Making Progress on Women's Place in Modern Orthodox Community

Speakers at a New York conference on feminism and orthodoxy heralded progress on the issues of agunot and egalitarian worship while recognizing the long road still ahead.

vered kellner
Vered Kellner
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vered kellner
Vered Kellner

Blu Greenberg, one of the founders of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, told a packed New York hall on Sunday about a plan to establish an international religious court whose goal is to put an end to the problem of agunot, generally women whose husbands refuse to divorce them.

Speaking at JOFA’s eighth International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, at a session called “After the Summit: New Solutions for Agunah,” Greenberg said the court will begin operating in February, initially in Israel and the United States. The idea is to use the tools offered by Jewish religious law, or halakha, to make it possible for women who have been refused a “get,” a religious bill of divorce, to remarry - up to and including annulment of the marriage.

Greenberg told the audience the court will be headed by Simcha Krauss, an Orthodox rabbi who immigrated to Israel from the United States in 2005. The search is on for around 10 additional dayanim, religious-court judges. Greenberg said three distinguished religious scholars have agreed to support the project: Rabbi Zalman Nehemia Goldberg, retired from Israel’s Rabbinical High Court; Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen, former chief rabbi of Haifa; and a third rabbi who has asked to remain anonymous for now.

Speaking at the session, Rabbi Adam Mintz of Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim, a modern Orthodox congregation in Manhattan, said the success of the court will depend mainly on support from the community. That, he explained later, means accepting the court’s rulings even if the ultra-Orthodox community does not, so that women who obtain a divorce through the court will be able to remarry, and to marry off her children, within the religious community. Mintz said it was important to be confident, particularly vis-à-vis the Haredi community.

The turnout for the weekend conference — more than 1,000 men and women attended — could be seen as a measure of the modern Orthodox community’s self-confidence.

The panel of Sunday’s opening plenary session, which included Jewish scholar and educator MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid); Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, representing young female congregational leaders and Leah Sarna, a Yale student who is the gabbai, or sexton, of the school’s egalitarian partnership minyan, reflected the progress made by women within Orthodox Judaism.

In a session called “Women Rule: Feminist Influences on Halakha,” the head of New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School Rabbi Dov Linzer, said the big leaps will come when more women are in a position to rule on halakhic matters. Like Mintz, he called for modern Orthodox Jews to show more self-confidence, saying the movement doesn’t need to make excuses for itself. Prof. Tamar Ross of Bar-Ilan University was more cautious, saying there was still a long way to go.

A session called “’Slut!’ The Shame Effect” addressed ways traditional Jewish concepts of female modesty can play into the shaming of young religious women over their dress and behavior. Rachel Hercman, a psychotherapist specializing in sexual health and relationships, mentioned a personal ad placed by an educated, religiously observant young man seeking a suitable match “who wears only skirts and dresses and will cover her head once she is married.” Hercman said the message was that if you’re a woman, you must wear your religiosity. She said the obsession with “modesty” — such as gossiping about how many hairs protrude from the head covering of the rabbi’s wife — has nothing to do with halakha.

Laila Goodman, the dean of students at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, Massachusetts, talked about what she called the “thin line” she walks when enforcing the school’s dress code. She recalled an incident in which, after commenting on one girl’s blouse, the student told her she wanted to dress like a slut even though she isn’t one.

Leora Tanenbaum, author of the popular book “ Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation,” explained what she called the ultimately unsuccessful efforts by teenage girls to reclaim the term “slut,” to ironic and empowering effect.

In a session devoted to the status of women in Israel, speakers discussed some of the issues raised by the involvement of the state in religious issues.

The legal adviser to Kolech-Religious Women’s Forum, Riki Shapira Rosenberg, described the case of Orly Leibovich, who as a law student at a Haredi college in Israel wanted to run for president of the student union. The incumbent president quickly pushed through an amendment of the association’s bylaws requiring the president to be the same gender as the majority of the students, who were men.

Kolech took the case, arguing that the amendment was discriminatory. It was rejected, on the grounds that the amendment complied with accepted practice at the ultra-Orthodox institution. That decision was overturned on appeal, but it was too late for Leibovich.

Shapira Rosenberg said the case illustrated the diversity of views within the Haredi community, while also raising questions about outside intervention in the community’s affairs.

Religious women trying on hats in Jerusalem. Obsessing over the details of 'modesty' diverts attention from serious matters of religious law. Credit: AP

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