The title of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s 10th anniversary conference (held this weekend in New York) was Passion and Possibility: ×•×—×™ ×‘×”×?.
This title was meant to reflect the belief that feminism can lead to more passionate observance of Judaism for both men and women, but it also reflected the entire atmosphere of the conference, from the excitement of those who had traveled far to experience a community of like-minded people to the innovative ideas about spirituality, halakha (Jewish law), and community presented in the sessions.
Elie Holzer, a co-founder of Shira Hadasha minyan in Jerusalem, espoused this idea of feminism enriching Jewish life in his lecture about developing meaningful prayer. He discussed ways that feminist theories can be used to improve the entire community’s prayer experience. For example, a feminist rethinking of power structures may change the way a community envisions roles such as rabbi and chazzan, giving more autonomy and responsibility to the individual congregant, which will in turn enrich his or her prayer experience.
The question of using feminism to do more than just include women spilled over into my lunch conversation, where a group of Orthodox women scholars who are in congregational and educational positions normally filled by rabbis discussed the possibility of starting an organization to exchange ideas and network, somewhat like the Rabbinical Council of America.
While all the women scholars were enthusiastic about the idea, they disagreed over whether the organization should include men or not. Some felt that the first priority was to fill in the gap left by the lack of community for women scholars, while others felt that any dialogue would be enriched if both genders participated.
During the hour before lunch, conference goers had a choice of nine different sessions, but all focused in one way or another on agunot. Agunot are women whose husbands have refused to grant them a Jewish divorce, thus making it impossible for them to remarry.
This phenomenon is an extreme example of the fact that Orthodox men have much more power than women in divorce proceedings according to Jewish law. Unlike in past conferences where sessions on agunot were mixed with sessions on other topics, this organizational choice forced all those who attended the conference to confront the problem of agunot. It worked; I attended a session about agunot for the first time ever and heard a thought-provoking presentation.
But during the question period, a man innocently asked how many women are affected by this problem. A woman attending the session attacked him, accusing him of trying to minimize the plight of agunot. This exchange reinforced my belief that the agunot problem, while horrible and heartbreaking, affects only a tiny fringe of our community, and is simply pushed to the forefront by overly emotional activists.
On the other hand, perhaps I simply prefer to focus on what is positive while ignoring serious problems. Are the agunot activists getting carried away with their passion, or are the rest of us getting distracted from an important topic with all the attractive new possibilities?