Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Reaching for the Stars or Slippery Slope?

This is one of a series of posts I have been wanting to write for a long time!
If you think 'Orthodox Jewish Feminist' is an oxymoron you are in good company. Still, I'd like to make the case for an Orthodox Jewish acceptance of Torah and mitzvot which takes into account the changing role of women in the modern world.
The feminism of the 21st century is not the hysterical outcry of the 1970's with its bra-burning and motherhood rejection and man-hating/baiting. What we are looking for today is the recognition that woman can be judged on their merits and not limited in their opportunities because of their gender. A woman should be able to develop her true potential and be paid equal pay for equal work. This view is widely accepted in academia now and in there is growing acceptance of women in the business world as well. It's about being able to be in a room and be taken seriously and not treated as a decoration. It's about recognizing that sexual harassment in the workplace is not acceptable behavior.
Orthodox Judaism, on the face of it, seems to be sending us a very different message. Adult Jewish women are exempt from many mitzvot (time bound positive commandments such as tfilin and tzizit) and as result of the different level of obligation we are not counted for a minyan and can't be called to bless the Torah. Separation between the sexes is required during services and so in addition to not actively participating the women sit in the balcony or behind a wall or curtain. Dress codes require us to cover up arms, legs, collarbones and for married women even our hair. Formal Jewish education (in a school) for girls is less than a century old.
So, what can we do if some of this makes us feel that there is an imbalance between the way we see ourselves in the modern context and the way we want to express our commitment to Judaism and halacha. Some women just 'leave it to the men' keeping all the negative commandments which include keeping Shabbat, kashrut and leaving the synagogue and Torah study to the men. Many Orthodox Jewish women who take this path  have rich professional lives but remain on the sidelines of Torah study and public prayer.
One very positive change that has taken place over the past generation is the acceptance and encouragement of higher Jewish learning for women in an Orthodox setting. The well loved and respected Nehama Leibowitz  brought the study of the written Torah to great heights and is revered in the Orthodox community both here in Israel and in the diaspora. But her base was in the University and although she brought the values of the beit midrash to the university it did not make the university an option for the study of Torah.
Today we have women's institutions like Matan, NishmatMiddreshet Lindenbaum where women study and teach Torah on the highest levels. These midrashot have produced a cadre of learned women who have become, in addition to excellent teachers, toanot (counsels who can represent clients in divorce cases heard before rabbincal courts) and yoatzot (advisors regarding hilchot nidda - mikveh family purity and women's health issues). The women who initiate and maintain these illustrious institutions are learned Orthodox Jewish women. They have no formal title which reflects their learning achievements and they are not recognized by any religious distinction.
You can find a lot of discussion back and forth about the move made by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale NY in granting smicha (ordination?) to a woman and calling her first MaHaRat and then Rabba and what that will do the future of Orthodox Judaism. (See about 20 posts and innumerable comments on Hirhurim; Rabbi Riskin here; Rabbi Herschel Schachter here and many many more.) In Israel, for now anyway, we have not come to this and I don't think it will happen soon. For one thing a rabbi here doesn't have the same communal position (for better and some might say for worse) as a shul rabbi in the US. Having the title just doesn't lead to the same career opportunities.
Make no mistake about it when Rabbanit Malka Piotorkovsky, Rabbanit Oshra Koren, Rabbanit Channa Henkin, Rabbanit Malka Bina and so many others teach us we call them Rabbanit  not because of their husband's titles but because of their own achievements. These women have become our spiritual leaders.


Rahel Jaskow said...

Hear, hear!

Batya said...

Risa, you've been involved with this stuff for decades, the early 1970's, long before others.

Chana's prayers at Shiloh, recognized by G-d Who chastised Eli the High Priest for his nastiness...

Personally, I don't feel a need to join the "men's" way, even if there are halachik justifications. My life is complicated enough. But I do get very angry and offended when in a synagogue that provides men chairs at a kiddush but force the women to stand. No amount of cake and cookies justifies such abuse. and similar things...

Rahel Jaskow said...

Batya, to me it's all of a piece: forced segregation on buses, forced segregation on streets, the aguna problem, refusal to allow women to participate as fully in synagogue life as halakha allows, and so on. It's all discrimination in one form or another, and I suppose that we all choose the fronts on which we fight it.

Since I have a bit of a big mouth, I probably would have appropriated chairs for myself and for other women, and if anyone had challenged me, I'd have challenged them to justify forcing the women to stand.

Risa Tzohar said...

On the chair issue, I'm with Rahel. On that and the buses, sidewalks etc. I think there's not much argument among most of my friends. The communal prayer issue is another story and I hope my next post on the subject of feminism will deal with that.

Lady-Light said...

Risa, all I can say is the same as Rahel: Hear, hear, and Yea!
I am proud to be Orthodox, but am totally dismayed at the lengths to which the "chumra of the week" people are going, with nit-picking on syagim la-Torah, totally forgetting the purpose of the law.

Harassment on buses? Jewish women wearing burkas? This is insane, and not what the Torah was meant to be.

I strongly believe that women who are Torah scholars should be officially honored and given an exalted place in the kehilah. Otherwise, their learning would be considered meaningless, because that is the way the community would see it, by not sanctioning their learning.

Minnesota Mamaleh said...

risa, i'm quite literally awe-struck at this post. you've CLAIMED so very much as your own, and that's nothing short of impressive.

many years ago i would have assumed that our thoughts were on different planes, but i would have been wrong. and i'm glad that my mind has opened (a lot) in recent years.

i look forward to learning more from you and when the time is right, sharing posts like this with my children so they too can see that "feminism" "religiosity" "segregation" can look many, many different ways.

thank you. :)

bataliyah said...

I recently wrote a post that dovetails nicely with this line of comments. See

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