Signpost in a park or forested area with arrows pointing two opposite directions towards Men and Women.

An Israeli Orthodox Feminist Visits JOFA

When I was 17, as part of my high school matriculation requirements, I wrote a paper  on the subject of Women in Politics in Israel. The paper was built upon tens of hours of interviews with Members of Parliament, wide halakhic (Jewish law)research on the subject of women in leadership roles, and a review of the historic roots of the feminist movement here, in Israel, and around the world.

I was rushed to radio and television interviews, and spoke at a committee convened by the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) as part of the General Assembly (GA) convention in Jerusalem that year. At the time, I did not understand why my thought and actions were considered “breaking news” in the secular world. Now I think I know.

The Orthodox Jewish world, similar to any religious orthodoxy, is less exposed to the winds of change that blow in the outside world. Therefore, it would have been natural to expect a young girl from an Orthodox settlement to follow the same guidelines that her mother did, and to take the same role upon herself.

My high school, though, followed a different educational paradigm. It encouraged us to explore and to not take anything for granted. Critical thinking and “post modernism” were concepts I heard a lot.

The education I received has had a long-term effect on my thinking. It has given me an openness and a sense of freedom to question many of the values that were implicit in the religious worldview that I was brought up with. The religious atmosphere I grew up in was considered progressive; nevertheless, over the course of time, I have come to see that many of its mores and values still need to be reexamined and challenged. I was constantly told the following: there is a clear hierarchy between the soul and body — your soul is the main component of your self, and your body is holy (and therefore pleasure is not even considered!); suffering and refraining is important (it doesn’t matter what you WANT!); dressing modestly is important because men can’t control their sexual urges and can be dangerous; the most important part of marriage is observing the laws of niddah (which prohibit sexual relations when a woman is menstruating); the prayers as they are written are mandatory (even though the authors never considered a female perspective!); attendance in synagogue is mandatory, even though you may only be a spectator (and sing quietly please!); and so on and so forth.

I felt that some of the religious values that were part of the society were distancing me from my inner self (many of them, unsurprisingly, have to do with sexuality). All this is was brought me to seek out JOFA. I had been planning a visit to the United States over the summer and decided to reach out to Sharon Weiss-Greenberg to see if she would allow me a glimpse into the world of JOFA for a day. What I saw and experienced at JOFA deeply resonated in my soul. I felt that at JOFA, I found the bridge between my critical feminism and the rabbinic orthodox tradition.

JOFA showed me the face of an inclusive and open Judaism in which there is no contradiction between feminism and Judaism. For quite a while I had been feeling a growing distance between myself and the tradition and my contact came at the exact right time.

At the JOFA office I was introduced to one of JOFA’s important initiatives, the Joy of Text podcast, which explores the intersection of sexuality and Jewish law. I found that it was speaking my language, and was healing my divided soul.

The situation in Israel is many years behind and is different on many levels. Only now are Orthodox women, even feminists, beginning to talk openly about sexuality. Many JOFA supporters know about the largest Facebook platform for people who identify themselves as Orthodox feminists called “Padlachushiot” (I am an Orthodox feminist with no sense of humor). What many American feminists don’t know is that this Facebook platform has spawned at least six “secret” (Facebook’s definition) groups for Orthodox women that are specifically devoted to the subject of sexuality. Each group includes about  60 women. The purpose of the groups is to allow women to share and receive advice from peers about sexual matters. Discussions include questions about oral sex (tips and halakhic permissibility), IUDs (how to get one and how much they cost), observance of the laws of niddah, sexual harassment, and more. The very existence of the forum and the open discussions that take place in it, have created a sense of change, catharsis, and of freedom.

What is missing from all of these Facebook groups in Israel is rabbinic partnership. I was very impressed and inspired by the Joy of Text’s pioneering step of including rabbinic voices in the conversations about sexuality. Here in Israel, lacking that rabbinic participation, we are sometimes forced in our own discussions to grope in the dark and rely upon second-hand information. We are deeply lacking that direct rabbinic participation as we share our own experiences and needs.

If we accept that Judaism values both our physical bodies and our souls, we should be able to connect to our physical needs, and to enjoy our sexuality and sexual impulses without guilt. We must retrain ourselves to accept our desires to feel connected to our physical and sexual needs, and that Judaism has frameworks that allow us to embrace those needs.

This is probably not the end of my spiritual journey. I will continue to float back and forth across the religious spectrum like the waves of the ocean. But I have learned that there are many ways to connect to Judaism as both a woman and an observant Jew. As long as I’m having these conversations, and am connected to the movement, I know that I’m an Orthodox Jew.

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