9 Adar 5772 / 3 March 2012
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg

In 1902, an extraordinary woman moved from Baltimore to New York to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary. She was the first woman to do so. Despite her exemplary grades (her 99 percent scholastic average at Western High School was the highest ever), her dazzling intellect and engaging personality, she had no hope of becoming a rabbi. The first woman to do that at 3080 Broadway would not arrive for eight decades. She did come from rabbinic stock; her father Benjamin served Oheb Shalom Congregation just down the street on Eutaw Place. Still, given that women in America would not have the right to vote for nearly twenty years, Henrietta Szold’s achievements were quite extraordinary. She was secretary/editor of the Jewish Publication Society: a teacher, scholar, linguist, writer and advocate. But it was 100 years ago this week that Henrietta Szold left a truly indelible mark on the Jewish world and our Jewish homeland. It was just before Purim in 1912 when she convened the first meeting of the “Hadassah Chapter of the Daughters of Zion.”

Now, 100 years later, Hadassah (with nearly 4,500 current members in Baltimore alone) remains deeply relevant to women and to the future of Israel. Its 300,000 members make it the largest Jewish organization in the U.S. and one of the largest women’s organizations in the world. Hadassah continues to support its two hospitals and college in Jerusalem, Young Judaea, the Jewish National Fund as well as cutting edge research on stem-cells and genetic cancers. This Shabbat we celebrate the life and work of Henrietta Szold and the transformational organization she birthed and raised from infancy. Yishar kochech to Betty Seidel and Sarajane Greenfeld for their continued stewardship, and good luck to Sarajane on the Centennial Celebration which she, Michele Brill and Debbie Brill are co-chairing tomorrow afternoon at Oheb Shalom. I hope each of you, particularly the younger generation of women in the room, will consider joining and supporting Hadassah and help it to maintain its relevance in this second century of its existence.

So, this Shabbat we celebrate women. And yet, I must confess as a non-woman, raising a daughter, I think not only of the tremendous progress that has been made since Henrietta Szold’s time. I cannot help but also notice the countless inequalities women and girls continue to face in the world today. Granted, there are ancient and modern misconceptions to overcome. Shamir is convinced (as was Ellie at his age) that God is a boy. And this week’s parasha, which is all about the High Priest, is literally saturated with masculine energy: the priestly garments, the ordination ceremony, the initiation of the great BBQ. Thisparasha introduces us to, in God’s view, a human being of otherworldly importance, the person who has greatest capacity to commune with heaven, and that person is – by definition – a man. Even in our present, more egalitarian society, this is a reality that we have to contend with. Each year we read this same, great text and each year, we must also work to redeem it from its cultural/historical milieu. The great Israeli scholar Yosef Yerushalmi wrote (Zachor): “Those Jews who are still within the enchanted circle of tradition, or those who have returned to it … seek, not the historicity of the past, but its eternal contemporaneity.” Given this, how do we think, in our day, about the role and place of women? Or to put it plainly, 100 years after Henrietta Szold formed this greatest Jewish women’s organization to champion a Jewish State in our ancestral homeland, to what extent has the State of Israel returned the favor?

I am pleased to say that there is much good news. Women in Israel serve in the highest echelons of society. There has been a female prime minister in Golda Meir and nearly another in Tzipi Livni who won the popular vote but failed to form a coalition. For the past six years, a woman, Dorit Beinisch, has served as chief justice of the Supreme Court, an honor not yet afforded to a woman in this country. Many women serve in combat positions in the IDF, in tanks and as pilots in the Israeli Air Force. In fact, Israel is the only country in the world with a mandatory service requirement for women. A 2000 amendment to the Military Service Law explicitly states: “The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.” I could go on and on about women in government, in education, in the private sector, in Israel’s burgeoning High Tech industry …

But how does Israel stack up globally? The fact is that Israel’s record is infinitely better than much of the world. Sixty-four percent of the world’s illiterate adults are women. In countries with the highest rates of female illiteracy, life expectancy is 41 years as opposed to 72 years in countries with low illiteracy rates. At least 60 million girls around the world have no access to primary education. The World Bank reports that violence is as serious a cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age as cancer, and a greater cause of ill health than traffic accidents and malaria combined. In a number of countries, bride-burnings and honor killings abound, and estimates on the number of trafficked women and girls world-wide range from 700,000 to two million per year. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of Half the Sky have said that brutality and violence inflicted on women is the “paramount moral challenge” of the twenty-first century.

And the record among some of Israel’s neighbors is, frankly, atrocious. In Saudia Arabia, all women, regardless of age, are required to have a male guardian, and the World Economic Forum (2009 Global Gender Gap Report) ranked that country 130th out of 134 countries for gender parity. In Iran, women have just won the right to vote, in 2015, in local elections, 95 years after the United States. And of course Iranian women are regularly denied access to many of the rights Americans and Israelis consider inalienable. And in Egypt, one figure suggests 90 percent of women of child-bearing age have been subjected to female genital mutilation.

So the story for much of the world and much of the Middle-East is pretty dire, while the story in Israel is generally pretty good. And yet, as is famously said of Noah (Gen. 6:9), he was “ish tzadik tamim haya b’dorotav, he was perfect in his generation.” And one interpretation of that is that he was righteous only in comparison to those around him. It’s insufficient for Israel to be good on women’s issues in comparison to its neighbors. That is not the standard to which we Jews ought to hold ourselves. So where is our Jewish homeland falling short?

The fact is that lately more than a lack of progress, there has been a troubling erosion of women’s rights in Israel. The same World Economic Forum found that from 2010-2011 Israel had the highest DECREASE in gender parity (the highest increase in gender disparity) of any country in the Middle-East and North Africa. The Jewish State is now ranked 55th in the world, not Saudi Arabia, but surely Israel can do better. It seems that lately, a disproportionate amount of the news coming from Israel is about Haredi Communities and their treatment of women. There’s eight-year-old Na’ama Margolis who was spat upon for what some felt was her inappropriate dress. There’s the regular defacing of women’s images on billboards or posters. This January, a pamphlet by a religious-Zionist education center blurred the face of terror victim Ruth Fogel in an ad commemorating Fogel, her husband, and the couple’s three young children, all viciously murdered last year at the settlement of Itamar. In 2009, the Israeli paper Yated Ne’eman photoshopped the female ministers out of a picture of Israel’s Cabinet, much like the Haredi newspaper Der Tzitung did with Hillary Clinton’s picture in the famous Situation Room shot when Bin Laden was killed. And it’s not just women’s images, it’s also women’s voices. There are some male soldiers who, at the behest of their rabbis, regularly walk out of IDF events where women’s singing voices are heard. Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the chief Sephardic Rabbi literally puts his fingers in his ears when women sing at military functions.

But perhaps the most well-known phenomenon is increased gender segregation, particularly on buses. Israel even has its own Rosa Parks, Tania Rosenblit, who refused to move to the back of the bus when ordered to do so by Haredi passengers. A recent study (Israel Religious Action Center and the New Israel Fund) showed a 66 percent increase in incidents of women’s segregation in the public sphere: on buses and airplanes, in banks, clinics, grocery stores and elevators. The Kotel plaza now boasts a male-only walkway so Haredi men can avoid the possibility of bumping into a member of the opposite sex.

This centennial celebration is a happy occasion, and I don’t want to sully it by focusing too much on Israel’s warts. As I said, there is much to be proud of. Tomorrow, Miriam and I will head to Washington DC to attend AIPAC’s policy conference where we will hear from President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyanu, President Peres and many others as we celebrate and support the state of Israel. But to elaborate on Herzl, Israel is a dream made real through blood and conviction. It is a living, breathing organism which must be nurtured and fed. And it is a vibrant democracy which must never be allowed to devolve into a theocracy. Israel has been more than a dream for nearly 64 years. That means, I would humbly suggest, that it’s time for Israelis and those who love Israel to ask tough questions about the role of religion and rabbis within its governance and increasing segregation in its society.

Hevre, much like the fight for marriage equality here in Maryland, the fact that we are having this conversation in shul is really critical. For most Israelis, the shul they do not attend is Orthodox. A wide spread perception is that dati means one thing, one perspective on God and Torah and halakhah. But we know better, don’t we? If so, we have a responsibility to help shape not only the message but also the medium. We must be willing to stand up for the sake of the egalitarian Judaism we hold dear. To vocalize our concerns about the erosion of women’s rights in Israel, because of our religious convictions not in spite of them, is to uproot the false premise put forth by the growing Haredi establishment: that to be religious means to look and act and believe as they do.

This is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance that occurs every year on the Saturday preceding Purim. Purim is a complex holiday challenging us to “remember” the role of one woman in saving the Jewish people. Her name was Esther, but that was her Persian name. Her Hebrew name was Hadassah. 100 years ago, Henrietta Szold did something miraculous by the standards of her day; she stood up and said that women ought to lead the charge in terms of our relationship with Israel. She was no feminist by today’s standards. She was a traditional Jewish woman, isha tzadeket, t’mimah hayta b’dorotah, a righteous woman in her generation, and she was way ahead of her time. “Chas v’shalom,” she might say if she were alive today, that today’s Israelis should be behind the times. “Let Eretz Yisrael, be an or lagoyim, a light unto the nations of the world,” she might add. I say to you, let’s advocate for the absolute best of what Judaism can bring and then allow those values to ripple out into the world in the most profound way. Let’s make sure that Israel will continue to be, in a world of much darkness, the Jewish State we can be proud of, a leader as Esther was, as Hadassah is, an or lagoyim, a shining beacon to light our way forward.