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 originally appeared on the Religious Action Center’s blog and has been reprinted here with permission.
In a recent conversation about raising families, I recounted the numerous times that I have been asked, often in an accusatory tone, why I have “only” two children. I guess because I am an Orthodox woman, people think this is an area into which they are allowed to pry. It is a question that I find incredibly personal, and deeply offensive – especially when it is followed with an admonishment that I am falling down on my religious duties by not abiding by the Biblical imperative “to be fruitful and multiply.” Yet one has to look no further than the Four Matriarchs – who no doubt did not have access to any modern birth control techniques – to see that the notion of large families (certainly not from one mother) is not always reflected in our history, even before hormone-based pills, patches or IUDs.
Indeed, our Scripture describes to us that Sarah struggled with infertility until the age of 90, when she birthed Isaac. Rebecca had a pair of twin boys, Esau and Jacob – and then no more. Leah, the most fecund, had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun and a daughter, Dinah. And finally, Rachel gave birth to Joseph, and then after a number of years, had Benjamin, whose birth caused her death.
Beyond informing us of the number and names of children of various Biblical personalities, the Bible does not go into any detail about other related issues – miscarriage, still birth, babies who died shortly after birth, or even the number of infants and children who died from disease and malnourishment. So why was there a dearth of very large families? Did the matriarchs exercise other forms of birth control? The Bible doesn’t say, but of course, anything is possible. What is clear is that though there was angst on the part of the matriarchs who wanted to plan out their families, there is no judgment about them having “only” one or two or seven children. None of us questions whether or not our ancestral mothers fulfilled their duty to “be fruitful and multiply.” (A side note: Maimonides clarifies that this commandment applies only to men because a person cannot be commanded to do something that would jeopardize his/her life.)
The fact is that in so many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox circles, you will find countless Sarahs, Rebeccas, Rachels and Leahs – there can be no doubt that none of these women could be considered disappointments. I’m not advocating for people to model their own families after those in the Bible; polygamy and concubines, among other Biblical traditions, are dated to say the least. I am suggesting that those who use religion as a basis to critique families that are smaller for any reason should look no further than the Bible as a rebuke to their argument.
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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!
I am a person who puts on, or “lays,” tefillin (phylacteries). I happen to be female. While my gender, to my mind, does not affect the nature of my performance of this mitzvah, it inevitably adds a layer of complexity to others’ perception of it. I constantly smack up against the tremendous double standard that is applied to women who perform mitzvot that are seen as “male,” both in my day-to-day life and in the communal discourse.
I was recently interviewed for a piece in the Times of Israel about high school girls who lay tefillin. The piece was, on the whole, interesting and balanced. In this article, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates the two most flawed and problematic ideas surrounding the concept of women and tefillin and most other “men’s” mitzvot. He questions the “seriousness” and motivation of the women who take on these mitzvot.
“For those people who are troubled by women putting on tefillin,” Rabbi Boteach says, “the message needs to be, ‘Fair enough, put on tefillin, but accompanied with a serious embracing of Talmud.’” In all my years as a halakhically observant Jew, it is only when it comes to women wearing tefillin and tzitzit (fringes) that “seriousness” is made a qualification for the performance of a mitzvah. Is a person who does not often make the blessings on food told not to bother praying mincha, the afternoon service? Is a person interrogated about how much Talmud they learn each day before they are encouraged to give to tzedakah (charity)? Since when does one have to meet a certain standard of observance, or “seriousness,” before one is given “permission” to perform mitzvot?
This issue of “seriousness” takes another form as well. I have often heard and read that it’s all well and good for “serious” women to lay tefillin, provided they do so every day. As a person who considers herself to have a binding halakhic obligation to lay tefillin, I can testify that I sometimes mess up. As a teenager who likes to sleep in, this is a difficult mitzvah for me to do, as I know it is for many of my peers. Despite my commitment to halakha and mitzvot, there have been Sundays when I have slept through my alarm and rushed out to teach Hebrew school without laying tefillin. I make mistakes; then I make a commitment to do better next time. But my “right” to lay tefillin is not contingent on my consistency. Do Chabad shluchim (ambassadors) only offer tefillin to men who don them daily? No. Mitzvot are mitzvot, and I do not need to prove my right to lay tefillin any more than my equally sleepy male friends do.
The second women-and-tefillin trope Rabbi Boteach employs is to question women’s motivation. “Judaism is not in a state where we can play games with it…If it’s to demonstrate [women] can do everything men can do, it’s not a spiritual motivation, rather politics, and that’s not favorable to Judaism. Assimilation is catastrophic. Let’s never forget the bigger picture.” Setting aside Rabbi Boteach’s ludicrous slippery-slope fallacy (women performing more mitzvot will lead to assimilation?), I will simply say to this: enough. I, and all other women, do not need to prove our motivation to you. We are seeking equality because it will bring us closer to God.
The dichotomy between religious and political motivations is a false one. Our demand to perform mitzvot to which we have been denied access is inherently political in a community where certain mitzvot, like tefillin, are indicators of power and masculinity. However, that does not make the mitzvah any less about God. Women’s performance of these mitzvot will enhance the Jewish community as a whole. By democratizing access to ritual practice, we can redefine “men’s mitzvot” simply as “mitzvot,” and thus change their function from an indicator of who’s a member of the “club” to an expression of commitment to God and Torah. By laying tefillin, I make a political statement about the moral and halakhic correctness of feminist innovation, evolution, and influence. This statement is a reflection of deep religious and moral convictions, and I am proud to make it.
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If I ever had a rabbi, Ruth Calderon would be her. I only ever saw Calderon once, on Youtube, as she delivered her maiden speech to the Knesset. She knows Talmud, she’s got the right values, and she’s a mesmerizing sermonizer. The perfect rabbi sans rabbinic narcissism.
I was booked into the JOFA conference anyway because I was speaking on a panel, but when I heard Ruth was coming I resolved not to miss the plenary (my kids – bless them – delayed me at the last conference). My co-panelists queried why I belonged at JOFA. I don’t go to an Orthodox shul, my closest friends and family have exited observance, and I’m sometimes gabbai of my trad-egal minyan, Segulah.
My co-panelists were making me defend my attendance (as if anyone should need a defense for being a JOFA-nik!), and I responded: I am a gabbai at Segulah in a sheitel, I am the first woman to testify before Congress in that wig, I eat only apples and (bad) chocolate out of the house, and I don’t accept honors at the minyan at which I call others up to do so. You see, a (male) rabbi gave me an anti-partnership-minyan psak and I keep to it.
As a feminist spiritual seeker, JOFA seemed a place I might feel a bit at home.
Well, it was more than a bit. For Ruth Calderon, I stood twice – when she came up to the podium and when she went down. Her words were breathtaking and she has lost none of her modesty with all the adulation.
My mind spun with Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold’s description of the Shabbat babysitter who comes to watch her brood while she and her spouse both daven with the community. I thought back a generation to when I was both breadwinner and rebbetzin. I stayed home on Shabbat nursing my babies because there was no eruv and the babysitter was hired to cover for my actual job.
The vibe at the JOFA Conference was palpable, full of young people and their mothers and grandmothers. The young ones: we raised them but they raise us higher. They didn’t let us get away with last season’s false platitudes. They’re not out of the closet: they were never in it.
At lunch I invited a lone eater to join my daughter and me and she turned out to be a “mom in a sheitel in finance” like me; after meeting her I had another professional reunion I wished hadn’t taken twenty years to happen.
I wish the JOFA conference was longer and more often. Even if others question my credentials, I can proudly say “ich bin ein JOFA-nik!”
Little known fact: The JOFA Conference existed before JOFA existed. The first conference on feminism and Orthodoxy that took place in 1997 exceeded the planners’ expectations to such an extent that following the conference, the planning group of volunteers decided that what was really needed was an organization. The JOFA Conferences, the eighth one of which took place this past weekend at John Jay College, really form the engine that drives JOFA’s entire existence. And as a testament to the power of this movement, it is worth noting that this eighth conference was organized and led by some of the people who were part of that initial planning group some 16 years ago, including JOFA Board President Judy Heicklen and Conference Chair Bat Sheva Marcus.
The centrality of the JOFA conferences to the movement of Orthodox feminism is both strange and wonderful. It’s strange because one would think that there are other activities that are more important than a conference. But it’s wonderful because it demonstrates how much the information-sharing, community-building and overall vitality that define the JOFA conference have the power to change the world.
The JOFA conference is not a typical conference. Even for weathered conference-goers, the JOFA conference is unique in its bustling energy, in which participants are thirsting for more. To wit, during the sessions, the lobby was completely empty. Nobody wanted to miss a thing.
The conference is in some ways like a Jewish feminist smorgasbord. With some fifty sessions, over 100 speakers, and a range of topics that runs from halakhic analysis to Israeli politics to sexuality, the JOFA conference reflects the disparate nature of the feminist movement itself. Sometimes everywhere yet tenacious in their refusal to abandon or ignore any emerging cause, the conferences have been vibrant way-stations along the trajectory of the Orthodox feminist movement, even when the travelers themselves have not always known their destination. The conferences evolve as the Orthodox feminist consciousness evolves.
The beauty of this evolution, which reflects a movement willing to examine itself even as it strives to powerfully move the world, is also at times very difficult. There are so many challenges facing Orthodox feminism, many of which find expression in the conference. How does Orthodox feminism recruit supporters from within an often antagonistic environment? How do feminists deal with detractors? Which is more important, to have a “big tent” of including opposing views or a “pointed arrow” of loyalty to a particular vision? How do feminists get men on board without giving away all our power to men? Or, replace the word “men” in the previous question with “rabbis.” How do we advance systemic change when we have no official position of authority? Is it possible to make grass-roots change without changes in gender structures of leadership?
And then there are challenges within the movement itself. How can feminists be more inclusive of the “others” within the movement – whether the “other” is in terms of sexual orientation, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, religious background, or geography? How can we as feminists support one another in different struggles while we face so many of our own battles? How can feminists around the world build networks and relationships with each other when each of us is so busy fighting for our own scarce resources and support? And how can the movement focus on moving forward when we’re still busy recruiting new members? Is it acceptable to abandon the term “feminism” on the altar of gathering new supporters? Is it okay to abandon our sisters in order to get a particular man, rabbi or reluctant ally on board?
All of these questions and more were in play as JOFA planned the conference. The complexities, the conflicts, and the confusion were all part of what makes the JOFA conference what it is. Despite or perhaps in spite of these challenges, the conference seems to have really done something, moved people. You can see some of that here, here, here, here and here. Everyone who was at the conference took back her own message for her own life, work and community. Everyone connected in his own way with the issues that resonated for him. This is how Orthodox feminism spreads, as we are all draw from a multi-flavored wellspring of ideas and inspiration, each of us going back to our corners of the universe and speaking out for change.
This is why the conferences remain such an incredible force behind all the work of JOFA. This is how change happens, one person at a time, connected to an international network of change agents who are each spreading a vision of a better world. The JOFA conferences are where we get our strength as we go on our way, when we understand that we are not alone but part of a divine mission in which we are all connected.
I’ve never been to a JOFA conference before. For four years, all through college, I heard from friends living in the NYC area about the amazing, paradigm-shifting discussions they’d gotten into there. I’d ask how friends of mine had met and the answer was “we had an amazing discussion at the JOFA conference.” It was apparently a huge part of the world for exactly my demographic. Unfortunately, Ithaca, NY, where I was in school, is not particularly close by, and I never had the chance to take off from school to head down just to have some conversations and meet some people.
When I served as a JOFA fellow on Cornell’s campus in 2010-2011, I felt like I was representing an organization of which I’d only seen a tiny little bit. The people I met through the fellowship, including the staff at JOFA, the speakers who came for the training session, and the scholars whose work I read on the JOFA website, kept referring to the personalities and works of other people, many of whom they’d heard from or met at the JOFA conference. Other fellows had become inspired by attending the conference in past years and that was what drove them to participate on their own campuses as leaders. I loved being isolated away at Cornell and I loved being Jewish and feminist there, (which you can hear more about by attending the college campus networking group during lunch at this year’s conference!) but now that I’ve graduated I’m excited to be part of a larger conversation. I’m finally going to make it to a JOFA conference!
So if you see me at the conference, come say hi! Let’s talk about the topics we’re hearing about at the conference, or let’s talk about other things! I’m so excited for all the things we’ll learn together!
Approximately 1000 people from around the world are expected to be at the 8th International JOFA Conference, Dec 7-8 at John Jay College, NYC. Will you be there?
We’re getting really excited about the JOFA conference, less than a week away! The 8th International JOFA Conference, set for December 7-8 at John Jay College in New York City, will be full of hot-button issues and interesting speakers from around the world.
Topics to look forward to are: unconventional families, LGBT inclusion, new mikveh rituals, eating disorders, educating for sexuality, gender segregation in Israel, raising feminist boys, Women of the Wall, “slut-shaming” in the Orthodox community, and the emergence of new Orthodox feminist communities around the world, including the newly formed JOFA UK.
Our goal is for participants to leave not only with new information and resources on these vital issues, but also with inspiration and vigor in order to promote social change in their own communities.
Some of the speakers we’re most excited about are: Rori Picker-Neiss, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Gabrielle Birkner, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Susan Weiss, Dr. Ronit Irshai, Dr. Melanie Landau, Blu Greenberg, Dr. Rachel Levmore, and more. The conference includes speakers from the US, Canada, UK, Israel, and Australia. You can see the whole program here.
Notice also that we are using fun new technology to enable you to build your own program online in advance. Please let us know how you like this and how it affects your conference experience.
Since the first JOFA conference, in 1997, which paved the way for a new movement to change the way Orthodox women and men experience Jewish life, every conference has been a watershed event, instigating important transformation within the Jewish community – from equal educational opportunities to sexual abuse to women clergy and more.
“This JOFA conference is different from past conferences because the world has changed so much over the past few years, and it’s time for Orthodoxy to address these new realities,” said conference coordinator Bat Sheva Marcus. “We are looking at new rituals, new family structures, and new communities, and we are particularly interested in reaching the younger women in our community and addressing the issues that are foremost concerns for them.”
Other innovations in this conference include a special Educators Track for day school educators, a teen track with a poetry slam, live-streaming and live-tweeting, and a Saturday night musical program including Ofir Ben Shitrit, “Girls in Trouble,” an indie band with midrashic themes, a cappella singing groups S’madar from Barnard and Tizmoret from Queens College, and Peninnah Schram’s acclaimed storytelling. There will also be opportunities for networking, with lunchtime affinity tables.
If you have any comments or questions, please contact us anytime.
Hope to see you there!
To register for the 8th International JOFA conference, December 7-8 at John Jay College, go to http://www.jofa.org/2013conference
Watch this great studio performance by Alicia Jo Rabins of “Girls In Trouble:”
Watch Ofir Ben-Shitrit on Israel’s The Voice:
Often, when I take a moment to remind myself what I’m grateful for, I think about my grandmothers. My life is so much different than theirs were – although in some ways still very much the same. I cannot help but stop in awe at the opportunities that I have that they probably would have loved to have.
I especially think about my paternal grandmother, Beatrice Maryles Fink, z”l, who was a woman ahead of her time. She was one of a handful of Orthodox Jewish women who, in the 1930s, studied at Hunter College on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and received bachelors’ degrees. A few years ago, a friend of mine told me that her mother was part of that group as well, the ones who used to walk over the bridge from Brooklyn to get to college. They were as religious as they were serious about their secular learning, and despite many contrary stereotypes, they had no problem attaining advanced degrees while remaining fervently Orthodox. My grandmother’s degree was in math, of all things. Like I said, a woman ahead of her time.
Her problems came when she dated. She used to tell us stories about how she hid her achievements from her dates, so as not to intimidate men by appearing, heaven forbid, smarter than them. In the end, she married my grandfather, Cantor David Maryles, z”l, who apparently was proud of having a smart wife. She was “old” at the time of their wedding (26 years old, I believe), and also taller than him – a big taboo in those days as well – but he did not seem to have been bothered. In every photo I’ve seen of them together, he looks deliriously happy.
The story unfortunately did not have such a happy ending. My grandfather died at the age of 39 of leukemia, leaving my grandmother to care for five boys under the age of 12. She lived with her father-in-law for many years, working part-time as a bookkeeper to try and make ends meet. My father, who at 12 was officially the “man of the house”, also helped support the family from the time he became bar mitzvah. Wealthy they were not. From what I understand, it was more like just scraping by. So much for the power-woman with a degree in math who could conquer the world.
Still, my grandmother held on tenaciously to her own intellectual dignity. She found every opportunity to take classes, and had fascinating contributions to make to every conversation, always commenting on social trends and human behavior. I think that it’s her imprint that made me interested in sociology so many years later. Her idea of a great birthday present was always a book. I still have a shelf at home lined with books that she gave me, all of them inscribed to me in her impeccable handwriting. I did not read most of them at the time, just as I did not appreciate her while she was still alive and in sound mind. I’m terribly ashamed today that I did not give her then the respect that she deserved.
Yet, so much of what I do today is with the feeling that Grandma Bea is sitting on my shoulder watching me. I feel a deep commitment to the mission of making the world a safe place for women like her – for all women really, but especially for those smart, creative, independent-minded women who have an original voice, passion and ideas. I want to ensure that there are empowered spaces for women like my grandmother to thrive, to create, to speak, to emote, and mostly to feel completely alive and equally valued members of society. If my grandmother were living in the world that exists today, I can only begin to imagine the great things that would have come out of the fabulous workings of her mind.
So what am I grateful for today? I’m grateful for my life, where I have freedom and opportunities that I wish my grandmothers had. I am grateful for all the work that the feminist movement has done over the past two generations, making the world a better place for women. I’m especially grateful for religious feminists who have fought tirelessly against often fierce, aggressive and at times mean-spirited opposition, who never gave up the struggle to ensure that religious women are seen, heard, and valued. Feminists have enabled me to get to the place where I am today, where I’m working, speaking, writing, and thriving. And I’m able to do all these things while building a loving family, with a spouse and children who, like my grandfather, are proud and happy to have a smart woman around. That is not something I want to take for granted, ever.
Certainly the work of feminism is not done. In some ways, women today continue to struggle with many of the issues that they struggled with generations ago: social expectations around femininity and motherhood; a stoic religious leadership that is often so reluctant to acknowledge women’s real needs; entrenched sexism in communal and social institutions. These battles are hardly over.
Still, there is so much to be grateful for. I wish my grandmother were here to see all this, to read my books, to talk to me about my dissertation in sociology of education – to have written her own dissertation – and to do things like go to a partnership minyan or attend the JOFA conference. I wish I could hear her thoughts about it all. I wish she would have had some of the opportunities that I have had. Perhaps my life is in some ways an extension of hers.
And, if I listen closely, I can hear my grandmother’s voice talking in my ear over my shoulder. I’m mostly grateful that she is still with me all the time.
As an Orthodox Jew, feminist activist, and first-year college student, I’ve got a pretty full schedule to balance. I’ve previously written about how being a feminist has influenced my perspective on being an undergrad, but I have yet to explore how being Orthodox impacts both my feminism and collegiate career.
Being a feminist in a patriarchal society is no simple mater. However, so far, I’ve found college to be a pretty conducive place for feminism and other social equality movements. There’s a sizable feminist community at Harvard, every member of which is absolutely fabulous and truly dedicated to making the world a better place for women and men alike. Numerous gender-related events occur every week, from screenings of documentaries like 12th and Delaware to speeches by New York Times columnist Gail Collins. All of the upperclass feminists I’ve met have strongly encouraged me and other first-years to get involved in activist work; my first semester of college hasn’t even ended, and I’m already on the board of an on-campus feminist organization and write for the college’s feminist magazine. Even in groups that are not specifically gendered or activist-oriented, I have found and fostered several feminist-friendly spaces.
Not everybody I meet on campus is as involved in gender issues as I am. Although I have encountered some insensitivity or misunderstanding when I’ve espoused feminist ideals or used the word feminist, the typical reaction is a few respectful questions about what exactly feminism is. Consequently, I’ve had some really interesting, eye-opening conversations with a varied group of people about gender issues. Continue reading