism won her landmark case. She had been told to change her seat because an Orthodox man wanted to ensure that he would not inadvertently be touched by a woman. The Israeli court found the gender-based seat-changing coercion practice, violates Israel’s anti-discrimination codes.
The woman, Renee Rabinowitz, was represented by the Israel Religious Action Center, the public advocacy and legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. The head of the Israel Religious Action Center, Anat Hoffman, described the 83-year old plaintiff Renee Rabinowitz as Wonder Woman. Funny, because Anat Hoffman might herself be called a Wonder Woman. From the courtroom to the Women of the Wall, Anat Hoffman has for years advocated for civil rights, women’s rights, state separation from Orthodox authority, and democracy in Israel.
Israel and the United States are of course, vastly different in many ways. Yet we share some things in common and can learn from each other– from one another’s challenges and successes, and from one another’s great thinkers.
Our own nation has so much more to learn in the area of gender equality, particularly in leadership. Israel has had one female Prime Minister. How many women do you think have been elected across the globe, for all time, to the position of president or prime minister? 50! Israel, Bangledesh, Germany, United Kingdom, Phillippines, Pakistan, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Senagal. We’ll get there.
In the Israeli Kenesset today: Out of 120 Members of Kenesset, 33 are women — over 25%. In the US Congress: Out of 535 members of Congress, 104 women — 19%. Israel’s parliament many have a higher percentage of women, but both of our nations and all of us in religious life should be outraged. Israel and the US have similar work to do here.
We both have talented women who have yet to contribute to their potential because of their gender. We both have cynicism that drives society to question women’s strength and ability, sometimes explicitly, such as in the 2009 Likud campaign slogan about their party’s opponent Tzipi Livni, which read; “It’s too big for her.” We might not have seen that precise bumper sticker in our own country, but we have sure heard the message.
We both have challenges, yes… And Israel and the US also both have bold leaders who devote themselves to social change.
Next week Rodeph Shalom will be privileged to host an Israeli activist, political scientist and Former Deputy Speaker of the Kenesset, Naomi Chazan. Naomi Chazan is a name I have known my whole adult life, because of her devotion to so many issues of social justice and democracy in Israel, especially her fierce leadership against gender equality-phobia.
In 1984, Naomi Chazan helped to found The Israel Women’s Network which was formed as a result of a conference held in Jerusalem by Bette Friedan, and has advocated for women’s health, equality in the workplace, the portrayal of women in the media, representation in the government, and sexual harassment.
Later Naomi Chazan served as a Member of Kenesset as deputy speaker. There she continued to advocate for women’s rights and supported the case which paved the way for women to serve in combat roles in the Israeli military.
As one of Israel’s great thinkers, Naomi Chazan has much to teach us outside of Israel. One of her great lessons is in the methodology she brings to each cause in women’s rights advocacy. Professor Chazan teaches that in feminist social change there is a horizontal axis. This line across includes the critical mass of supporters we need in order to mobilize. But women’s movements have relied too much on the horizontal axis. In feminist social change, there also needs to be a vertical axis. The vertical line involves the decision makers — key positions of leadership.
Only with the horizontal and the vertical, teaches Professor Chazan, can we challenge the status quo.
Only with the horizontal and the vertical, can we lift up women and men.
Only with the horizontal and the vertical, can we affect change.
In this week’s Torah portion, Korach questions Moses and Aaron’s authority. (Ultimately things do not go well for Korach, so our commentaries explain away his perspective, as arrogant.) But if we see Korach’s point of view in the Torah, without the later interpretations, we may notice he foresees something of feminist theory. (He might not have put it exactly that way). Korach approaches Moses to say: “Rav lachem! Ki chol ha-eidah kulam kedoshim, uv-tocham Adonai / You have gone too far. For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” Korach seeks a leadership position, and also brings a critical mass. Both vertical and horizontal. As if he and Naomi Chazan had studied together.
For me, the opening up of gender roles is a deeply spiritual mandate. Personally, I stand on the shoulders of the first women rabbis: Regina Jonas in Germany, Sally Priesand in the US, and the early pioneers who followed… those who were called “gentlemen” in class at seminary, who were told they would never get a job, who were paid less, who were sexually harassed, and daily disrespected.
Those early pioneers helped to pave the way for more than just women in the rabbinate. The opening of gender roles anywhere, has potential implications for the opening of gender roles everywhere.
And here is where, for me, it is spiritual. In this community we affirm every individual’s journey to discover our purpose. We ask the question: what was I put on this earth to do? We don’t ask: what was I meant to do within the confines of gender roles. This is true for women, or men, or any gender, and especially important to mark during this gay pride month. We celebrate everyone’s right to dignity and opportunity.
For, in Korach’s words: Ki chol ha-eidah kulam kedoshim, uv-tocham Adonai / All the community is holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst.
As a construction worker turned poet, the founder of the poetry slam movement, Marc Kelly Smith* opens up gender roles by embracing his call to poetry. He writes:
When you get to the top of the mountain
Pull the next one up.
Then there’ll be two of you
Roped together at the waist
Tired and proud, knowing the mountain,
Knowing the human force it took
To bring both of you there…
When you ask how high is this mountain
With a compulsion to know
Where you stand in relationship to other peaks,
Look down to wherefrom you came up
And see the rope that’s tied to your waist
Tied to the next man’s waist,
Tied to the next woman’s waist,
Tied to the first man’s waist,
To the first woman’s waist
…and pull the rope!
…Don’t waste time scratching inscriptions into the
You are the stone itself.
And each man, each woman up the mountain,
Each breath exhaled at the peak,
Each glad I-made-it…here’s my hand,
Each noise panted or cracked with laughter…
All these are inscriptions of a human force that
Conquer conquering hand over hand pulling the
Next man up, next woman up.
Sharing a place, sharing a vision.
Room enough for all on all the mountain peaks.
Force enough for all
To hold all the hanging bodies
Dangling in the deep recesses of the mountain’s
Steady…until they have the courage…
Until they know the courage…
Until they understand
That the only courage there is is
To pull the next man up
Pull the next woman up
Pull the next up…Up…Up.