Orthodox Feminism For The 21st Century

A founder of the Orthodox feminist movement discusses issues confronting the movement now and in the future

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The extent to which change will occur in the coming decades depends on a number of variables above and beyond the to‑be‑determined agenda of Orthodox feminists. Not the least of these variables is the attitude of the large body of mainstream women in the Orthodox community. While the numbers of Orthodox feminists (including those who eschew the label) have grown, the majority of Orthodox women remain skeptical or antagonistic, even though they have integrated gender equality values into all other aspects of their lives-‑their relationships, educational goals, and professional work.

In addition to a desire for change, there must also be a willingness to work for change. The fact that the agunah [lit. "chained woman"--a woman whose husband deserts her, is otherwise missing or refuses to grant a divorce, and who is not permitted to remarry ("chained" to her recalcitrant or missing husband) under Jewish law] isstill an unresolved issue is due, in part I believe, to the fact that Orthodox women (and men) are not demanding that halachists end such injustice through reinterpretation and repair of this law.

In addition to activism, many Orthodox women remain diffident about adopting new and unfamiliar roles. I understand this because, although I advocate expanded roles, I too sometimes feel an inner, emotional resistance to the unfamiliar. Rabbis report that when they offer women in their congregations hakafot, dancing with a Torah scroll on Simchat Torah, many refuse due to unease or fear. While this is natural given the centuries of conditioning, it is surprising to find that this resistance cuts across generational lines.

Another factor in determining future change is the ability of a community to distinguish between  public policy/community sensibility and halachic prohibition. Currently, the lines are blurred. Or perhaps not so blurred. Often I've heard the following rabbinic p'sak "It'snot against halachah, but itsnot something we do." While this may be the answer of the moment, distinguishing between halachah and community sensibilities opens the door to future reevaluation. New policies will only emerge from new educational programs, when models for articulating these issues and pressure from feminists move the community forward.

A third variable in determining the pace and extent of change is evidence. Although ultimately we want what is best for Judaism and best for women, it may take time to discern exactly where this convergence lies. How will the changes affect relationships, the family, the ways we raise our children, the definitions of sexuality, and ultimately the Jewish future? What is the staying power of women in traditionally nurturing roles? Perhaps biology counts for more than feminism has allowed, and there is a reason that society has not restructured itself to accommodate the new ideology. We are the first generation to write the book on new gender relations, and we want to write and read it at the same time.

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Blu Greenberg

Blu Greenberg is the founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She was also the Conference Chair of both the first and second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. She is the author of Black Bread: Poems After the Holocaust, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, and On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition.