Orthodox feminists awake]: Andrew Brown looks at efforts to balance Judaism's traditional attitude to women with the modern world

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RELIGION is, overwhelmingly, an inherited condition, passed down through families. This means that any religion, even the most patriarchal, is doomed without the active support of women. The paradox is particularly apparent in Judaism, which gave the world both the Old Testament patriarchs and Woody Allen's mother.

The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, fears that Diaspora Judaism will die out as a result of intermarriage and the decay of tradition. Two-thirds of Britain's 300,000 Jews are Orthodox: the remaining third Liberal or Reform. But these last two, 'progressive', movements have been growing rapidly in the past 25 years, not least because of their liberal attitude to women.

So two years ago Dr Sacks, who presides over Orthodox Jewry, commissioned a study by Jewish women about their situation and discontents. The report of this study is published today and makes fascinating reading.

Some disabilities under which Orthodox women labour in religious law have passed down unchanged since the Bronze Age. For instance, a childless widow may remarry no one except her late husband's brother, unless he releases her from the undertaking. He cannot be forced to do so, though he can be bribed. The report says: 'The present procedures can become a blackmailer's charter.'

A more common problem is posed by a religious divorce, which requires the husband to issue a certificate known as a Get. Should he fail to do so, his wife can never again marry an Orthodox Jew. She may marry a non-

Jew, in which case her children will probably be recognised as Jews by the Orthodox. But should she have children by another Jew, they will be regarded by the Orthodox as 'Mamzerin', a category rather worse than 'bastard', because the taint is hereditary. A Mamzer may never marry anyone but another Mamzer. Nor can these children be retrospectively legitimised, for their parents may never legally marry under Orthodox Law.

'More and more women will ignore the prohibition on remarriage without a Get,' says the report. Studies suggest that about half the couples wed in synagogues whose marriages fail do not obtain religiously valid divorce certificates. The report sums up the problem: 'This is a tragedy for the whole community, which will result in the inevitable dilution of the Orthodox Community. Unless a way is found to alleviate the problems . . . we fear that more and more women will turn to the Reform and Liberal Synagogues to solve their difficulties in order to remarry.'

The difficulty with divorce is that the law as originally framed clearly regards women as male property. A more humane interpretation has only gradually been imposed. The Talmud urges religious courts to force recalcitrant husbands to grant divorces and suggests flogging as a sanction. Today's report 'respectfully urges the Chief Rabbi to accept the principle that it is acceptable to substitute financial penalties for flogging as a means of securing a Get'.

It is difficult to imagine a man more eager to dispense with flogging than the present Chief Rabbi. Dr Sacks is a scholar, with an awkward manner of speaking, interrupted by sudden rushes of passion. 'We wanted an opportunity genuinely to move away from the confrontation which has characterised the conflicts in other faiths, and towards co-operation,' he said yesterday. Though he does not care for the idea that Jewish problems should be considered as part of a world-wide crisis of religion, he sees that feminism, both as an ideology and as an economic fact, poses problems for all religions.

'We are walking a tightrope. The question is: 'Can you hold things together?' We had a certain image of the Jewish woman as a mother. And now we have a generation of Jewish women with huge educational attainments. We had to learn that there is a huge tension between the roles these women are alotted in the outside world and the roles that have been open to them in, for example, synagogue management.'

It is an article of Orthodox faith that men and women cannot pray together. The women have their own partitioned balcony from which they may watch the men at prayer. Dr Sacks seems to hope that equality in power will compensate for difference at prayer.

Dr Sacks believes that the Jewish communities of eastern Europe and elsewehere had managed to give a significant religious as well as practical place to women. 'Traditional Jewish life in eastern Europe was very matriarchal. That is certainly how I remember my grandmother in the East End, too.'

But once the Orthodox community became Anglicised, 'once we had escaped into the open society, we started building these huge cathedral-type structures, and a lot of the women began to feel excluded'.

The answer the Chief Rabbi favours is not to abolish the segregation between sexes in worship, but to try to find prayers and rituals that could be used by women alone to celebrate events that are special to their lives. The report is eloquent on the frustration and humiliation many women feel when confronted with traditional rites such as the ritual bath in which every married woman is meant to immerse herself once a month, when the menstrual flow is over, to become once more fit for intercourse.

It is easy, reading between the lines of the report, to see much Orthodox Jewish law as a hedge designed to keep out women as either unclean or beneath consideration. That is certainly the conclusion many Jewish women have reached. As Chief Rabbi and a noted intellectual defender of the importance of tradition, Dr Sacks cannot hope to cut through this hedge. Instead he seems to want to burrow under it. He explains: 'An advantage of a faith which is something like 4,000 years old is that you can usually discover resources within the tradition for anything. We have been here before.'

He may be right. But much of the research underlying the report suggests that there are fewer women than he hopes who feel like this, and they are mainly ultra-

Orthodox. A postal survey of 1,350 Jewish women revealed that even Orthodox women 'have very high levels of ethnic identity and moderate to low levels of religious belief'. The rejection of religious law runs deeply among women who consider themselves unquestionably Jewish. Less than a third of the respondents believe God has a special relationship with the Jewish people; and still fewer, presumably, that this relationship is best honoured and expressed through the multifarious commands of traditional Judaism.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, a spokesman for the Reform synagogues, says: 'The orthodox rabbinate is engaged in a sort of Jewish Canute act. What's needed is a change in law, and that's what the progressive communities have done.'

Dr Sacks, however, believes he has all the freedom he needs. 'Religious law is like the grammar of a language,' he says. 'Any language is governed by such rules; otherwise it ceases to be a language. But within them, you can say many different sentences and write many different books. Historically speaking, Jews throughout the world and throughout the centuries, though bound by the same rules, have written many different books. So we have the resources today to write a book that women will read and say: 'This is my story'.'

(Photograph omitted)