The Torch explores gender and religion in the Jewish community. Named for Deborah the Prophetess, "the woman of torches," the blog highlights the passion and fiery leadership of Jewish feminists, while evoking the powerful image of feminists "passing the torch" to a new generation. Disclaimer: All posts are contributed by third party authors. JOFA does not assume responsibility for the facts and opinions presented in them.
For the sin we have sinned before you in excluding women from leadership positions
For the sin we have sinned before you in denying women, half of the synagogue membership, a voice on our synagogues’ boards
For the sin we have sinned before you in denying women representation in halakhic (Jewish legal) discourse
For the sin we have sinned before you in not providing a bride and groom with a female member of the clergy who could enhance their simcha (festive occasion)
For the sin we have sinned before you in promoting stereotypes of women, mothers, daughters, and sisters that discourage women from reaching their potential
For the sin we have sinned before you, against hundreds of unborn children, who may never be born, because their mothers are being held hostage, as agunot (women unable to obtain a Jewish divorce).
For the sin we have sinned before you in silencing women’s voices in prayer and communal discourse
For the sin we have sinned before you in giving rise to synagogues with full men’s sections and scarcely seated women’s sections
For the sin we have sinned before you, when a grown woman is required show her stained underwear to a male rabbi (as part of the observance of niddah, the laws pertaining to menstruation and marital relations) instead of a female halakhic advisor, causing her to feel a lack of tzniut (dignity)
For the sin we have sinned before you by subjecting women to unnecessary regulations at the mikveh (ritual bath)
For the sin we have sinned before you in allowing the experience of hilkhot niddah, the laws of menstruation and mikveh, to become unnecessarily onerous and humiliating
For the sin we have sinned before you in judging women’s religious character based on what they wear on their heads and bodies
For the sin we have sinned before you in raising sons who do not value women as partners
For the sin we have sinned before you in valuing sons over daughters
For the sin we have sinned before you in limiting opportunities for Torah study for girls and women
For the sin we have sinned before you in categorizing women as issues rather than valuable members of our community
For the many sins we have sinned…
As Yom Kippur approaches, we say the al chet, prayers which call upon us to name the sins we have committed, intentionally and even unknowingly. We own our mistakes and missed opportunities. The prayers are formulated in the collective, we take responsibility as a community for what has been done. This reinforces that we are all responsible for each other, the actions we inspire, and the culture we create in our communities. To this end, we offer an al chet for the collective Orthodox community, both women and men, a call to examine the way we treat women in our communities. May this meditation provide an opportunity for introspection on these challenging topics and give the Orthodox community a chance to take responsibility for fixing that which has yet to be mended.
Make Space for Women in Leadership Positions
As of August 2015, Nishmat graduated its second class of Yoatzot (advisors) in North America. There are 15 yoatzot halakha, women who are Jewish legal experts on matters pertaining to taharat hamishpacha, Jewish family law, in North America, employed by 27 institutions. However, many rabbis still refuse to bring these adept legal scholars into their communities. What motivates our leaders and community to deny this resource to families?
There are currently over 110 students and graduates of GPATS, the Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study at Yeshiva University, who are learned, and excited to instruct students in the complexity of the Talmud. Yet many Modern Orthodox high schools continue to deny their students the opportunity to learn from these women. Even a Rosh Yeshiva (yeshiva head) at Yeshiva University has questioned whether these women scholars have the right to an equal Torah and Talmud education.
In June, Yeshivat Maharat graduated its third cohort of students, doubling the number of graduates in the field. While the alumnae are having a deep impact on their communities, detractors are more concerned with the graduates’ audacity to own a title rather than with the years of study and preparation they invested to become klei kodesh (holy instruments) for Am Yisrael (the Jewish People).
Instead of criticizing graduates of these institutions, the community should be advocating for better and more comprehensive Torah education for women to prepare them for these rigorous programs and careers as spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community. Fortunately, many communities are extraordinarily thankful to be able to turn to their female halakhic and spiritual leaders, no matter their titles, for their teachings, support, and guidance.
Solutions for Agunot
Today, in 2015, there are an estimated four hundred agunot cases. Agunot are women who are halakhically chained to husbands they no longer want to be married to, who are unable to remarry, and who have no recourse to divorce their husbands.
There are many who sincerely believe that the proposed systemic halakhic changes that could unchain these women are an impossibility. In this season of introspection, it is essential for adherents to this belief to ask: have all of us truly done everything else in our power to ensure the end to the suffering of agunot? What role have we played in their despair? Are we in fact innocent bystanders? Should we not expect more of ourselves?
Inclusive Prayer Communities
If your synagogue has a full men’s section and a scarcely seated women’s section, something is wrong. Perhaps we should ask: how can we create prayer communities that empower women and give them a voice within the halakhic framework? How can we teach women from a young age that the prayers of men and women are of equal importance? How can we encourage communities to understand that it is their obligation to value women’s prayers and attendance every Shabbat, and every weekday?
Mikvehs as Safe Spaces, Led by Women
It was a little less than one year ago when tragedy struck. As Barry Freundel’s misdeeds and wrongs were uncovered (he used hidden cameras to spy on women in the mikveh), many, across the Orthodox spectrum, were inspired to reconsider the status quo. The status quo allowed for a significant power imbalance in conversion proceedings. The status quo gave the keys of mikvehs to men. Rabbanit Henkin famously declared, “Give the Mikveh Keys to Women.” The Orthodox Union declared a new mission to empower women, to promote women to senior professional positions, and to elect women to executive positions. The women of suburban Chicago, who were denied a voice on the board of their mikveh because they are women, circulated a petition to fight for seats for women on the mikveh board. In almost every community, rabbis, yoatzot halakha, and community scholars led conversations and discussion groups about how to improve the power balance in mikvehs. It seemed that everyone was on board for change.
A year later, the dust has settled for some. There was a flurry of activity immediately after trust was lost following the actions of Freundel, but what has happened as a result of those community discussions? Why were the signatures gathered for the Chicago women’s petition ignored? JOFA offered a list of best practices to help guide communities in moving forward. While they may have been best practices, they are not yet standard in many mikvehs.
Heed the message of these Days of Awe, and reflect on what has been improved and what has not yet changed. Many of Freundel’s victims shared that they never realized how much they needed a female pastoral and halakhic leader until tragedy struck. They could not have imagined making it through this past year without people like Yoetzet Halakha Nechama Price and Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman to turn to with halakhic questions, questions of faith, and a warm comforting embrace.
At this daunting time of the Ten Days of Repentance, we are obligated to do an accounting. What has transpired in the past year? What do we need to repent for? And what are our hopes and dreams for the year ahead? While fragments of the Orthodox community have started to ask these questions with regard to inclusion and equitable treatment of women, many have not. Perhaps, on Yom Kippur, the community can start by recognizing many of the issues which have bubbled to the surface as well as cultivating a broader sense of understanding about those which they are not aware of.
“V’al ku-lam, e-lo-ha s’li-chot, s’lach la-nu, m’chal la-nu, ka-per la-nu.”
“And for all we have done wrong, God of Mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.