Michal Dicker shares her compelling story of growing into her Orthodox feminist identity. She originally submitted this essay to gain admissions to Barnard College, where she is now a senior, about to submit her senior thesis on the agunah crisis.
“Like mother, like daughter.” This comment often embarrassed me, as I tried to fit in with the girls in my Jewish Orthodox community. I strove to be anything but different—a futile endeavor. Despite my gregariousness, and social graces, my trendy outfits and popular rank, I was branded with an “F”—feminist—thanks to my progressive mom. As I grew older, I thought that I could remain impervious to her convictions but, fortunately for me, I failed. The vast majority of my mom’s opinions began to seem logical. To my own surprise, I found myself advocating her beliefs—specifically in my middle school Judaic classes, where the concept of equal opportunity barely existed. The stirrings of my feminist notions were conceived in a rather convoluted and unconventional manner.
In a class of twelve rambunctious girls who loved to get riled up, I became the resident feminist advocate. Initially, because of my expertise in the field of modern Orthodoxy, and being full of “leftist ideas,” I was the logical choice to play devil’s advocate with our ultra-Orthodox teachers who often stressed male superiority. To the astonishment of my classmates, I grew into the role; what were once strictly my mom’s thoughts and teachings, became my own. The debate with my teachers became a personal crusade to communicate the perspective of my centrist world. Most important to me was advocating the study of Talmud by girls and women, because the Talmud is the foundation for the development of Jewish law (halakha), to which both men and women are subject. I publicly confirmed my feminist beliefs when I took the plunge and read from the Torah to mark my bat mitzvah, a ritual recently revived by some Orthodox women. Although eager to advocate my beliefs, I was unprepared for the social ramifications. Much to my chagrin, I officially became known as “radical”, and I feared ostracism from my peers. I had not yet read The Scarlet Letter, and did not appreciate the concept of a modern-day “Hester.” Despite my display of independence, my good friends did not abandon me.
As I reflect upon this time, I now recognize the crucial role that it played in my personal development. I learned the importance of being psychologically independent; after voicing my “liberal” views, I could not assume that I would be supported. Like my former self, my friends aimed to blend in; many quickly deemed what they did not understand as “erroneous,” a fallacious mindset that still prevails in Jewish Orthodox communities. My indifference to peer pressure proved to be one of my most powerful tools. Both in the classroom and socially, I did not give in to my teachers and peers who did not want to understand. Those who stood by me taught me the importance of genuine friendship.
During this tumultuous time, I also discovered my passion for the pursuit of knowledge—and my adamant refusal to accept anything as fact without research. I attended feminist conferences, joined the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and became dedicated to educating myself and my peers on topics that related to women’s ritual participation and leadership opportunities in Orthodox Judaism. As I entered high school and gained equal access to Judaic texts, I was further inspired to continue on a feminist path. Armed with this power of knowledge and the support of my true friends and family, I have learned to feel comfortable with myself, and confident about my convictions. Now the phrase–“like mother, like daughter”– is the highest form of praise and a badge I wear with pride.
Michal submitted this in response to our call on Facebook for college application essays about Orthodox feminism. If you’ve got an essay sitting somewhere in your files that you’d like to share, send it on over to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Orthodox feminism’s struggle for women’s leadership and ritual inclusion set a strong precedent for the recent consideration of the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. As JOFA supporter Dinah Mendes asserts in Moment Magazine, “LGBT traditional Jews share some similarities with traditional Jewish feminists; like them, they press against established gender boundaries and norms in their quest for more equal representation and involvement.”
“There is no new thing under the sun,” declared King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, the literary, somewhat world-weary distillate of his lifetime experience. But if the wise old king were catapulted into our new gender relaxed world, would he still opine thus? Would he stick to his guns if the Sunday Times landed on his breakfast table, the “Vows” section filled with the nuptial announcements of gay couples? Or if he were to glance at the cover article of a recent Atlantic Monthly entitled “What Straights Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples,” positing the higher level of fulfillment enjoyed in many homosexual unions?
Although legally sanctioned anti-Semitism ensured Jewish cultural separatism and prevented full participation in the larger world for much of Jewish history, Jews living today are, for the most part, free to design the parameters of their dual citizenship. This is not much of an issue for ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are largely self-insulating, or for relatively assimilated Jews at the other end of the spectrum, who are unburdened by the yoke of religious Jewish authority. Ultimately, only traditional and Modern Orthodox Jews, who aspire to inhabit and integrate two worlds, confront serious challenges at points where the values of the two cultures clash with each other.
Continue reading “Is There a New Judaism for Gender Identity?” at Moment Magazine.
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This post has been translated from Hebrew to English by Bracha Jaffe.
Shabbat afternoon between the afternoon and evening prayers is a prime time in the life of a community. Some people attend a halakha or daf yomi shiur (class) while others opt to take an afternoon walk, snooze in the pews, or read a chapter in their current novel of choice. Two weeks ago at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) – The Bayit — I introduced something completely new and different.
A week before the traditional Purim shpiel (play) was set to take the stage, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale turned the synagogue into a theater for a wholly other purpose… a mock trial!
During “prime time,” a group of congregants staged a mock trial to examine the efficacy of the halakhic prenuptial agreement in a court of law. John and Jane Doe had signed a prenup before their wedding, but unfortunately their relationship deteriorated after the wedding. Jane requested an end to the marriage, and that is how they found themselves in court. Jane’s lawyer presented the arguments in favor of using the prenuptial agreement to honor Jane’s request, showing why it should be upheld — that both parties signed of sound mind and understanding the implications of the agreement, and that the financial responsibility assessed therein did not constitute a coercion to give the get. On the other side, John’s lawyer argued against upholding the prenuptial agreement, suggesting that the couple did not truly understand what they were signing, and that they were not really given a choice. John’s lawyer also argued that the financial assessment constituted a fine and a pressure that created a “forced get,” making the prenup halakhically problematic.
The court’s verdict — by a ruling of two judges against one — was that the prenuptial agreement is actionable and binding upon both parties. Thus, the court ordered that John begin to pay Jane $150 per day retroactive to their time of their separation a few months earlier. The judge who objected to the prenup taught us about another solution which has yet to be applied in the Orthodox world, conditional kiddushin, which automatically cancels the marriage if and when the necessary conditions of marriage are no longer being met.
Today’s world is not what it once was. Women vote. Women learn Torah. Women are even ordained to be rabbis. But there are still women who are chained to their husbands and victims of “get refusal.” The Orthodox world has yet to find a solution to the asymmetry in the giving and receiving of the get between husband and wife. There are still those in the Orthodox world who see the get as a bargaining chip and use it as a bullying tactic against the other side.
One approach to eradicating this very painful phenomenon of agunot is signing halakhic prenuptial agreements. The couple signs the prenup before, or on, the wedding day, when their feelings of love are very strong. The prenup capitalizes on this prime moment when positive, cooperative feelings are strongest, and introduces and makes explicit the understanding that if (God forbid) this love should end, the recorded memory of good intentions will allow the couple to separate in an honorable and respectful manner.
HIR has planned a post-nup party to be held on Sunday, March 30. Every married member of the congregation has received an invitation and the goal is for all married members of the synagogue to participate. Anyone who did not sign a prenup before their wedding will be able to sign a reciprocal postnup in its place. Single congregants and married couples who have signed a prenup are encouraged to attend to partake in the celebration and show their support for this practice. By seeking one hundred percent participation, we aim to make prenuptial agreements an accepted part of the Jewish marriage ceremony in our synagogue and beyond.
My fervent hope is that the upcoming postnup party will allow all synagogue members to play an active role in this movement to end the use of the get as an aggressive and combative halakhic tool. Further, I hope that other synagogues will (as some around the country already have) host such events to encourage the signing of the postnup, and will take steps to educate and empower all of their members to sign either a prenup or a postnup. May we see the day where this critical action step joins with others to bring an end to the problem of agunot in our community.
I want to especially thank Rabanit Michal Tickotchinski who was part of a mock trial in Israel and encouraged us to try this at The Bayit, and of course, all of the actors, members of HIR, who performed with passion and brilliance:
- James Lapin (John Doe)
- Ann Lapin (Jane Doe)
- Mia Padwa (Jane’s lawyer)
- Elliot Rabin (John’s lawyer)
- Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Rabbi Jeff Fox, Ariel Freidenberg JD (the judges)
It is funny to celebrate the 120th anniversary of our synagogue when Judaism tells us that 120 years should mark the completion of a lifetime. Yet, at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, as we embark upon the celebration of our 120th year, we are not only far from completion, but rather, find ourselves at the cutting edge of issues facing women and Judaism.
It surprises people to learn that a 120-year-old synagogue in the Midwest is on the forefront of Orthodox feminism.
Bais Abraham Congregation hosted one of the first women’s tefillah (prayer) groups in the country, a group that still continues to this day, nearly forty years later. The tefillah (prayer) group has been a venue for countless Bat Mitzvahs across the community – including welcoming young women who were not permitted to speak from the bimah (stage) in their own synagogues. Moreover, for as long as I can remember, Bat Mitzvah girls have been invited to give the sermon before the entire congregation.
Many of the programs that we organize at “Bais Abe,” as we affectionately call our synagogue, integrate women into the community in innovative and comprehensive ways. In 2010, when a group of Orthodox women in St. Louis decided to scribe a Megillat Esther, it was Bais Abe’s Rabbi Hyim Shafner who encouraged the women to pursue the project. He created a series of classes to teach the women the halakhot (Jewish laws) of writing megillot and served as a rabbinic advisor and champion throughout the process. In 2013, Bais Abe took on the cause of agunot at its major fundraising event. From that campaign emerged a community-wide post-nup signing event, spearheaded by Bais Abe and co-sponsored by all the Modern Orthodox congregations in St. Louis. Nearly forty couples signed the RCA post-nup agreement, raising awareness of the plight of agunot. The national publicity from this event created a spark and we now see dozens of other synagogues planning similar events.
I was proud to serve as president of Bais Abe (2010-2012), the first female president of an Orthodox synagogue in St. Louis, and possibly even across the Midwest. Most striking to me about the experience is that the election was not seen as part of a feminist agenda or viewed as controversial; it was simply finding the right person for the job, and at the time, the right person was female.
Even more revolutionary is that our little synagogue in St. Louis – we boast less than one hundred families as members – is one of only a handful across the globe that has hired a woman to join its Orthodox clergy team. In 2013 we hired Rori Picker Neiss, soon to graduate from Yeshivat Maharat, to serve as our Director of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement, a clergy-level position. Rori delivers drashot (sermons) from the pulpit, teaches in the religious schools, answers questions on halakhic (Jewish legal) matters, and offers pastoral counsel. She is changing the face of Orthodox Judaism in St. Louis.
Bais Abe has been a partner with JOFA on many programs over the years. The next time you find yourself in the Midwest, please come and visit. You will find yourself right at home at Bais Abe!
Every year costumed women and children arrive from communities across the island, all aglow and abuzz with great anticipation. Purim with the MWTG is truly a happening here in Montreal. The Montreal Women’s Tefillah Group (MWTG) was founded in 1982 under the direction and leadership of Dr. Norma Baumel Joseph and our halakhic advisor, Rabbi Howard S. Joseph of Canada’s oldest congregation (1768), the Spanish and Portuguese. At the time our mandate was to provide a venue wherein women, citywide, could gather in prayer, complete with Torah service on Rosh Chodesh. Years later we were able to realize Norma’s goal of conducting our very own reading of Megillat Esther by and for women. I believe we may now claim to be another of the treasured fixtures on the Montreal Jewish scene.
Montreal is also home to the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get, a body created to advocate on behalf of the agunot in our midst. The Coalition deals with agunot, rabbis, and government. In 1990, the Coalition succeeded in having Bill 21.1 amended to the Canadian Divorce Act, which removed any barriers to religious remarriage.
The Coalition had held its first Vigil for Agunot on the evening before Ta’anit Esther. After another year with a small turnout, the vigil was moved to Purim day, just before Megillah reading. It was quite a success! As Purim is our most well-attended event of the year, averaging one hundred participants, it is our best opportunity to inform and update our community on this most shameful and deplorable status.
We have led workshops on agunot, held art displays, watched Israel’s Savta Bikorta videos followed by group discussion, and listened to a
very moving address and plea from a local agunah of six years now. Last year seven women scattered and seated throughout the chapel read brief, scripted accounts of local agunot. This action had quite an impact on attendees, as a voice was suddenly heard from one side of the room, followed by another from the opposite side and so on. These added activities have fostered much creativity in our community and I heartily suggest that other groups follow suit.
CHAG PURIM SAMEACH!
Click here to read more about International Agunah Day, which is on Ta’anit Esther (March 13, 2014).
This piece was submitted on Friday, January 31, 2014. The event took place on Sunday, January 26.
When a couple gets divorced, the husband must provide the wife with a get (Jewish writ of divorce). If he refuses to grant her this document, she remains “chained” to the marriage, unable to re-marry. A woman in this situation is called an agunah.
Something incredible happened last Sunday night.
Three Modern Orthodox synagogues in St. Louis– Bais Abraham Congregation, Young Israel of St. Louis, and Nusach Hari-B’nai Zion– joined together to sponsor an event to raise awareness about the plight of agunot and to encourage couples to sign the halakhic postnuptial agreement. Featuring keynote speaker Rabbi Yona Reiss, Av Beit Din (Head of the Rabbinic Court) of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and former director of the Rabbinical Council of America, the event highlighted the abuse suffered by women in the Orthodox community when their husbands refuse to give them a get, whether to use it as leverage in the divorce proceedings or merely as a conduit to exert power.
On Sunday we came together as a community. We recognized a communal problem. And we worked together for a communal solution.
The halakhic prenuptial agreement – or postnuptial agreement, for those like myself who were already married without signing the prenuptial agreement – is currently the best solution to prevent future agunot. The agreement outlines that in the event of a divorce, the couple agrees to resolve any disputes related to the get before the religious court (in our case, the Beth Din Zedek Ecclesiastical Judicature of the Chicago Rabbinical Council) and that the husband obligates himself to support his wife in the amount of $150 per day, adjusted for inflation, from the time that they cease to live together as husband and wife for as long as they remain religiously married.
Thirty-one couples signed the postnup document on Sunday night, and another twelve who were unable to attend the event committed to signing the document.
Keren and Gabe Douek will be married for ten years this August. They attended the event with their four-year-old son Joel and two-month-old son Oliver in tow. “It is so painful to read stories of husbands abusing their wives and keeping this last element of control over them by refusing to give the get,” Keren said. “The postnup is a concrete step we can take towards a real solution, instead of just sharing an article on Facebook. I’d like to believe that I would never need my postnup, but Gabe and I felt very strongly that signing one is the right thing to do.”
Annabelle and Ken Chapel also signed the document. “I’m very fortunate. I’m going to be married sixty years,” said Annabelle. “But there are women who are not so fortunate and it is not fair that they are held hostage. This is a way of showing solidarity.”
Though there are eighty-six additional individuals who now have extra legal protection in their marriage, it is really all of our marriages that are now stronger and, indeed, our entire community that benefits. Together we took a stand. Together we shifted the communal norm. Together we declared that we refuse to allow our rituals of marriage and divorce to become a mechanism for manipulation.
Together we said that even one agunah is one too many.
I invite you to join us.
Click here for information about halakhic prenuptial agreements and various resources for agunot.
After 28 years of marriage (BH!) Adam Dicker and I signed a post-nuptial agreement this past Saturday night at the home of our friends. My daughter and her husband, whose joint aufruf I wrote about in September, signed a similar prenuptial agreement before their wedding this past August.
The Post-Nup celebration was attended by approximately ten couples, and one couple who had signed a prenup also came for support. The purpose of this signing ceremony was to raise awareness of the agunah issue and, of course, to protect all those women who signed.
This past June, JOFA founder Blu Greenberg convened the Agunah Summit in New York City to implement halachic solutions to the Agunah crisis. Rabbinic authorities have followed up with increased support for existing solutions, as well as for new and creative follow-up strategies. Recent articles about agunot have appeared in the press, and there are many thousands more agunot who we do not know about. Tamar Epstein, an agunah who grew up in our suburban Philadelphia community and is currently living here, is a constant reminder that this is an unacceptable phenomenon within the Jewish community.
Let’s all band together in support of those seeking to implement halachic solutions to both prevent the agunah situation and to free those for whom it is too late to sign any pre- or post-nuptial agreements!
Blu Greenberg will be speaking about the agunah issue at the 8th International JOFA Conference on December 7 and 8 at John Jay College. Register today!
The following is adapted from the drasha (sermon) delivered by Rori Picker Neiss at Bais Abraham Congregation, St Louis, MO on November 17, 2013, Shabbat Parshat Vayeitzei. Rori serves as Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham as she completes her studies at Yeshivat Maharat.
I used to think that the Torah was a story of God, and, as such, was a story of heroes, of bravery, and of goodness. Perhaps that is how my teachers had wanted me to see it. I learned of the heroism of Noah, who saved humanity from total extinction. I learned of the bravery of Abraham, who argued with God in defense of the wicked people of Sodom and Gemorrah. I learned of the never-ending compassion that God displays towards the Jewish people.
The Torah is not a story of God, though; it is a story of humans. While humans can be heroic, brave, and good, they can also be corrupt, oppressive, and depraved.
There is one story in the Torah in particular that we often slide right past. It is a story we do not like to teach in schools, and one we often do not want to discuss openly. It is a story that is not easy to tell, but one that we need to tell. It is a story of corruption, of oppression, and of depravity. Continue reading
In the wake of the current discussion of the Gital Dodelson case (about which I know nothing more than what has been written in the New York Post), I thought I would take the opportunity to discuss the origins of the agunah/mesorevet gett problem in our time as I understand them.
Divorce in Jewish law, like marriage, is a private ceremony that works along the model of contracts. Whatever the benefits of such a system may be, the Achilles heel has always been the possibility of igun. In order for a couple to be divorced a man is required to give his wife a gett, so if the man is unavailable or unwilling to do so, this leaves a woman stranded as married yet not married—chained to a dead marriage and a lost or recalcitrant husband, unable to move forward with her life.
Igun Then and Now
Through various epochs of Jewish history, the problem of women stuck in dead marriages has expressed itself in different ways. Throughout most of history, the agunah problem was minor and usually involved husbands who were lost in battle or at sea, or they died on business trips. In the period before long distance communication was a reality and documentation of travelers and deaths was haphazard and imprecise at best, the possibility that a woman’s husband could die on a trip and she never know about it was a serious one. In the Geonic period, there was a small but real attrition to Islam, where, once converted, the men would not participate in a Jewish religious divorce. Continue reading
Avishalom Westreich and Pinhas Shifman, religious Israeli legal scholars of marriage and divorce law who presented compelling proposals at JOFA’s Agunah Summit in June, have published a new paper on the issue in which they argue for the adoption of civil marriage and divorce in Israel. The purpose, they argue, is to alleviate all the unnecessary suffering in Israel around issues of marriage and divorce, including that of the thousands of agunot stuck in unwanted marriages. In their paper they write:
“We propose adopting a uniform civil framework for marriage and divorce. Such a civil framework model would require advance registration and fulfillment of the necessary preconditions for marriage, thus constituting an all-inclusive, normative civil system that would handle all matters of marriage and divorce in Israel. In light of the significant weight and importance of religion in Israeli society, this model would grant full legitimacy to a wide variety of religious and non-religious marriage ceremonies, as well as a variety of divorce ceremonies and procedures. However, for purposes of state recognition, there would be just one civil law. those who wish to do so, especially if they were originally married in a religious fashion, would then be able to choose whether or not to continue litigating their marriage and divorce disputes in the religious courts, provided that these courts remain committed to the fundamental principles of civil property law, and to equal implementation of the right to divorce.”
To read the rest of the paper, click here
And don’t forget: Solutions for the agunah problem will be presented at the upcoming JOFA conference. Register today!