I can clearly remember where I was sitting, in the midst of my Bible class during my final semester at Stern College for Women. We were learning about Miriam’s death in the book of Numbers and the subsequent loss of water for the Jewish people. The well dried up. Why was that? The slew of commentators makes it clear that the Jewish people did not properly mourn Miriam’s death. They did not give the proper kavod, honor, to one of the greatest leaders of our nation.
One by one, students raised their hands to defend the Jewish people’s decision. “Well…Miriam was really behind the scenes.” “Well…she did not have a role like Moses and Aaron.” I kept hearing excuse after excuse. I looked at the clock and decided that I would wait ten minutes for someone to defend Miriam’s honor. I waited those ten slow painstaking minutes, and then I raised my hand. I questioned why medieval commentaries were more progressive and supportive of the role of women than my classmates in the twenty first century.
I could not help associating this experience with the recent public responses to Rabbi Moshe Kahn’s shiur, lecture, about the halakhic parameters of delaying procreation. I read Hannah Dreyfus’ take on the event published in the Jewish Week, and Blanche Haddad’s response printed in the Observer. I then listened to the shiur itself and would recommend reading his article “Halakhic Matters in Delaying Procreation” which was published in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School’s Meorot Journal.
In first reading the back and forth, I was frustrated. I felt like little had changed since my time on campus in 2003. It seemed that a number of the students were insistent that the fact that birth control is permitted by halakha is not related to feminism. Haddad stated that she is “not arguing that halakha and feminist ideals are inherently separate and can never be reconciled; to me, this is rarely the case. However, the two are not inherently linked in our case of postponing the mitzvah de’oraita [biblical obligation] of procreation; rather, there is space within halakha for a couple to make the decision to delay procreation due to a couple’s pressing concerns, and not a ‘feminist ideal of personal choice.’” Rabbi Kahn, empowered students to make their own decisions about family planning girded with the knowledge shared in his shiur and article.
When people, especially relatively young people, try to dissociate certain liberties, including birth control, from the feminist movement, I feel that there is often a lack of hakarat hatov, proper gratitude and recognition for those rabbis, lobbyists, feminists and other supporters who went to great lengths for all of us to have more choices. It wasn’t until 1972 that access to birth control was legalized for all Americans. I questioned this mindset—the absence of hakarat hatov– when I was a senior in college, and I initially felt that way in reading these articles about the shiur.
By last night, I had considered a new lens for viewing the sentiments of these students. Perhaps access to birth control, at least in the Modern Orthodox community, is a given at this point. At what point in time do we stop declaring that this is a fight to be won? When have we reached the moment when we are so far past the line in the sand, that what was once controversial a battle to be won has not only been won, but it is now accepted, normative, and no longer questioned.
One might argue that these students have moved beyond their predecessors’ outlooks and are not looking at the world with rose colored glasses, rather they are looking at the world with their realities, their truths.
While this may be applicable for example, in regard to the Civil Rights movement, in that many battles have been won, such as integrated seating on busses, I’m not sure that the same can be applied to women in Orthodox Judaism. It is not a given that a woman can sit wherever she chooses on a bus in Brooklyn or Israel. It is not a given that a woman will feel that she can make personal, financial, or life-changing decisions without the psak, decision, of a rabbi. It is not a given that women can serve as a synagogue president.
In some ways, I am gladdened that these students view choices, such as using birth control for family planning, as their rights and as normative, but it is important to understand the halakhic premise for these rights as well as detractors’ arguments as Rabbi Kahn aptly spoke to in his shiur. Access to, and halakhic permission to use birth control, is not a given for all Orthodox women.
I was moved by the women portrayed in the film Be Fruitful and Multiply who shared their stories of feeling overwhelmed by their perceived obligation to have well over a dozen children because they were not provided with the choice to control their reproductive system. Viewing this film and hearing first-hand accounts from women who have struggled with the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” might be a good follow up exercise to take place at Stern and in other communities. In today’s world, regardless of your own personal religious practice, your place of employment may have control over your body as well as was heatedly debated in regard to the Affordable Care Act and Hobby Lobby.
Stern College provides a place where women can engage in deep halakhic discourse, academic pursuits and flourish in a variety of resources outside of the classroom. I say this out of love and the utmost respect for my colleagues and soon to be colleagues. We are extremely privileged. Privileges can never be taken for granted. Much of what may seem permanent is not as stable as some of you may think. In order to hold our ground and continue to have personal choice as Orthodox women, we need to continue learning halakha, being aware of detractors and their rationale, and understanding and embodying gratitude. Without gratitude for those who we owe a debt for setting the stage that we can walk on today, those who currently support and empower us, I fear that there is much to be lost.
The experience of being a self-identifying Orthodox Feminist Jewish woman on a college campus can be simultaneously empowering and alienating. On one hand, the college experience tends to be conducive to self-expression and experimentation, and challenging existing norms—a common conversation in Orthodox Feminist circles–seems like a perfect activity for college campuses. On the other hand, there are still many roadblocks which can prevent these initiatives within the college setting. For example, other Orthodox individuals might question your validity within the movement, while secular social action advocates might exclude you due to your religious affiliation. Meanwhile, Orthodox Jewish groups on campus might not be willing to undergo the process of engaging with the halakha (Jewish law) in order to find ways to empower women on campus within the confines of halakha. At times, feminist work within the Orthodox setting can prove a lonely and tiring experience.
This past weekend’s Campus Leaders Shabbaton provided an invaluable opportunity for individuals across college campuses who face these successes and struggles on a regular basis to come together in order to learn, discuss challenges, and brainstorm solutions to these issues. College students from over seventeen campuses, including Barnard College, NYU, Brandeis University, Stony Brook University, University of Pennsylvania, McGill University, the University of Bristol, Temple University, and Yeshiva University all came together, united by our identities as Orthodox Feminists and our determination to grow throughout the weekend through listening, talking and learning. The event was graciously hosted by the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a Modern Orthodox synagogue colloquially known as ‘The Bayit’ which has been at the forefront of halakhically empowering women for many years, ultimately leading to the ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz as a female Modern Orthodox halakhic leader in 2009. The shabbaton programming included a panel on navigating synagogue politics, which was open to the synagogue community at large, followed by a closed discussion for college participants; a session discussing the halakhic implications of partnership minyans; discussions with prominent Orthodox feminists about how to engage others in Orthodox feminism; and open brainstorming sessions to discuss ideas and programming pertaining to the topic.
For myself and the other participants, the weekend posed an invaluable opportunity to meet, and engage meaningfully with, others who are passionate about Orthodox Feminism. In our home communities, we may not be understood and heard, but at the JOFA shabbaton we were given a chance to not only speak about the issues in a supportive environment, but to also brainstorm solutions to these issues in formal and informal settings. On Sunday, we role-played discussions with individuals in our communities who were wary of feminist influence within Orthodox Judaism, and also discussed which tactics were either successful or unsuccessful in instituting positive change to empower women. Over and above the issues, however, was the sense of camaraderie which prevailed throughout the weekend. A group of individuals, both men and women, had been brought together by JOFA in order to empower a group which consists of half the Jewish people, and it truly created a kehilla kedosha—a holy community—when brought together as a whole.
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.