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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This year on Purim, several minyanim in the U.S. and in Israel will be reading the Megillah with a twist. The congregations will recite aloud communally, not only the traditional sentences about Mordechai, but an additional sentence about Esther as well. If that doesn’t sound radical to you, you haven’t been around an Orthodox synagogue lately.
Carol Newman, JOFA’s past president, has long been amazed and frustrated at how women have been taken out of everything in Orthodox Judaism. When she talks about the absence of mothers’ names in ketubot, on gravestones, and during aliyot, she can get pretty “fahitzed” (worked up). But until this year, she couldn’t figure out how to put Esther back in the Book of Esther (waving fabric flags with Esther’s likeness on them when Esther’s name was mentioned didn’t really do it for her). Until she saw a source sheet identifying verses about Esther that are parallel to those we read aloud about Mordecai. And so a personal campaign was born.
After many passionate phone calls and email chains over the past few weeks, two partnership minyanim have decided to recite a verse about Esther aloud during their megillah reading this year. According to Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat and Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, “There is absolutely no halakhic problem for the congregation to pre-read a verse which will then be repeated by the megillah reader. Therefore all the verses about Esther can be read in that way.”
Darkhei Noam, a partnership minyan in New York, will repeat the verse introducing Esther, “He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was striking and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordechai adopted her as his own daughter” (Esther 2:7).
Shira Hadasha, a partnership minyan in Jerusalem, will repeat the verse where Esther establishes Purim as a holiday for the Jewish people, “And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll” (Esther 9:32).
Mordy Hurwich-Kehat, a member of Shira Hadasha who was instrumental in creating this change, says, “I like Darkhei Noam’s practice, as it parallels Mordechai’s dramatic introduction, and Shira Hadasha’s too–as we learn in the Talmud tractate Megillah that Esther pushed for ‘her’ megillah’s inclusion within the Biblical Canon. Maybe, next year each of the two congregations will adopt the other’s practice.”
You might think it would be easy to convince people to repeat these little sentences but most rabbis and most synagogues, no matter how well intentioned, are not comfortable with change even when, as in this case, there is good support for it.
After all, who wouldn’t want to viscerally celebrate with Esther when she finally takes matters into her own hands and musters up her courage to save her people? So, this year, we take one small step for womankind… Next Sukkot maybe Miriam will show up in the prayer for rain!
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Yeshiva University’s recent decision to withhold semicha (rabbinic ordination) from one of its about-to-graduate rabbis because of his participation in a Partnership Minyan should be of serious concern to the broader Modern Orthodox community. I know there are many of us who have essentially “written off” YU. We feel like they have lost touch with the ideals of what Modern Orthodoxy was created to embody. And I get that. And often I just shrug my shoulders when the institution does something I don’t admire and go along on my merry way.
In this case, I really don’t think we should because the underlying message they are sending is of significant rule-changing. And that’s just scary.
Here’s the deal:
– YU needs to be more transparent and can’t change the rules retroactively. If they have standards they want to hold rabbis to, (and let’s face it, every semicha granting institution has a right to its standards) they should make those clear before a student signs up for four years of study. If they aren’t clever enough to foresee the issues that may arise later, that’s really their problem. They just can’t start changing the rules whenever they want to or all the rabbis out there with semicha are in trouble.
– They are essentially changing the meaning of semicha. The last time I looked, “Yoreh, Yoreh” on the semicha document meant that a rabbi could rule on things he thought he understood. It didn’t mean that he merely acts as a conduit, channeling the vision and opinion of his Rebbe. That is a new, and frankly, a scary course for Modern Orthodoxy, one that separated it from the Chareidi institutions. Yes, we assume properly trained rabbis will know their limits and go to more knowledgeable ones when necessary but we want to benefit from the blessing of smart, thoughtful, rabbis who may take a new and more nuanced approach.
– YU is closing ranks and including only a chosen few in the new definition of “poskim” (halakhic decisors). Why do THEY get to decide who the poskim are? Where did that come from? If I want to count Rabbi Daniel Sperber as my posek who are they to tell me otherwise? But the new message from YU is “here are the final arbiters.” No real dialogue is acceptable.
I think this whole event portends an ever-more concerning approach by YU, and I, for one, hope there is some backtracking on the issue.
Inspired by the ubiquitous Venmo ads on the NYC Subway, comedian and former yeshiva student Eitan Levine came up with these:
Lucas’s take on Genesis:
Lucas loves Jewish feminist literature, too!
Don’t know the Feminist Ryan Gosling? Give yourself some cultural education and a few good laughs.
And of course, we couldn’t help ourselves:
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!”
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
Hi, my name is Constance Bearman and I’m 12 years old. In the summer, I went on a Masorti summer camp called Noam, even though I am Orthodox. Of course, there were many things that were unfamiliar to me and that weren’t consistent with my personal beliefs, but before I went my mother and I agreed to go knowing that I ‘respect what they do, but it isn’t what I do,’ and I was perfectly happy with this, until it got me thinking.
I had never questioned the ways of Orthodoxy, or the general routine of my shul. I knew that women sat at the back together, and definitely weren’t as involved in the service as the men were, and I had accepted this without much thought. But after this summer camp, I started to question the justifications of this set-up in shul.
We are now in the 21st century, and women are very lucky to have equal opportunities in our lives to men, although this may not be true in all countries. I have often heard that ‘the role of the Jewish woman is to take care of the home.’ I think this is fine, but I don’t see why this should be the only role of the Jewish woman. Thousands of years ago, women rarely went to shul, and so their role was to bring up the children and take care of the home. But now, women are just as educated and spiritual, so why can’t we participate as well? Women who attend synagogue regularly are denied access to ritual and prevented from participating even though there is no halachic prohibition for them not to do so apart from the fact that it just has not been ‘done’ until now.
Take a typical Shabbat in my shul. The service will be run by a Rabbi, and laining will be done by men in the congregation. Not once is a woman asked or given the opportunity to participate. I do not want to be doing exactly the same things as men, and I want to make sure everything I do is within the laws of halacha. That is very important to me.
My ultimate question, however, is this: If there is no reason why certain things can’t be done or changed, why haven’t they been changed already? A friend of my mother’s was once told, ‘If you want to be doing more in shul, come to shul every morning at 6:30, then we’ll talk.’ This bothers me. After all, does every man in the congregation come to shul every morning at 6:30? No! Yet they still get to participate in the service. So why should women have to practically ‘prove’ our spirituality and dedication by coming to shul at 6:30 every morning if the men don’t have to?
I recently went to the very hospitable home of Dina Brawer and her husband Rabbi Naftali, as I had a lot of questions that my mother felt Dina and Rabbi Naftali could answer. And of course, mothers know best and she was absolutely right. I had so many burning questions that I definitely needed answering and I definitely got just that. I also found out about JOFA, and the amazing work that they do for people that feel the same way I do. I realised there was a whole community that felt the same way I do!
Having realised this, I am sure you are all reading the words of a very active and passionate new member of the JOFA community. Even though I don’t think I can make it to the International Conference in New York in December in person, I send you best wishes for what is going to be an amazing event!
Finally, I can’t tell you how amazing it feels to know that there are so many people that feel the same way I do, and to know that in the end we all want to achieve the same goal.