Orthodox Feminism For The 21st Century
A founder of the Orthodox feminist movement discusses issues confronting the movement now and in the future
The following article presents the perspective of a leader of the Orthodox feminist movement. The current platform and activities of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance can be viewed on their website. This article is reprinted with permission from the January 2000 issue of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.
On numerous occasions over the past years, I've been asked: how far can Orthodoxy go in responding to feminism? Sometimes there's a bit of goading behind the question: What do Orthodox feminists really want? What's your real agenda? But often the questioner comes with genuine interest. How far can Orthodoxy accommodate the needs of the new Jewish woman without losing its Orthodoxy?
There are also myriad specific questions: Will every girl in the community be expected to study Talmud? Will Orthodox women become rabbis, make halachic decisions as yoatzot, advisors, or poskot, decisors? Will they be dayanot, judges in the rabbinic courts of law, presiding over matters of divorce? Will the gendered language of the prayerbook undergo transformation or will the original language be preserved, with commentary and caveat sensitive to kavod hatzibbur, the honor (of women) in the congregation? And most of all, who will prepare for Pesach? (Just kidding.)
These are but a few of the questions that grow naturally out of a 30‑year engagement of feminism and Judaism. Some of these questions I would like to have answered. Others upset my Orthodox equilibrium, although they may seem legitimate to some Orthodox women whose thinking has gone beyond mine.
So the future scenario is unclear. If the changes that have been wrought during the past decades are any indication, the element of surprise may be a surer bet than any predictions I might offer. Who would have imagined 30 years ago Orthodox women studying and teaching Talmud in places like Drisha [the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, a NewYork-based center for women’s advanced study of classical Jewish texts] or Midreshet Lindenbaum [a Jerusalem-based center for Jewish women’s learning]? Who would have believed that women would serve on Israeli religious councils, or as congregational interns in Orthodox shuls? Who would have pictured a woman reading the Torah portion at a women's tefillah group?
When I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, even the word bat mitzvah was off‑limits in Orthodoxy, signaling the celebrant as Reform or Conservative. Today, no self‑respecting modem Orthodox family would refrain from marking its daughter's Jewish maturity with a bat mitzvah celebration. While changes in Orthodoxy may not seem as stark as changes in the more liberal denominations, they are more remarkable in some ways because they represent a greater shift from the status quo. In only one generation, Orthodox women's roles have shifted from exclusively private to increasingly public, from the household and mikvah to houses of study and prayer, and religious courts of law.