I saved this as a draft 2 years ago, and never posted. For whatever reason, I decided it’s time to post.
Today, a middle-aged woman sitting next to me in a writing workshop asked me if I am “religious.” I understood what she was asking immediately – not if I am “religious,” but rather if I am “knowledgable” enough to understand her reference to Jewish text. Though I did understand her reference, I answered “no” because in Israel, I am not “religious.” I am knowledgable and educated in Jewish texts, traditions, etc, however I do not keep Shabbat the way she probably keeps Shabbat, and my husband does not wear a kippah on a regular basis. Am I religious? Yes! But my version of religious is almost irrelevant in Israeli society. And here’s how I know:
As part of the process to get married under the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel, brides are required to participate in a “kallah class,” or in Hebrew “hadrachat kallah” which literally translates to “training for brides.” I signed up for the course roughly 5 weeks before my wedding, at the Rabanut of Beer Sheva. My instructor was an elderly woman named Miriam, covered from head to toe, who spent the entire 3 hours of the first session talking about a woman’s cycle, and how to check for blood to make sure you are “clean” enough to go to the Mikveh, and ultimately to lay with your husband. I didn’t necessarily expect to spend 3 hours talking about our periods (we actually had to go around the room and report on when we were expecting our next period, in order to make sure we would be ‘clean’ by the date of our wedding). But then, in her same monotone voice, Miriam told us that if we do the ‘checking process’ correctly, *the rockets will stop falling from Gaza* AND if we DON’T do it correctly, we will *curse* our husbands and our families. Well, if that isn’t a horrifying introduction to Judaism, I don’t know what is.
Looking around, it was fairly obvious that most of the women in this classroom were secular (re: not orthodox), based on their clothing and unfamiliarity with many of the concepts discussed in the course. What worried me was that these women were being scared into participating in Jewish tradition. If this is their only interaction with religious Judaism, it is no wonder that many, many Israelis want nothing to do with religion (other than a Shabbat or holiday meal with their families).
There were other eyebrow raising topics discussed throughout the two sessions, such as: “your husband is like a child. If your child wakes up in the middle of the night hungry, you have to feed him. The same goes with your husband.” Along the same note, “Your husband is used to being cared for by his mother who treats him like a king. If you don’t treat your husband like a king, by praising his good deeds and cooking and cleaning for him, he will grow to resent you.”There was no discussion of love or affection, mutual respect or shalom bayit, but really only about how to please your husband. This was perhaps the only time most of these women will engage with orthodox Judaism, and it could have been an opportunity for the Rabanut to engage young women in dialogue about Jewish education, morals, etc, but it turned into a one-way lecture on getting your period and going to the mikveh.
I understand the merit of a course like this, and the importance it might have for a haredi couple under the age of 25 who were set up by their parents and never lived on their own before. But for an average adult couple this kind of talk is not only patronizing, but it actually pushes people away from a religion that is built on making people feel comfortable. Most of the women in the course were rolling their eyes with me, however a few were taking notes and asking questions – not out of sheer curiosity, but rather out of fear that they might do something wrong and face consequences. The Rabanut is dealing with a serious missed opportunity – what if instead of scaring women into going to the mikveh, they focused on teaching Jewish texts about love and kindness.
I do not think this is a reflection of how women are viewed in Israel, rather I think it is a reflection on religiosity, and the unwillingness of religious individuals in Israel to share their insights and sacred learnings with non-religious individuals. Just because I do not cover my hair, does not mean that I am not interested in, or that I am not capable of discussing Jewish ethics. Too often, the question “are you religious?” closes people out, turns them away, or somehow makes them lesser.