Women must be equal partners in Orthodox Judaism

Our accomplishments are regularly assailed, our motives questioned. Women are not yet equal partners in the Orthodox world.

Women light candles for Shabbat (photo credit: REUTERS)
Women light candles for Shabbat
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Feminism has changed the landscape of Orthodox Judaism. This is an undeniable, but for many, uncomfortable truth.
The place of women in the Orthodox world has expanded in ways unimaginable to our grandmothers and great grandmothers. Yet these achievements cannot be taken for granted, certainly not here in Israel.
Our accomplishments are regularly assailed, our motives questioned. Women are not yet equal partners in the Orthodox world.
So what has been achieved? Serious Torah learning, the jewel in the Jewish crown, is now widespread amongst girls and women. A cadre of female Torah scholars both teach and publish. Talmidot chachamot give private halachic rulings on the laws of Niddah through the hugely successful Nishmat program. This Purim, Kolech publicized a map of more than 120 women’s readings of Megilat Esther. A woman can say Kaddish out loud in some synagogues. Partnership minyanim are popping up all over Israel.
Orthodox feminists led the charge that broke the national complacency toward sexual harassment by men in positions of authority. Some of the first major cases against predatory sexual behavior by public figures arose from within the Orthodox community. We no longer hide our dirty laundry at the expense of abused women.
Pre-nuptial agreements that reduce the risk of a bride becoming an aguna are more commonplace and garnering the support of rabbis. At the national level, a women can no longer be legally prevented from giving eulogies in Israel’s public cemeteries.
Yet guarding the successes of Orthodox feminism requires constant vigilance, and substantial hurdles remain. Most glaringly, the issue of agunot remains woefully unresolved. The Rabbinical Courts in Israel will not make sustained, regular use of the significant powers at their disposal. In the recent case of Oded Gez, the Rabbinical Court publicly shamed a recalcitrant husband. What the Court should have done was use their halachic power to free the woman that Gez made an aguna. With the Courts under the firm sway of the ultra-Orthodox, sadly, this is not surprising.
Female religious leadership is still developing. There are many appropriate candidates and their numbers are growing. The State of Israel offers religious jobs to thousands (yes thousands) of men – kashrut supervisors, army chaplains, school rabbis, hospital rabbis and rabbinic judges. Yet barely a single position is occupied by a woman. Of the 233 seats on the religious city counsels in Israel, only 48 are occupied by women.
Communal acceptance of female religious leaders is embryonic. We can’t even agree on what title to call them.
Within the national Orthodox school system, there remains a gaping divide between boys and girls. Boys study Talmud for up to 13 hours each week. Girls, on the other hand, typically learn no Talmud whatsoever.
This is no small matter. Talmud is the cornerstone of Torah literacy. The result of this discriminatory practice is that girls enter tertiary religious education at a major, often unbridgeable, disadvantage.
Why does Orthodoxy’s attitude to women still lag so far behind? The demands of women for an equal voice are commonly perceived as a threat. The fear of sliding down some imagined slippery slope is nothing more than guttural fear of the unfamiliar. Orthodox feminists require men to move out of their comfort zone, because that zone discriminates against women.
In a recent academic study, Tamar Herman found that men and women in the national Orthodox public share the daily privileges and challenges of generating income, raising families and household chores. Yet on halachic matters, attitudes are different. Gone is the egalitarianism. Instead there is an expectation that a woman’s place remain untouched. This must change.
Then there are vested interests. With the blessed growth in the number of rabbinic students, the competition for religious jobs can be fierce. Preventing the entrance of women, as talented as they may be, is also a form of protectionism.
Lastly, and perhaps most consequently, we still live in the era of humra. In ritual matters, the stricter interpretation is always considered the holier one. Yet strangely, humra devotees rarely extend their strictures to the halachot governing interpersonal relations.
The higher, thicker mehitza [gender separating barrier] is deemed religiously superior, even when it offends the sensibilities of female congregants. This enables Orthodox Jews, supposedly in the name of Torah, to trample the legitimate aspirations of women.
Those of us who love Torah and hold our traditions dear will continue to work from within until our communities and our leaders recognize that women must be equal partners in Judaism.
The writer, an attorney, is the executive director of Kolech, the leading Orthodox feminist movement in Israel.