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conference: hearken unto her voice

Eliane Sperling Levin reports on the Conference of the Cooperation Feminine held in Paris on March 11, 2014.
In brilliant sunshine, Liliane Seidman, European Chair, and I, attended the Conference on Women's Rights and Halacha, organized by the Coopération Féminine, the French affiliate of ICJW. It was held in Paris, in the large and well-appointed Rachi Centre.
The moving spirits behind this meeting were Evelyn Ascot, for years our energetic ICJW woman in Paris; Evelyne Berdugo, the President of the Coopération; Lilianne Picard, ICJW Vice President.
Four topics: 
Women's place in the Jewish Community
The Get
Women's and girls' right to study
Teaching of "Kodesh" (religious matters) in Jewish scools.
Mostly women in the capacity-filled hall, but also a goodly number of men. It was obvious that these topics were of intense meaning to the participants, and at times emotional, as we sat for close to 4 hours without a break.
Liliane Seidman's original idea had been an international French-speaking conference. In the event there were speakers from Paris, Strasbourg, Grenoble, with an American voice with the delegate of the American Jewish Committee in France.
On the role of women in the Jewish Community, we heard an exciting report by Ada Sadoun, who had fought, and managed to become the President of the Jewish Community of Grenoble, a provincial town.
The subject of the Get and the vexing Agunah issue, really caused the audience to sit up. Many would have liked to challenge the speakers, but this could not be for lack of time.

This turned out to be somewhat of a duel between Elisabeth Steiner, a lawyer elected to the Board of the Consistoire and active in a group involved in solving cases of Agunot, and Prof. Liliane Vana, specialist in Jewish Law and Talmud. 

(The Consistoire Central Israélite de France is the officially recognized body, representing French Jewry to the authorities, according to the Napoleonic Code. It does not recognize Liberal or Conservative synagogues and nor are some Ultra Orthodox communities affiliated to it.)

Ms Steiner tending to minimize the scale of the Agunot problem and presenting a more conservative position. Prof. Vana being very critical of the Establishment, of the timorous attitude of the Rabbis.  It came downright to a clash between these two speakers, with a lot of excitement in the audience over this painful subject.
Chief Rabbi René Gutman reported on the last European Rabbis' Conference and the acceptance of Prenuptial Agreements to obviate the problem with the Get.
A very refreshing voice was that of Emmanuel Bloch, a young Orthodox lawyer, specializing in Jewish Thought, at present living in the U.S. He spoke, not about divorce, but about marriage. His talk was a fascinating overview of the institution of marriage in the Jewish world, from Biblical times, through Talmudic teachings, to the contemporary situation. He showed how the status of the woman had evolved with changes in the cultural environment. We heard of the status of the wife, the concubine, and the slave, each having certain rights.
On the topic of women's right to study, we heard an eloquent speach by Janine Elkouby, writer and teacher. She has led the struggle for the right of women to be elected to the Board of Jewish Communities, and has won and has herself been on the Board of the Strasbourg Community. Her stand in the matter of women's right to study is unequivocal: they not only have the right, they have the obligation to study.
Much was said about Jewish schools in France. This must be understood against the background of the separation of Church and State and the secular definition of the French Republic. Nevertheless there is a growing percentage of Jewish children attending Jewish schools. These are either completely private, or working in cooperation with the French educational system.
The title of Prof. Claude Riveline's talk,- he is an engineer and an Orthodox Jew- was: "A woman is very different from a man - Thanks G-d". This was a variation on the Latin saying: "Mulier tota in utero", or "All of woman in the womb". Suffice it to say that we could have done without this speach.
The meeting closed on an appeal to the Beth Din of Paris for the compulsory use of the Prenuptial Agreement.
Conclusion: next year a full day conference should be held on these same topics.
I must add that the following day Liliane and I were hosted to an elegant lunch at the Coopération's offices. We had a wonderful opportunity to talk to the members of their Board and some of the most active members. We heard of their many activities in the social, educational and cultural fields, and were most impressed. We also had the opportunity to congratulate them warmly on the Conference.

The following document was released after the Conference summarizing its conclusions:

LISTEN TO HER VOICE (Gen 12) Women, Their Rights, and the Halakha
Jewish Women are aware of the large and prejudicial discrepancy existing between their position in French society and the status they are granted in the Jewish community.

They ask not to be confined in an obsolete pattern inconsistent with the changes occurred in society, in this day and age, and the realities experienced in their lives by most of them

They strongly declare:

-       That they want to be included in the life of the Jewish community and see their expertises acknowledged.

-       That they are ready to assume together with the men  their responsibilities in the best interest of their community. 
-       That they want to have access, without any restriction or limitation to all the Jewish studies, Michna and Guemara included, without being forbidden to do so by interdictions coming from another age.
-       That they want the programs for girls in Jewish schools to include the “Thorah She BAlpe” without which there is no study worthy of the name.   

-       That they refuse to be treated like objects which can be wed, repudiate or chained if needed to unfaithful or violent husbands who can enjoy their freedom while tying them to a fictional marriage.
The International Council of Jewish Women and the Cooperation Feminine passing on the insistent and legitimate request of a large number of Jewish women call out solemnly to the religious authorities of France asking them to listen to the voice of women and answer them with the necessary attention and solemnity. 
In particular, they ask them to adopt the recent recommendations made by the European Rabbinic Congress and to persuade the French Rabbis to implement them as do their colleagues from UK, USA and Israel.