Kolech: Religious Women's Forum
In the twentieth century, with the establishment of new societal norms throughout the world, in Israel too many new opportunities became available to women—religious women included. The possibility of obtaining higher secular education in all disciplines, coupled with the almost unlimited prospects of advancing in one’s profession, only emphasized the limitations and barriers still barring religious women’s progress in religious society, which is typically patriarchal. In synagogues and religious leadership, as well as institutions of Torah study (yeshivas), doors have been closed to women throughout history, and they remained closed in the modern age. Religious women’s desire to continue to observe religious tradition and frameworks brought them face to face with a dissonant reality: impressive progress in secular society, as against submission and self-effacement in religious society.
On the one hand, religious women regard themselves as obligated to observe religious law and adhere to the framework dictated by patriarchal institutions. On the other, they also strive to reexamine the attitude of halakhah [Jewish law] toward women; some have even gone so far as to attempt to penetrate this patriarchal system and challenge its masculine character. In other words, they would like to continue to maintain uncompromising loyalty to the overall framework (family, congregation, community), while at the same time making exhaustive efforts to modify that framework and invest it with new, egalitarian content.
Over the last thirty years, religious society in Israel has witnessed several innovations that potentially challenged the male hierarchy of the system:
- The establishment of women’s study centers (midrashot) for high-level study of Oral Law for women and girls, sometimes including regular Talmud study.
- The training of women as rabbinical advocates whose aim is to help women appearing before rabbinical courts.
- Women who practice as halakhic advisers with regard to Niddah impurity [the ritually “impure” state of a woman during and after menstruation].
- The first appointment of a religious woman, Leah Shakdiel, to the religious council in Yeroham, in 1988.
These innovations have been of major importance in empowering religious women, heightening their sense of empowerment and stimulating their desire to organize for the achievement of their goals.
These measures have resulted from cooperation between Torah-educated women and a small number of rabbis who favor an egalitarian approach. They have aroused harsh opposition in the rabbinical establishment, but they have nevertheless become operational. The success of these initiatives has proved not only that they are possible, but that they answer a real need. It has also demonstrated to at least some of the religious community that they do not represent any infringement of the halakhic system.
The formation of women’s organizations, as distinct from co-opting of women to men’s organizations, is perceived as an extremely effective strategy for the achievement of women’s goals. In that way women strengthen their own self-awareness and refrain from adopting masculine norms. Religious women in Israel were encouraged to organize by developments in New York. The example of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), founded in 1996 in America, inspired a few dozen religious women from Israel who were seeking a platform for a new initiative. As a result, in 1998, they founded Kolech.
One of the most important assets of the Israeli organization from its inception was its leader, Chana Kehat. Kehat, in her late thirties, raised in a distinguished family of haredi (ultra-orthodox) Torah scholars, who later became a “religious Zionist,” proved to possess extraordinary leadership qualities. Over and above her intellectual capabilities and her knowledge of halakhah and Jewish thought, she demonstrated tremendous sensitivity, perseverance and dedication to the organization and its goals. An eloquent public speaker and mother of a large family, her personality captivated all those who met her. Representatives of the press frequently interviewed her, seeking and airing her views on a wide variety of topics affecting women and halakhah. The organization was virtually identified with her persona. In 2004, when Kehat resigned for personal reasons, a committee of twelve women replaced her in operating the organization.
The name of the organization, “Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum,” was chosen with the express intention of bringing the female voice to center stage, inspired by a famous verse from the Song of Songs: “Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet.” The address of the lover to his beloved “may be interpreted … as the unique promise of the Almighty, throughout human history, to listen to the female voice” (Kehat 2001). The female voice must be restored to its proper place in history—this basic demand is being repeated again and again by women throughout the world, who have been silenced in patriarchal societies for centuries.
Kolech was not created with a clear-cut, well-defined agenda. The founders entertained the somewhat messianic hope that, in keeping with the religious belief in tikkun olam—improvement of the world—and the centrality of Torah values, women too wish to be part of this process through their spiritual contribution. Kolech is not an organization whose sole purpose is to improve the lot of women in religious society; rather, its mission was to purify Judaism, to transform it from a situation of “temporary morality” (i.e., a deficient world) to a situation of absolute morality (a perfect world).
The organization first attracted public attention with a pamphlet discussing the weekly portion of the Torah reading, appearing under the heading “Kolech,” which became the name of the organization. These pamphlets, for the most part written and edited by women, are voicing thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, halakhic issues, homiletics, and various Torah subjects, which had hitherto not been within the purview of religious women. While the pamphlets brought women’s Torah learning and thought to numerous homes, their innovative element was so clear that it aroused antagonism.
Kolech achieved its most impressive public presence in four international conferences, held in Jerusalem in 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2005. Attended by more than a thousand active participants, they received media attention in the general and religious press, as well as in the electronic media.
At the first conference, lectures were given on the subject of Torah learning for women, pointing out the possibilities and inherent dangers, and presenting the question of how to relate to women’s creative thought on Torah subjects and how it could be integrated with men’s writings. Two years later, at the second conference, there was no repetition of questions of this nature. The first conference had convincingly demonstrated both the impressive halakhic knowledge of many members of the new organization, as well as the existence of firmly established contacts with several well-known rabbis of a liberal-religious mind-set.
Over the years, there have been positive developments in several of the areas dealt with by the organization. The fear that the feminist initiative would undermine the religious framework has in some measure died down. The plenary sessions have dealt prominently with women’s societal concerns and difficulties, such as agunot and women denied divorce, as well as sexual abuse and the attitude of religious society to abusers. These questions were deliberated on both theoretical and practical levels. The Third Conference hosted a battered wife who told her life story. Another woman, a victim of long-standing sexual abuse, related how she came to grips with the situation. This presentation of problems from a personal, emotional viewpoint, as well as on a theoretical level, was a most powerful demonstration of Kolech’s role not just as an organization for academic deliberations, but also as a supporting arm for religious women who on the one hand refuse to be silenced but, on the other, refuse to abandon their religious way of life.
In 2004 Kolech joined a colloquium of rabbis, including some not identified with its goals, and religious women from several women’s organizations, which together drew up a “code of ethics”—a guide to rabbis and communal workers on how to act when approached by women for advice on intimate and other matters.
Along with concern for the legal aspect, an educational team was established to draw up curricula for different age groups, to teach girls and boys egalitarian concepts. The members of the organization have realized that the only way to equalize relations between the sexes is through education. Likewise, many other problems plaguing the religious community, such as the large number of women who remain unmarried or marry late, point to the need for innovative education, to help young men and women to maintain relationships in the new egalitarian society.
The aspiration to create a new social order, that is, to alter women’s image and their status in religious society, may be a “mission impossible.” The opponents of Kolech may be correct in their claim that one cannot change the religious framework and at the same time preserve it. Opposition to Kolech in the religious community has not died down, and the expression “hold back your voice” (quoted out of context from Jeremiah 31:15) is heard more loudly than the verse “Let me hear your voice.” Indeed, while the preliminary achievements of Kolech are promising, they are also disappointing. Since the most serious problems, such as relief for agunot and women denied divorces, still await solutions, the slowness of the campaign in achieving its goals may be an indication of an immanent defect.
Cherlow, Yuval. “Women’s Torah Learning—Prospects and Dangers.” In To Be a Jewish Woman. Proceedings of the First International Conference: Woman and Her Judaism, edited by Margalit Shilo, 67–72. Jerusalem: 2001; Kehat, Chana. “Opening Address.” In To Be a Jewish Woman, edited by Margalit Shilo, 13–16. Jerusalem: 2001.