It’s so absurd, you almost want to laugh. You would laugh, if it weren’t so profoundly sad. This holiday season, Ben Gurion University has barred its female students from lighting and reciting blessings over the Chanukah candles at the school’s official public ceremony. As a result, the women have been forced to create their own alternative ceremony so that they can participate in fulfilling a commandment that, guess what, Jewish law actually obligates them to fulfill.
According to Israel’s Channel 10, the rabbi of this Beersheba-based academic institution (note that we’re not even talking about a yeshiva here) decreed that only men would be allowed to light the candles, recite the blessings, and sing the Chanukah songs. When female students turned to the dean of students, Professor Moshe Kaspi, for help, they were astonished by his response: “It’s not coincidence, as you saw, that the candle-lighter is a man. There’s a conflict here between two values. There’s the issue of the exclusion of women, and there’s the value of tradition as it’s accepted here.” He sides with the latter.
The problem is, it’s completely erroneous to frame these women’s request as being in conflict with Jewish tradition. Not only does Jewish tradition not forbid women to light and bless Chanukah candles, it actually obligates them to do so. By preventing women from fulfilling this obligation (at least, within the school’s officially sanctioned ceremony), the university itself is contravening Jewish tradition.What makes this situation even more absurd is that lighting Chanukah candles is a woman’s commandment par excellence. Customarily, Jewish women are encouraged to refrain from doing work while the candles are burning. Why? Because the victory of Chanukah came about as the result of the heroic actions of a woman, Judith. This isn’t some modern, liberal, American invention of a custom either: It’s cited in the sixteenth-century Code of Jewish Law and by major rabbinic authorities like the seventeenth-century Magen Avraham. Today, even Chabad sanctions it, recognizing that "the women of the ages felt a special affinity to the Chanukah lights." If that’s not “traditional,” I don’t know what is.
The sad truth—the truth that makes it hard to laugh at this otherwise eminently laughable situation—is that the university’s decision has less to do with upholding tradition and more to do with the increasing acceptability, in Israel, of excluding women from the public sphere. Gender segregation has been on the rise in that country for some time now. What this charming holiday story comes to teach us, though, is that that pernicious phenomenon isn’t only coming from the ultra-Orthodox sector, as most headlines would have you believe; it’s penetrating mainstream, pluralistic, academic institutions, too.
The good news—if you can call it that—is that the university has promised to let women light the candles and recite the blessings at next year’s official Chanukah ceremony. Not alongside the men, mind you, but on separate days. As for the remainder of this holiday season, women who want to participate will have to content themselves with lighting candles but not reciting any blessings. Somewhere, Judith is spinning in her grave.