Women carry the Torah

(WOMENSENEWS)–“She could be our Rosa Parks,” wrote one subscriber.

“It’s understandable that we would compare her to the courageous Rosa Parks . . . however . . . at no time did any passenger aboard that historic bus lay a hand on her,” wrote another subscriber to the Women’s Tefillah, or “Prayer” Network, an e-mail listserv.

The “she” in these e-mails is Miriam Shear, a woman who says she was beaten last month by a man who demanded she move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem and who became irate upon her refusal to do so.

The bus, operated by the National Egged bus company, was not a sex-segregated “mehadrin” bus. But since it travels through ultra-Orthodox communities where men and women sit separately, women customarily sit in the back while men sit in front.

Shear has given accounts to reporters of getting into a heated verbal exchange, then a spitting exchange, and then being kicked and punched and even kicked in her face while she was lying on the floor of the bus trying to readjust her head covering. She says three men joined the first in ganging up on her.

In recent weeks the international Women’s Tefillah Network–WTN–has been abuzz with the story, which first appeared on a variety of blogs and listservs, WTN included, before making the pages of Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper on Dec. 15.

WTN subscribers have been asking each other what they can do to support Shear, while also exchanging scholarly discussion of ancient Jewish texts concerning the historic and cultural implications of this incident.

Passing Along Stories

In one posting a subscriber passed along a story told by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in England, about his own experience as a young yeshiva student in the mid-1970s.

Entering a room to pray with his peers Sacks’ group was joined by a woman. Not knowing whether they should ask her to leave, or leave themselves, their rabbi referred to a teaching derived from the story of Tamar, a heroine of old whose actions earned her a heroic place in the Bible: “It is better that a person throw himself into a fiery furnace than shame his neighbor in public,” the rabbi said.

The bus driver has disputed Shear’s account but an unrelated witness, Yehoshua Meyer, another passenger who said he tried to help but was blocked by another man, has backed her up.

The Israeli police and the National Egged bus company are investigating Shear’s case. It may also be included in a petition by the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal advocacy arm of the local Reform movement, to Israel’s High Court of Justice over the legality of sex-segregated buses, according to Ha’aretz.

A Jewish women's gathering.

Shear has received support from numerous women’s rights and human rights advocacy groups in Israel and abroad.

The potent response of WTN subscribers–who have been preoccupied with the story and responses to it as the news spreads in the media in Israel and around the world–highlights the pull of this online discussion group to its subscribers.

The New York-based Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the most prominent international organization addressing women’s issues in traditional Jewish life, carries a link to WTN, describing it as open to both men and women and arising from the evolving nature of women’s religious observance.

Forum for Jewish Women

For the past 10 years the listserv has supplied an up-to-the-minute forum for breakthroughs in interpretations of Jewish practice and advice drawn from Jewish law about forming women’s prayer groups, incorporating women into such life-cycle events as baby namings, observances of bat mitzvah or marriage ceremonies, and even mourning rituals.

Members are religiously observant–or Orthodox–Jewish feminists of all ages, and some male supporters, from around the world.

Few of those who participate in the network have ever met face to face, but they regularly share advice, support and thoughts about the goal that brings them together: enhancing women’s participation in Jewish ritual and communal life.

“To realize that we are using this modern medium to address issues that originated in ancient times is profound,” said Gael Hammer, a leader among Orthodox feminists in her native Australia who hosted the first women’s tefillah group in her home in Sydney in 1989 and has been “on the list” for about 10 years.

“The Women’s Tefillah Network has given women in Australia the opportunity to stay up-to-the-minute–except for the time-zone difference–with the discussion and progress being made on the part of Jewish Orthodox feminism in centers like New York and Jerusalem, and to contribute from our perspective,” said Hammer.

The roots of the listserv are in the 1960s and ’70s, when some women in higher institutes of Jewish learning, with the support of a few male scholars and rabbinic supporters, began arguing that women could read from the Torah in prayer services held separately from men in synagogues and homes.

While Orthodox Jewish women have prayed together privately in their homes for centuries, and in religious Jewish girls’ schools over the last 200 years and more, traditional Judaism has long restricted women’s right to read from or even hold the Torah, the ultimate vessel of Jewish law.

Praying With the Torah

By the early 1980s women in New York, Israel and scattered college campuses were holding prayer services that integrated the Torah.

“Thirty years ago women’s tefillah was something revolutionary,” Rivka Haut, a founder of WTN and an owner of the subscriber list, said with emotion. “Today my grandchildren take it for granted that they will carry the Torah and read from its scroll.”

Haut and her late husband, Rabbi Yitzchak Haut, were among those ostracized by many in their own religious neighborhood, despite being celebrated by Orthodox feminists internationally.

The idea for the Women’s Tefillah Network first came up at a meeting in Haut’s home in Brooklyn, but then members began communicating exclusively by e-mail about 10 years ago.

Members sometimes band together as activists concerned about issues such as the plight of agunot, women who are unable to remarry when a husband refuses to grant her a divorce document that he alone can provide.

In response to Shear’s bus attack some subscribers have reported similar, if less extreme, incidents of similar abuse they have experienced on buses moving through some Orthodox areas. And some have begun suggesting ways of responding.

In Australia, Gael Hammer logged in to recommend that women carry toothpaste to spread on the seat they are being asked to vacate.

Another subscriber countered that this would only penalize the bus cleaning crew.

A subscriber in Massachusetts suggested women’s patrols of the bus line, “morning, noon, and night, sitting in front and refusing to move . . . and passing out fliers of the story. Men can do this too. Why not e-mail everyone in your address book, and schedule a meeting? Why not do it now?”

Ruth Seligman is a reporter and author living in New York who is anthologized in the forthcoming “Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday.”

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance:

Drisha Institute for Jewish Education:

“Woman beaten on Jerusalem bus for refusing to move to rear seat”:

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