Orthodox Feminists Slowly Breaking Glass Ceiling in Their Conservative Community

Twenty years after a group of like-minded women first gathered to discuss Orthodoxy and feminism, their movement has made tremendous advances such as serving pulpit rabbis. But activist Blu Greenberg says big battles still remain.

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The opening plenary at the 20th anniversary JOFA conference.
The opening plenary at the 20th anniversary JOFA conference.Credit: Rabbi Ben Greenberg

NEW YORK – The past two decades have witnessed a small revolution in the religious leadership roles being taken by Orthodox Jewish women. It is an arc easily traced back to when Blu Greenberg and a small group of like-minded women convened the first International Conference on Orthodoxy and Feminism.

That 1997 conference, which attracted many more people than the organizers anticipated, galvanized a movement of Orthodox feminists, created the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and advanced change in the roles women play in their religious lives.

In Israel today, there are Orthodox women – not many, but still a few – deciding questions of halakha (Jewish religious law) and publishing their interpretations. In the United States, there are ordained Orthodox women running their own synagogues, and others assisting male rabbis, providing pastoral care, education and ritual support to congregants, and shifting the paradigm of what Orthodox religious leadership looks like.

Speaking at the 20th anniversary JOFA conference, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin said the next stage is that “women must become dayanot” (religious court judges).

The conference was held at Columbia University last Sunday and attracted more than 1,200 people, including a substantial number of students and young adults.

Far more has changed since 1997 than Greenberg ever thought possible. Religious opportunities for Orthodox women “are further ahead than I dreamed 20 years ago,” she told Haaretz on Sunday. In 1984, she published an article titled “Will There Be Women Rabbis?” in the Judaism journal. And while ordaining Orthodox women was part of the discussion at the 1997 conference, Greenberg said Sunday that she “did not anticipate that women would be serving as pulpit rabbis” this soon.

But Sunday’s conference sessions on countervailing trends – like women disappearing from public view in ads and newspaper editorial content, for instance – highlighted that progress is not a straight line.

Rabbi Lila Kagedan was the first Orthodox woman to use the title rabbi (others use terms including “rabba” and “Maharat”) and the first Orthodox ordained woman to be the senior clergy at a synagogue. She told the conference that though she is gratified by the work she is doing at her congregation in Massachusetts, “the hate and pushback” she has gotten “have been devastating.”

Blu Greenberg at the 20th anniversary JOFA conference in New York, January 15, 2017.Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

“Our glass ceiling has been cracked,” Kagedan told the rapt audience, “but it hasn’t been shattered yet.”

At an oversubscribed session titled “Where Have All the Women Gone? Vanishing Women & What We Can Do About It,” an audience member described going into Jewish bookstores in Brooklyn and seeing every children’s book illustrated only with images of boys. She also cited published donations to Orthodox charities as being from, for instance, “Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Goldstein”: Not only does the woman not get her own name, the accompanying picture only features the man.

Ruth Colian, the Israeli who created the first ever ultra-Orthodox women’s political party, B’Zhutan, and Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, an American-born writer who lives in Beit Shemesh – where ultra-Orthodox residents have clashed, at times violently, with others over the way women dress and are portrayed in public – also spoke at the session.

It is an orientation with potentially life-threatening repercussions, said Keats Jaskoll. She has written that Haredi women die of breast cancer because it is deemed immodest by community leaders to talk about getting screened for the disease.

One area where progress has not been as great as Greenberg hoped is the issue of agunot (women “chained” to dead marriages because their husbands will not grant them a divorce, which in Orthodox Judaism only the man can do).

The International Beit Din was established in 2015 to deal specifically with the issue, and the court has worked on about 50 cases over the past two years, Greenberg said. More than half have been resolved. Even more important, she said, are the significant number of cases in which the mere threat of being taken to the IBD is enough to persuade a husband to give his estranged wife a religious divorce rather than coerce her into paying him a significant sum of money in exchange for the get.

Riskin – a widely respected modern Orthodox rabbi – is beginning to urge officials to hire women to work in courts that deal with divorce.

“It is important for women to be part and parcel of every beit din, to ask questions that might seem threatening” coming from men, he said. “Having knowledgeable women would be a game changer.” After that, he said, should come female judges.

Attendees at the 20th anniversary JOFA conference in New York, January 15, 2017.Credit: Rabbi Ben Greenberg

Another conference session, moderated by Rabba Sara Hurwitz, featured two Israeli female decisors of Jewish law: Rabbanit Michal Tikochinsky and Pnina Neuwirth, a magistrate’s court judge as well as being a self-taught decisor.

“I feel very lonely in this field,” said Neuwirth, with Tikochinsky adding that “women have yet to get into the conversation” about Jewish law.

“A woman deals with halakha in a different way than men do,” said Tikochinsky. “You can raise issues that weren’t on the table. I didn’t wait for someone to ask me about it,” she added, referring to a breakthrough Jewish legal interpretation she published in 2007 about providing female converts to Judaism with increased privacy as they immerse in the mikveh.

That immersion in the ritual purification bath is the final step in a woman’s conversion, and is conventionally viewed by three male religious judges. Being viewed by men while in such a physically and spiritually vulnerable position is often traumatic for the woman, Tikochinsky said. She proposed alternatives like appointing specially trained women to view the immersion on behalf of the court judges. To date, they have not been widely adopted.

Despite the continued obstacles facing Orthodox feminists, one thing is for certain: JOFA has galvanized a community.

When the largest Orthodox rabbinical association, the Rabbinical Council of America, affirmed a resolution in 2015 barring women’s ordination, JOFA started an online petition opposing their position. Within 48 hours it had more than 4,000 signatures, JOFA President Bat Sheva Marcus told Haaretz.

Marcus is a clinical sex educator with a specialty in treating Haredi women.

Last year, a prominent Teaneck New Jersey rabbi, Steven Pruzansky, blogged that college women who say they were date raped are changing their minds after consensual encounters. JOFA rallied its troops to exert pressure on organizations sponsoring a community education day at his synagogue; Pruzansky was subsequently booted from the program.

“We have the numbers behind us,” said Marcus.

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