Third Women’s Forum Reflects on Human Rights
By Andrea Morgale
This publication is called Reflections, so I want to start by reflecting on why we need a Masorti Women’s Forum, why I wanted to be involved and why we have based this year’s event around the theme Women’s Rights are Human Rights.
I’m not sure why I agreed to attend the first Masorti Women’s Study Day in 2015. The topics sounded interesting but isn’t a day just for women unnecessarily exclusive, particularly for an equal opportunity movement like Masorti? Human Rights is surely a subject men need to think about as well. That’s true, and there are forums for that, but there is also a place for women’s gatherings. As a graduate of a girls’ school and a member of several women’s professional groups, I can assure you they have a different atmosphere from mixed gatherings. The topics are geared to female priorities, the atmosphere less competitive and delegates keener to contribute. I was initially hesitant, but once you sit among a group of women and learn together – re-evaluating the role of women in the Bible, interrogating texts or studying Jewish history – you realise the value of such an event. We have 364 days a year to pray, study and discuss together with men; is it too much to want one day for women?
It was mainly our enthusiastic Rebbetzin, Raya Even-David, the inspiration and driving force behind this initiative, who persuaded me to join the first event. Two years later she has persuaded me again, this time to co-chair the third annual day – now renamed the Masorti Women’s Forum – which takes place on 5th March, three days before International Women’s Day.
The theme grew out of a discussion among the steering committee – volunteers from the different Masorti communities – about topics we would be interested in studying. We wanted to learn about women’s rights in Judaism and the wider world, but also about women’s responsibilities and how the two operated in today’s increasingly fragmented climate. So a theme was born: Women’s Rights are Human Rights.
You might recognise the phrase from a speech Hillary Clinton gave at the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing: ‘If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.’
Some 3000 years earlier, the Bible carried the same message. In the first chapter of Genesis, we learn that ‘God created man in His own image…male and female created He them.’ (Gen 1: 27) Last year, when I had the honour to be Kallat Bereshit at EMS, I found that verse problematic; it seemed to imply that man was created in God’s image, while women were an afterthought. Studying the commentaries, however, I came to understand that it refers to men and women being akin to God in our spiritual nature, not physical, and there is no divine right for men to rule over women. We are all created in God’s image; our human rights are equal.
It is amazing that we need to state this in 2017, but looking around we still see human rights being eroded and women being abused, ignored, raped and sidelined. [My juxtaposition of these terms is deliberate: it is much worse to be raped than sidelined, but marginalisation leads to rape and abuse, since if rapists never hear their victims they regards them as less than human.] That is why we chose this theme for our Forum, and speakers will address slavery, the refugee crisis, religious intolerance and the fight for political rights, looking at what we as women can do.
In parashah Shoftim, we are commanded to pursue Justice: ‘Justice, justice, shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.’ (Deut. 16:20) If you put this together with the verse from Bereshit, it means that we are serving God by fighting for what we believe is the true and fair way to behave: ‘Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.’ (Psalm 34:14)
So the Forum will explore a Jewish take on women’s rights, specifically a Masorti take. Not all the speakers are Masorti members, but they all bear the hallmarks of Masorti in a willingness to look at sacred cows and customs and discuss how they should be addressed in the times in which we live. And these are harsh times indeed.
This time it’s Muslims who are the focus. What makes us think it won’t be the Jews next? If history tells us anything, it tells us that Jews, like women, are recurring targets for marginalisation and discrimination, increasing the importance of empathy and action now. Actress Emma Watson quoted Hillel the Elder in a speech at a 2014 UN event on gender equality: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14) The more we learn, the more confidence we have in actual truth rather than misinformation or ‘alternative facts’, the better we will be at standing up for human rights and women’s rights. It was women who marched on 21st January; on 5th March, we Masorti women owe it to them to learn, to study and to dedicate ourselves to a similar message to that articulated by Hillel.
Andrea Morgale is a member of Edgware Masorti Synagogue and co-chair of the Masorti Women’s Forum.