First Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Ben Zion Uziel on Women’s Rights

It is instructive reading this not only to take notice of the clear common sense that radiations from Rav Benzion Uziel’s words as for the grace and dignity and learning with which his ideas are expressed, a grace and dignity all too often shabbily absent in today’s tawdry proceedings where shrill voices dominate and hateful language is the order of the day from all sides. The words of Rav Ben Zion Uziel are a cool tonic in an overheated room and it is noteworthy that the ideas they express have long ago become all but barred from public discourse in the Haredi world as something foreign and alien.

This is an except of Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel’s complete letter which can be found here

“WOMEN’S RIGHTS IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES AND IN INSTITUTIONS OF PUBLIC AND YISHUV LEADERSHIP” Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, 1920

A. Women’s Right to Vote
This issue became a central controversy in Erets Yisrael,
and the whole Land of Israel rocked with the debate.
Posters and warnings, pamphlets and newspaper articles
appeared anew every morning, absolutely prohibiting
women’s participation in the elections. Some based their
argument on “Torah Law,” some on the need to preserve
the boundaries of modesty and morals, and others on the
wish to ensure the peace of the family home. All leaned
upon the saying “The new is prohibited by Torah (hadash
asur min ha-torah).”

Regarding the first [heading], we find no clear ground to
prohibit this, and it is inconceivable that women should
be denied this personal right. For in these elections we
elevate leaders upon us and empower our representatives
to speak in our name, to organize the matters of our
yishuv, and to levy taxes on our property. The women,
whether directly or indirectly, accept the authority of
these representatives and obey their public and national
directives and laws. How then can one simultaneously
“pull the rope from both ends”: lay upon them the duty
to obey those elected by the people, yet deny them the
right to vote in the elections?
If anyone should tell us that women should be excluded
from the voting public because “their minds are flighty
(da`atan qalot)” (Shabbat 33b and Qiddushin 80b) and
they know not how to choose who is worthy of leading
the people, we reply: Well, then, let us exclude from the
electorate also those men who are “of flighty minds” (and
such are never lacking). However, reality confronts us
clearly with the fact that, both in the past and in our
times, women are equal to men in knowledge and wisdom,
dealing in commerce and trade and conducting all
personal matters in the best possible way. Has it ever been
known that a guardian is appointed to conduct the affairs
of an adult woman, against her will?
The meaning of our Rabbis’ statement, “da`atan qalot,” is
entirely different. Also, the statement “women have no
wisdom except with regard to the spindle” (Yoma 66b), is
only flowery wording intended to circumvent a question
posed by a woman.

But perhaps this should be prohibited because of licentiousness?
But what licentiousness can there be in this,
that each person goes to the poll and enters his voting
slip? If we start considering such activities as licentious,
no creature would be able to survive! Women and men
would be prohibited from walking in the street, or from
entering a shop together; it would be forbidden to negotiate
in commerce with a woman, lest this encourage
closeness and lead to licentiousness. Such ideas have never
been suggested by anyone.

(Editor’s Note: Today they are commonly suggested)

A great innovation was advanced by Rabbi Dr. Ritter2,
who advocates denying suffrage to women because they
are not qahal or edah, and were not counted in the census
of the people of Israel nor subsumed into the genealogical
account of the families of Israel. (His article is not before
me, and I rely on the report by Rabbi Hirschensohn.)
Well, let us assume that they are neither qahal nor edah,
and were counted neither in census nor as “family” or
anything. But are they not creatures, created in the Divine
Image and endowed with intelligence? And do they not have concerns that the representative assembly, or the
committee it will choose, will be dealing with? And will
they not be called upon to obey these bodies regarding
their property as well as the education of their sons and
daughters?
In conclusion: having found not the slightest grounds for
this prohibition, I find that no one has the slightest right
to oppose or to deny the wishes of part of the public on
this matter. Regarding a similar situation, it has been said:
“Even if ninety-nine request imposed distribution, and
only one demands outright competition, that one should
be followed, for his demand is legally right”(Mishnah
Pe’ah 4:1). Over and above this, it has been stated:
“Women were allowed to lay hands [on their sacrifice] for
the sake of giving them a feeling of gratification”
(Hagigah 16b), even though such an act appeared to the
public as prohibited; how much more so in our case,
where there is no aspect of prohibition at all, and where
preventing their participation will be for them insulting
and deceitful. Most certainly, in this case we should grant
them their right.

Logic dictates that in no serious assembly or worthy discus-
sion is there licentiousness. Daily, men meet and
negotiate with women in commercial transactions, and yet all is peace and quiet. Even those inclined to sexual
licentiousness will not contemplate the forbidden while
seriously transacting business. Our rabbis did not say “Do
not engage in much conversation with a woman” (Avot
1:5) except as regards idle, needless chatter; for that sort
of conversation leads to sin, but not so debate over important,
communal issues. Meeting in the same enclosed area
for the sake of public service—which is tantamount to
service of the Divine—does not habituate people to sin
or cause levity; for all Jews, men and women alike, are
holy, and not suspected of violating conventions of modesty
or morality.

(Editor’s note: such an approach would certainly stem the mad tide of paranoia when it comes to constantly suspecting women of immodesty)

Finally, I have seen a newly contrived basis for not giving
women the right to participate in elections (even to
vote)—namely, out of consideration for the prohibition
of flattery, lest a woman insincerely cast her vote for the
individual or party that her husband favors. Sefer Malki Ba-Qodesh wrote correctly that such is not flattery but the
upright nurturing of love. To which I would add: Would
that this would be the case, that every woman would
esteem her husband to the extent of suppressing her will
on account of his. One might even voice this reason in
favor of giving [women] the right to vote, so that a wife
might thereby show love and esteem to her husband, and
peace thereby abound in the house of Israel.

E. Conclusions:
1) A woman has an absolute right of participation in elections
so that she be bound by the collective obligation
to obey the elected officials who govern the nation.
2) A woman may also be elected to public office by the
consent and ordinance of the community.

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