Ever since I was young, I have always felt a strong connection to Purim. For most girls at that age, the focus was dressing up as princesses and making lots of noise at appropriate moments during the Megillah reading, but for me there was something about the courage of our heroine Esther that made her stand out as a true role model. It was always refreshing to celebrate the actions of this extremely brave young woman, who I interpreted to be rather unassuming and from a regular background just like you or me.
As an Orthodox girl who attended a non-Jewish school throughout my education, I understood to some extent how it felt to be in the minority but, unlike Esther, I was able to be outwardly proud of my Jewish identity, and never once considered hiding it. I used it as an opportunity to educate my fellow students about a religion with which most of them had no previous experience.
My teenage self found special affinity with Esther over the fact that we were both vegetarians, something which I still am to this day. According to the Talmud, Esther was a vegetarian while she lived in the palace of King Ahasuerus, Vegetarianism would have allowed Esther to have avoided violating the kosher dietary laws while keeping her Jewish identity secret. Not necessarily my reasoning for abstaining from eating meat but, in my eyes, it was another factor that contributed to my personal understanding of Esther’s character and conduct.
When I moved to my community of Borehamwood and Elstree a few years ago and discovered that there was a women’s Megillah group, I was immediately drawn to it and felt I must try to be a part of it in some way. However, as much as I was extremely keen to learn to recite a part of the Megillah, this decision came with a great deal of fear and trepidation. Would my Hebrew be good enough to allow me to learn my section accurately? Would I be able to conquer the tune, reading Hebrew without vowels, and overcome my stage fright? And, perhaps bizarrely, would the other women in the group accept me with open arms? I remember turning up to the first meeting with a huge sense of intimidation and worry—was I really capable of this or was I aiming a bit too far out of my comfort zone?
In contrast, what I discovered was a group of like-minded, supportive and dedicated women, all with their own reasons for wanting to read the Megillah, which made me realize that I actually hoped to gain more from this experience than I initially thought. Yes, there was the obvious challenge of tackling something new and becoming more involved in my community but also, when offered the chance to be a public voice in a festival that exists as a result of one woman having the strength to stand up for what she believed in, and when halakha permits all of this, how could I take a passive seat? It made me start thinking about my two-year-old daughter, the image of women in Judaism that I wanted to project, and the opportunities that I hoped would be available to her in the future.
The women’s Megillah reading in Borehamwood is such a special event in my calendar and, as a result, Purim holds more meaning for me than it ever has before. Listening to the clear and beautiful voices of all those women who strive to recite their portions without error and knowing the hard work that has gone into it, especially when we all have our own pressures from our family and professional lives, makes me very proud to be among them. It is a very emotional experience for many of us – the sense of achievement and camaraderie is hard to put into words. It is something that I hope I will continue to share with my daughter in the years to come. While not all of us are faced with obstacles as extreme as Esther’s, Purim allows us to reflect on the fact that each of us is capable of making a difference in this world in our own unique way.
“You’re thinking of going to a conference on Orthodox Feminism? But that can’t exist. Besides, you don’t hate men or burn your bras!” I was getting this reaction a lot. Okay, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the implication. I am a feminist, and I’m Jewish but I myself was surprised when I came across those two words used together. I decided to attend the JOFA Conference in London, partly out of curiosity, partly to reassure myself that not all feminists were bra-burning man-haters.
The JOFA Conference was a fantastic experience. Speakers of all ages and backgrounds shared their stories, ideas, plans, and opinions with passion and enthusiasm. One of the best things about it was that the audience was actively engaged, taking advantage of the opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts after each speaker. The amount of planning and effort that had gone into organising the day was evident from the collection of speakers. Topics ranged from why it’s important we hear women’s voices, to women’s voices in lifecycle events to women’s voices in the community. The speeches were accessible, personal and interesting. I particularly admired the courage of the women who shared emotional and personal experiences in order to emphasize the need for Orthodox Feminism.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s speech was about men and women being equally created in the image of God and the covenantal approach for men and women. I remembered the Biblical story about how Eve, a woman, was only created second to Adam, a man, from his ribs. This seems to imply that women are second place creations and are dependent on the existence of men. I asked Rabbi Greenberg: How could this story show God’s intentions of gender equality when the message of this story seems to contradict this? Rabbi Greenberg explained that there are two versions of the story in Bereishit, the first one being that originally there was only one gender, only one being. This symbolises that God wanted every person created after to be equal in value, despite race, intelligence, ability, and of course gender. The second story, the “ribs” story, illustrates how this image of equality was broken when one human was separated from the other, and foreshadowed how this idea of equality would be broken, showing the need for us to work towards the original equality that God intended. I found that this linked to feminism because it is an ideology that advocates equality.
The main idea I took away from the conference was the uniqueness of Orthodox Feminism. Orthodox Feminism recognises that halakha is a dynamic process that adapts to the changing realities of the Jewish people. Living in the 21st century when gender equality is now accepted in the West, Orthodox feminists call for the halakhic interpretations to reflect this new reality.
I think I can speak on behalf of everyone that attended the conference when I thank JOFA for organising an amazing conference that left my head buzzing with new ideas and my eyes opened to challenges faced by Orthodox Feminists.
As I flick through the pages of my pocket prayer book deliberating over which tunes to pick for Lecha Dodi at this week’s local Partnership Minyan, two thoughts distract me. Firstly: I sincerely hope the clatter of the Jubilee Line train at rush hour is drowning out my occasional involuntary audible humming. Secondly (and slightly more profoundly): is this how diligent bar-mitzvah boys use their commute to school to cram in practice in the run up to the big day?
Quite apart from the momentary humour involved in imagining my thirty-something self sharing the same experiences as a thirteen year old boy, the latter thought is, for me, imbued with both sadness and excitement. Sadness, or perhaps more accurately, regret, at lost opportunities—crucially, lost education. But more importantly, it serves as a reminder of quite how far the role of women in Modern Orthodoxy has progressed in the UK in the last few years. Here I was, preparing to lead a Kabbalat Shabbat Service in an Orthodox setting—my skills no longer only of use in the ‘grassroots’ minyanim where I will forever be indebted to those (of both genders) who shared their knowledge with me.
In addition to spurring activism, one of JOFA’s main achievements in the last year has been the visibility it has bestowed upon the whole debate on women’s participation in Modern Orthodoxy. Last year’s JOFA UK conference shifted the conversation from the fringes to the mainstream, and whilst there remain divisions and frustrations on all sides—especially regarding the pace of change —there is immense value in the dialogue itself. In particular, there is value in hearing the unexpected voices, for example, those women who actually feel uncomfortable in close proximity to a Torah, an inevitable consequence of their lifetimes’ physical separation from this sacred scroll.
So, to what should we aspire in the year to come? For me, top of the list is acceptance from those who would prefer to maintain the status quo—their understanding that this is not an exercise in pushing boundaries; rather, it is about tearing down unnecessary fences (and fences around fences). It is about Jewish women reclaiming our heritage – not for the sake of doing the same as men, but because living an enriching life of Torah should not be unduly limited or defined by gender.
After that small request, comes the tachlis, the practical steps—where appropriate, share your skill set with others! Many of us are part of a ‘lost generation’ of women, enthusiastic to learn, but deprived of education in our youth… One thing is for sure, male or female, it’s an exciting time to be a Modern Orthodox Jew!
Join hundreds of women and men this Sunday (22 June) at the Second Annual JOFA UK Conference. Click here to register.
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Ten years ago on Simchat Torah, three American friends and I walked from synagogue to synagogue in our North West London neighborhood, looking for a place where women were doing more than standing on the sides chatting while the men danced. We didn’t find one.
“The UK Jewish community is about fifty years behind America,” my friend remarked, shaking her head. Both of us had grown up attending American Orthodox Jewish day schools where women’s learning, prayer, Rosh Chodesh Torah readings and Purim megillah readings were quite normal.
At the time, these types of opportunities were not only unavailable to most British women, they were not even on the agenda. Now however, that is no longer the case. The conversation in London over the last several years has changed dramatically. Women are asking for greater participation in both communal and home life, and demanding opportunities for learning and observance that didn’t previously exist.
From this small corner of London, what has happened in the last few years is no less than a revolution. Women’s issues have gone from the back burner to a main topic of discussion and debate at Shabbat tables and lectures. They are reported on regularly in the Jewish weekly newspapers, and discussed on Facebook groups dedicated to Modern Orthodoxy and Jewish feminism.
JOFA UK along with Women in Jewish Leadership and the United Synagogues’ Women’s Executive are just a few of the trailblazing organisations and committees that have started over the past few years. With this organised support behind them, British Jewish women have found new courage to ask for greater ritual participation within Jewish law, whether it be in prayer, learning or leadership roles.
Thanks in part to JOFA UK, over the past year, we have seen more women’s megillah readings in London than ever before. A growing number of women are volunteering for communal posts that are newly open to them. Women are asking their children’s schools to be more conscious of representing female historical leaders. New classes and opportunities for women to study sprout up regularly. And these are just a handful of the recent developments. It is indeed an exciting time to be an Orthodox Jewish woman in the UK.
How we can build on the achievements of the last year and invite more women to add their voices to Torah study and ritual? JOFA’s second annual UK conference will be one place to discuss those issues. The conference will feature the founders of Orthodox Feminism, Blu Greenberg and her husband Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg. Blu Greenberg will discuss why it’s important to hear women’s voices, and whether speaking up can change expectations. Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg will present on the conflict within Orthodoxy over feminism. He will address how the role of women reflects a struggle, shared by men and women, to find a halakhic language to achieve a universal respect for the image of God.
Whilst the changing face of women’s roles in Judaism is happening too slowly for some and too quickly for others, that it’s happening in the UK can’t be disputed. What will the next ten years bring? Only we can answer that question.
Join us at the second annual JOFA UK Conference on Sunday, June 22 in London! Learn more and register for the conference here.
The following d’var torah was given by Lindsay Simmonds at the first UK partnership minyan in November. To find out about how (and why!) to form a partnership minyan in your own community, sign up for the Live Video Webinar on the topic of partnership minyan, to take place on December 18, 8:30 EST.
|יט אָח–נִפְשָׁע מִקִּרְיַת-עֹז ומדונים (וּמִדְיָנִים) כִּבְרִיחַ אַרְמוֹן.||19 A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city; and their contentions are like the bars of a castle.|
Even for those of us who enjoy the flourishing of partnership minyans, and who care for the minutiae of halakhic debate and its religious significance, we ought to be aware that these minyanim are a radical departure from normative Orthodox Jewish practice in the UK.
I’m not going to dance around the politics today. I’m diving in.
I want to touch on the notion of halakhic debate, and radical thought and practice in the UK for a few moments. But most significantly, I want to think about how we manage that debate and how we do not evoke anger, fracture or G-d forbid engender hatred between Jews – but rather foster an attitude of love and even religious pleasure in the eclectic ways of being a Torah Jew.
As I am sure many of you are aware there has been significant to-ing and fro-ing in the debate over attendance at the renowned annual, pluralistic Jewish learning conference, Limmud, these last few weeks. I believe that the way in which this issue has been handled, or mishandled, might shed light on our own journey; perhaps even give us perspective for a more dignified debate.
But I am annoyingly optimistic, almost determinedly naive.
I believe in negotiation and reconciliation. I believe that halakhah is always contemporary – and that is the point.
So, Chief Rabbi Mirvis announces that he will attend Limmud – which, according to those of mainstream UK Orthodoxy is a good, if not belated, step in the right direction, toward klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish community. It is a step that will allow Orthodoxy to be represented and as Rabbi Chaim Brovender once said, “to speak for itself.”
He was left to make his own decision by the current Beth Din, although they do not hold the same halakhic position. As they explained:
“The London Beth Din clearly retains its doubts about the cross-communal event and is not about to give Limmud its blessing. But, critically, the dayanim have indicated that they respect the chief rabbi’s viewpoint, even if they don’t share it.”
Again, a step in the right direction – we disagree, but we do not simply tolerate your differing position, we respect it.
However, following this seemingly amiable compromise, seven weighty halakhists strongly disagreed and made their position public through a communal announcement:
“Participation in [Limmud’s] conferences, events and educational endeavours blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism and would bring about tragic consequences for Anglo-Jewry. As such we strongly advise any Jew whose heart has been touched by the fear of G-d, and who wishes to walk upon paths which will be viewed favourably by the Ribono shel Olam, not to participate in any activity which is under the auspices of Limmud or similar organisations.”
Care is taken to not mention the Chief Rabbi by name, or to state that going to Limmud is assur - forbidden; but there is seemingly a lack of respect, even tolerance, for the choices that other Orthodox rabbis and leading figures have made – not to mention a Chief Rabbi and his Beth Din.
This public announcement caused furor amongst the mainstream Orthodox lay leaders who responded with their own public letter of complaint:
“…we warmly welcome the Chief Rabbi’s decision to attend Limmud. It is a decision that is consistent with the best traditions of Anglo-Jewish Orthodox rabbinic leadership – namely promoting an open, approachable and inclusive Judaism while adhering to a firm halachic framework. However, we deeply regret the publication of a formal Gilui Da’at (Declaration of Opinion) by a number of Orthodox rabbis which claims that those who attend Limmud will, by implication, not be viewed favourably by God. The declaration has the potential to cause great harm to our community and appears to be rooted in tactical power play, as opposed to religious principle.”
And subsequently further responses to the Gilui Da’at have come out, including from Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cordozo, suggesting that:
“To a great extent, authentic Judaism consisted of a multitude of seriously competing ideas, and while simultaneously not compromising Halacha there was a full awareness among the Sages that even Halacha was open to many opinions.”
“Real Orthodoxy has nothing to fear. It has all the vital ingredients necessary to enter the battlegrounds and show its worth. Judaism is the most astonishing and daring religion with which the world has been blessed. It has infinite courage, standing head and shoulders above everything else. It dares, and never avoids any obstacle or critique. It enjoys a good fight so that it can enrich itself. It is a protest movement against many “isms,” but above all against small-mindedness.”
This is the theme upon which I want to elaborate for two reasons.
One, because we need to be clear about the consequences of such small mindedness – from wherever it emerges and
Two, because small-mindedness seems to me to be an obsession with the past, a desperate attempt to remain in the present and a fear of what the future may hold.
Small-mindedness emerges from a lack of imagination, a lack of appreciation of “other,” and a lack of the perception that the passing of time and the hidushim (insights) – the changes it brings are a healthy and necessary part of our religious landscape.
Contradistinctively, Rosh Chodesh is about the celebration of renewal through age-old customs. It is about the recognition of the passing of time, of what we ask the future to hold; but indicative too of how the ancient moon, although it waxes and wanes remains a constant presence.
Famously, we are told, it was a particular gift to women – in recognition of both
- their sensitivity to the ongoing passage of time and
- their specific ability not to fear the future
This is highlighted in the experiences of the chet he’egel – the golden calf in which the women refused to participate; the slavery in, and the exodus from Egypt – all three of which revolved around an appreciation of time.
Moshe will return down the mountain, even if you have calculated that he is late; we will eventually leave Egypt, even if that imaginative faithful leap seems so unlikely now; and the exodus will generate a moment to sing, to express thanksgiving.
All of these events are motifs for sitting it out; for living with the ambivalence of both the desperate need for an alternative reality whilst recognizing that the creation of something new is a process.
Notably, only 2 out of the 26 lay leaders who signed that public letter were women; There has never been a female Chief Rabbi; There are no women who sit on the Beth Din. But there are plenty of women here today – taking part and being present; and plenty of men who are working together with them; perhaps a taste of things to come, but also a taste of how newness might emerge.
Yesterday’s parsha is one of the archetypal moments of fracture. Two brothers, Esau and Jacob, develop – through choice or destiny, into brothers, into nations who abhor each other. Their quest for inheritance and for blessing, disabling their ability to see each other’s needs and to recognize each other’s creative possibilities, has remained an ongoing war, an everlasting chasm.
“The people of that generation of the Second Temple were “righteous,” “pious,” and intensely involved in Torah study. However, they were not upright in their relationships with others, either in their actions, thoughts, or speech. Therefore, because of the unwarranted hatred each had for the other, one would falsely accuse another of heresy, simply because the “other’’ religious expression, and way of respecting and showing reverence to GOD, was not in accordance with one’s own way. The one whose way was different was thereby labeled a non-believer and considered cut off from authentic Judaism, even though that person fulfilled The Torah’s Commandments.This lack of tolerance and limited acceptance of individual religious expression eventually led to murder in the first degree and to all the evils in the world. Eventually, GOD felt that punishment – the destruction of the Holy Temple – was necessary.”
In other words, he blames these two destructions on “excessive righteousness, that is “righteous” individuals who treated others who did not exactly conform to their beliefs as heretics… a particular form of sinat chinam (baseless hatred).”
Baseless, because we as Jews believe in a good argument for the sake of heaven; and hatred, because of the ongoing and occasionally irreparable gulf that is created between ourselves.
Given that in this month of Kislev, of Hanukkah, the Hashmonaim worked for the sake of heaven and not themselves, they rejected the Greek notion of Hellenism and the worship of the body – and persisted in the worship of one G-d; I would like to suggest that we take from their example the possibility of serving G-d with passion and conviction, whilst being ever wary of those who do not hold our views nor practice our innovative rituals.
I hope that, unlike Limmud-gate, we Partnership Minyan-ers might endeavour and succeed in being a far better example of generating the age-old Jewish ideal of a good argument, whilst retaining not just our respect for, but our love of, those who disagree.
To find out about how (and why!) to form a partnership minyan in your own community, sign up for the Live Video Webinar on the topic of partnership minyan, with Dr. Tova Hartman, Dr Chaim Trachtman, and others, set to take place on December 18, 8:30 EST.
JOFA will be offering a series of sessions at Limmud UK later this month on subjects relating to gender in Jewish life. Check out the full schedule here.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
A new partnership minyan was recently formed in Hampstead in North-West London. Here, two of the founders, Beverly Paris and Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel, provide some insights into what made the first meeting such a success. The next minyan is planned for Chanuka — details can be found here. To sign up for the JOFA partnership minyan Googlegroup, click here.
“It was lovely to hear so many women’s voices”
1 x Sefer Torah
50 x folding chairs (begged, borrowed & not quite stolen)
1 x large family living room graciously shared
70+ people aged 6 months – 70 years
100 x donuts, pastries & very fine coffee
Boundless energy & tremendous good will