The attempt of Rabbi Haim Navon (Ynet, September 6, 2008) to put me and Amnon Levy in the same boat as working on the "campaign to eliminate halitzah" is at best a complete misunderstanding of what I am trying to do for religious women; and, at worst, it's a cheap shot that attempts to put one's opponent in a bad light.
Well, Amnon Levy and I have very different agendas, even if they overlap on certain points. Perhaps Amnon Levy wants to throw out the halitzah ceremony and to show that it's an ancient ritual that has lost all relevance. His unstated goal is to raise the awareness of the secular public that if they choose to marry in the State of Israel in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel, they're taking part in an ancient and outdated ceremony; and that they should act now and quickly on behalf of civil marriages.
My Agenda is completely different. My Agenda is one of an observant woman who believes in the righteousness of the Torah and Jewish law. I'm not fighting against Jewish marriage. I am not fighting to eradicate the commandment of halizah. I am fighting to sound the voice of disempowered women, and to promote creative solutions that yield to the needs of the generation.
My agenda is to raise these issues before the public so that it can reflect on these matters for themselves; so that they can understand the extent to which women are being hurt by it; so that they know that there are women who can not marry because of the commandment; and to make it clear that there are still women who are being extorted to this very day by their brothers in law.
Finally, I want to explain how the problem can be solved in a fairly simple halachic way and I want to encourage people to start working towards that end.
Comparing halitzah to eating pork is ridiculous. First, because eating pork does not harm anyone and second because even if we wanted to, it is not possible to circumvent that prohibition. Beyond that, perhaps even most importantly, I am not so presumptuous as to assume that I can comprehend the purposes behind all the commandments, but that does not mean I have to abandon all common sense.
No doubt this commandment, as given in the Torah, was meant for the benefit of the widow left without economic or family support; as well as for the benefit of the husband who died in the prime of his life and would have wanted to leave a memory of himself in the world. There is no doubt that the commandment is motivated by the higher value of helping others. Therefore I cannot accept Rabbi Navon's blanket statement: "I do not understand why there is need for halitzah, just as I do not understand why I cannot eat pork."
Indeed, anyone who studies the sacred books can see that generations of scholars conducted endless discussions about yibum and halizah. The Talmud and its decisors throughout the ages have asked whether yibum is preferable to halitzah, or halitzah is preferable to yibum. This is because the rabbis are attuned to the possibility that the blanket application of the commandment might result in:
- The exploitation of women
- Forcing inappropriate couples together (such as an old woman with a young man)
- Placing men in the difficult position of having to support more than one wife
- Transgressing the prohibition of Rabbi Gershom against marriage to more than one wife
All these factors influenced the decisions of the rabbis over the years. And how much more proof than the Rema who held in the Shulkhan Arukh (Even Ha'Ezer 154);
"If a man marries a woman and his brother has converted to another religion, he can marry her on the condition that if he dies without children, the marriage to him will be deemed null and void."
This was the job of our sages throughout the ages. To figure out when the commandment may no longer fulfill their original purpose, or even may result in the opposite of what they were meant to do. To fix things that have gone awry within the framework of the halakha and its existing tools. It's been done in the past. It can be done today. It's no big deal. We have already figured it out, just look above for the solution.
And if our Torah sages refuse to see the problem, the public will have to get up and do what they refuse to do. And if the general public refuses to do this, the community of women will have to pull together and act for itself. If the community of women won't act, then the women who have had their consciousness raised must take over. My job is to raise consciousness, to sound the female voice that has been silenced for so many years, and to bring that voice into the mainstream.
Rivkah Lubitch is a rabbinical court advocate, and works at the Center for Women's Justice