Frum and empowered

Education among US Orthodox has advanced greatly - women rabbis may be next.

By MICHAL LANDO
October 2, 2007 07:05
Frum and empowered

haredi woman working 298. (photo credit: Courtesy)

In 1976, when Blu Greenberg published "Feminism Is it Good for the Jews?" in Hadassah Magazine, traditional Judaism had, as she wrote, "written off" feminism as a temporary cultural fad, if not some form of extremist ideology. But the vehemence went both ways - feminists vilified Orthodox rabbis as women haters, chauvinists, or at best "men with ancient hang-ups." The possibility of a positive relationship between the two - Orthodoxy and feminism - seemed "improbable," if not "impossible," Greenberg said in the opening of her article. But to Greenberg, an Orthodox woman, the opposition was a mystery. "If, throughout the centuries, Judaism was capable of generating revolutionary ethical teachings, why should it not incorporate the lessons of feminism easily?" Greenberg asked 30 years ago. Equality, she argued, is fundamental in many spheres of the religion - equality before the law, property rights and the equality of all men. Equality between men and women should logically follow, Greenberg said, and yet the Jewish community was one of the last to grapple with the challenges of feminism. Greenberg saw opportunities opening up to women in the secular world, while the religious world tried to cover its eyes. "The situation is comparable to sitting in a stationary vehicle alongside a moving one," Greenberg wrote at the time. But she persisted in trying to bridge the seemingly irreconcilable worlds. What has taken shape three decades later when it comes to feminism in the Orthodox world would have been unimaginable when Greenberg first began advocating on its behalf. At the time she pointed to areas in Jewish religious life where, hard as it was to acknowledge for a lover of Halacha, women faced inequality in every area - women's learning, leadership, rites of passage, home ritual, prayer, language issues, and family law. "But the good news is that in each of these areas there has been significant progress," said Greenberg in a phone interview just before the High Holy Days, the traditional time for stock taking. "There is still much work to be done, but 30 years is not a long time for a matter of such historic import, so there is real reason for optimism," she said. "The bad news is that the overall leadership of the Orthodox community still rests in the hands of people who do not accept the idea of women's full equality and equal dignity; otherwise, they would have found by now a halachic way to end injustice in Jewish divorce law." Thirty years ago, opportunities for higher Jewish education for women were almost nonexistent. In the '70s Greenberg and others stressed the need to establish institutes of higher education where women could study, and advocated for training women to make legal decisions and eventually join the ranks of the community's poskim (halachic decisors). "Until now, men have studied and understood Halacha, and they alone have made all the decisions," wrote Greenberg. "With few exceptions women have been kept ignorant of the sources and processes of the law." Today Greenberg points to the Orthodox as the sector which has seen the greatest advancement in Jewish education for women, so much so that it has managed to influence the Reform and Conservative movements as well. Feminism has expressed itself differently within each of the movements, explained Greenberg. The Conservative movement spearheaded changes in the synagogue and liturgy, while the Reform movement was a leader in opening up the rabbinate to women. "For the Orthodox it's been in the area of learning, which is a central value and so special to Orthodoxy," says Greenberg. "Women's learning has been welcomed in the Orthodox community and even in the haredi community." Founded in 1979 as the world's first center for women's advanced study of classical Jewish texts, Drisha has been at the forefront of Jewish education for women. Today thousands of people participate annually in Drisha programs that range from summer high school classes, a bat mitzva program, continuing education classes and their prize full-time scholars' circle course. Only a minority of the teachers are academically trained, because Drisha mostly offers yeshiva-style learning. "The opportunity for women to learn is probably the biggest change in the modern Orthodox community," said Devorah Zlochower, the head of the beit midrash at Drisha. "It's become not only more acceptable, but obvious." Education is largely seen as the stepping stone to greater opportunities when it comes to women's leadership in the Orthodox world. Changes in learning and education impacts how women see themselves as active Jews in the community. "The desire to play a fuller role in ritual is bound up with greater education," said Zlochower. "We believe in putting women in positions of leadership, in empowering women. Empowerment is one of those words, and we use it proudly." The effects are noticeable both in synagogue life and in Orthodox education. Today women teach both Bible and Talmud at Orthodox high schools, though female Talmud teachers are still rare. The debate today is no longer whether women can study Talmud, which was settled by Rav Soloveitchik some years ago, but whether they are encouraged to have a future in it. What still concerns Zlochower is the expectations girls grow up with. "We've done a good job to educate daughters that they can be doctors and lawyers, but how do they see their Jewish life? And what do boys think Jewish women are?" Zlochower said. "These questions affect what our institutions look like, and who we choose as leaders and role models." One of the areas where there has been noticeable change is in ritual life. Thirty years ago women often experienced prayer as a vicarious act, and rituals such as kiddush and megila reading were practiced by proxy through men. "My son who is 17 is a staunch feminist, but he has no perspective," says Bat Sheva Marcus, vice president of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, a grassroots non-profit organization established by Greenberg in 1997 to educate and advocate for women's increased participation in Orthodox Jewish life and to create a community for women and men dedicated to such change. "Twenty years ago it was a whole different world: You could count the number of women learning Gemara on one hand." Roughly two decades ago the notion of women having their own prayer groups also came to the fore. There women could pray out loud and read from the Torah, which had been considered heretical. IN 2001, Rabbi Mendel Shapiro wrote in the The Edah Journal that Halacha permits Orthodox women to be called to the Torah and to read from it on Shabbat under certain conditions. From this emerged a number of "partnership minyanim" - prayer groups committed to maintaining halachic standards and practices and including women in ritual and leadership roles to the fullest extent possible within the boundaries of the law. Some partnership minyanim also wait to begin parts of the service requiring a minyan until 10 women as well as 10 men are present. These services are known as a Shira Hadasha-style minyan, after Kehillat Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, the first such prayer group to be established, in 2001. "The idea of a partnership minyan 20 years ago would have been met with a blank expression," said Marcus. "Women's tefilla was seen as heretical." EVEN MORE radical are the number of women who today occupy leadership positions in synagogues. Sara Hurwitz, who serves as the spiritual counselor at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, is considered part of the rabbinic staff. Her position is meant to be on par with the assistant rabbis, and her responsibilities include teaching, counseling, and most of all being a presence on the women's side of the mehitza during prayer. "Standing next to the mother of a bar mitzva boy to empower her to feel she is part of what's going on, or inspiring women to pray out loud - that's what I do," said Hurwitz. "Having a woman on the women's side helps people feel they are part of the service." Hurwitz graduated from the scholars' circle at Drisha and has continued to study under the auspices of HIR's Rabbi Avi Weiss, with whom she is working towards a degree that will be similar to a smicha certificate. "We are not yet sure what the language will be," said Hurwitz. Hurwitz's position is one of a number of similar synagogue positions that have opened up to women over the last few years. Though not considered "rabbis," women in these positions are the closest approximation to rabbis thus far. "Now it is very hard for women to grow up and say I want to be a rabbi. It is very much a self-motivated role and it comes with its challenges," said Hurwitz. "Not everybody in the community is ready to accept women, but the more people see women in these positions, the more normal it becomes." That there will be women rabbis in the Orthodox world is a no-brainer, said Marcus. "There is no question that you will have women rabbis. We might call them something different now, but as soon as it is accepted by a small minority, it will happen." Though the movement has come a long way, the word feminism still strikes many the wrong way. Just as all these gains are made, "feminism" - the very word itself - has increasingly become a red-flag word inside Orthodoxy. "When feminism mattered not at all, it was not a subject for discussion," wrote Greenberg in a column on Beliefnet. "But suddenly, feminism is at the door - or halfway through the door - of modern Orthodoxy, and many inside have squared off." In her column Greenberg relayed this story: A mainstream Orthodox women's organization was invited to join as co-sponsor of the 1998 Orthodox feminism conference, a role that same group had played the previous year. The organization's leadership said yes, but only on condition that conference organizers drop "feminism" from the title. (They refused.) "I've had many conversations about dropping the word feminism, but I feel like it's turning our back on the women's movement, something that was a very powerful influence on women everywhere," said Greenberg. "This feels like an act of ingratitude, and an injustice to deny its influence."


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