2 Orthodox women's conferences present decidedly different takes on feminism

Is feminism compatible with Orthodox Judaism? Is a woman's role primarily in the home?

haredi women 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
haredi women 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Is feminism compatible with Orthodox Judaism? Is a woman's role primarily in the home? Can women learn the same Jewish texts as men? Two different Orthodox women's organizations, both holding conferences in July, have radically different answers to these questions. On Wednesday, a Chabad-sponsored Women's Empowerment Rally is expected to attract about 5,000 to Tel Aviv's Nokia Stadium. And on July 13, Kolech, a modern Orthodox women's organization, will hold its sixth international conference entitled "The Woman and Her Judaism." Although both gatherings are being organized primarily by women for women, and both are catering primarily to the Orthodox community, the two events have radically different outlooks on feminism. "We are definitely not feminists," said Rabbanit Hinda Gerlitzky, wife of Chabad's rabbinic emissary in Tel Aviv. "We don't think that women have to fight for their place in Judaism," she continued. "The Torah protects women's special, respected place. "What we mean by 'empowerment' is giving support and strength to women who, between their many obligations both inside and outside the house, need encouragement. But we have no intention of changing anything in Judaism, God forbid." In contrast, Rachel Keren, chairperson of Kolech's Executive Council, proudly identified her organization as feminist and said there was a lot that needed changing in Orthodoxy. "Upholding the ideals of Judaism leads to feminism," said Keren. "In Judaism women were created in God's image just as men were. This creates the obligation to give space for feminine expression." Keren admitted that due to biological realities women are more involved with child-rearing. "The very fact that the woman gives birth and the man doesn't has implications," said Keren. "But that does not mean other roles besides motherhood must be closed to her. "Women should and must be allowed to take leadership roles in the community and in the synagogue, including reading from the Torah," she continued. "Discrimination against women in the rabbinical courts must be stopped. "All these goals can be achieved within the framework of Halacha. The main obstacle has nothing to do with Halacha, rather it has to do with the social construction of reality that is dictated to Orthodox women. We want to change the public discourse on feminine issues in the Orthodox world." The two women also sharply differ on Torah scholarship for women, particularly the learning of the Talmud, the most important text for determining normative Jewish law, whose study is nearly totally dominated by males. "It's not that women are stupid," said Gerlitzky. "But between the children, housework and work outside the home, a woman simply has too many things on her mind to be able to sit with a clear head and learn Gemara [Talmud]. "The spiritual makeup of the woman is not built to learn Gemara with all its complicated, theoretical discussions, she said. "Women are too practical-minded for that. "Besides, that is not the women's role." Gerlitzky added that during the rally on Wednesday the women present will hold a collective Torah learning session. "We will learn together two lectures given by the Rebbe [the late Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson] that talk about the importance of Jewish unity," she said. Kolech's Keren, meanwhile, believes women scholars are just as capable as men. "Both men and women should receive the same Torah education," Kern said. "Within a generation we will see gender differences disappear. "Already there are women who make decisions on halachic issues and there are women who appear before rabbinical courts as rabbinic advocates. And in the future we will be seeing women serving as rabbis, as they become more learned." The Chabad and Kolech events also have different approaches to male participation. While the Kolech conference is open to both men and women, the Chabad rally will accommodate a small group of men, including journalists, who will be asked to leave when female vocalists perform, as most halachic authorities rule that it is forbidden for a man to hear a live vocal performance by a woman. In contrast, at the Kolech conference a halachic opinion will be presented that there is no prohibition against a female singer performing for a mixed audience.