In response to the recent internal conflict in Beit Shemesh over issues of modesty and the role of women in Israeli society, Yeshiva University students flooded a lecture hall on January 30 to learn about the challenges and history of the conflict and to debate possible solutions.
The event, titled “Faceless: Confronting Hadarat Nashim in Israel Today,” was held in Belfer Hall and organized by Kol Hamevaser, the undergraduate student body’s Jewish thought magazine, and the YU Israel Club. Panelists included Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Talmud; Dr. Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin, dean of students and lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School, who has also spoken extensively on women’s issues; and Rav Yonatan Rosensweig, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Torat Yosef Hamivtar in Efrat and a Beit Shemesh resident.
“Faceless,” which was sponsored by the World Zionist Organization, focused on escalating media buzz over the story of Naama Margolese, an 8-year-old Israeli schoolgirl who was spit on by a group of charedi [ultra-Orthodox] men who called her dress “immodest.” Facilitated by Kol Hamevaser Editor-in-Chief Chesky Kopel, the panel addressed questions about media coverage of the issue, fault lines between charedi and modern Orthodox communities, and the changing dynamic of gender relations in communities across North America and Israel.
The three speakers also presented on individual facets of “Hadarat Nashim,” or the exclusion of women, and concepts of charedi extremism in general, including a discussion of sources in the Talmud relating to modesty, the history of women’s legal rights and gender roles in Israel, and personal experience with the conflict.
“It is in part an attempt to turn back the clock across the religious world,” said Wieder. “It’s a reaction against the excesses of secular society. It may not be acceptable to us, but we need to understand where it’s coming from.”
For Greenberg-Kobrin, the emotional confusion in the modern Orthodox sphere stemmed from a sense of alienation from a community it reveres. “When you see violence or bullying towards women and children, you question what shared values you have with a community where that exists,” she said. “I think that is frightening and difficult for us.”
She added: “The more we have this question about when and how to include women in our society—while the halachic [Jewish legal] lines are extremely important and are to be respected—where there is room to be inclusive of men and women and have them interact in a public sphere, we as a community need to speak up and make that happen.”
Gabrielle Hiller, a junior majoring in Jewish education at Stern College for Women, agreed. “This issue bothered me deeply because these are our people and it’s disturbing to talk about our own community in this way,” she said. “However, hearing these different perspectives gave me a deeper understanding of what’s going on. Dialogue about this is key.”