Has there ever been a more reluctant, gentle revolutionary than Blu Greenberg? For 30 years she has personified Orthodox feminism, and perhaps it is her very reluctance, her very tenderness to the tradition that has eased Orthodox minds and made possible Orthodox feminismís ìvelvet revolution,î to use Vaclav Havelís phrase.
It had to be gentle or not at all: The trick to halachic change is to convince that change is not really change at all, and yet, in the decades since she started speaking out, consider the magnitude of change: Bat mitzvahs are now celebrated by even Agudah-type Orthodox, who once considered it a Reform Trojan horse; women are learning rabbinic-level texts, though teaching Talmud to women was once taboo; an Orthodox consensus has been created around the idea that there is something spiritually vulgar about the persistence of agunot and the halachic abuses that too often surface when marriages fail.This weekend almost 3,000 women, and men too, are expected at the third conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), that Blu leads as president.
Perhaps we should apologize, or at least explain, the informality of calling her ìBlu.î She is never ìMs. Greenberg,î but her first name is said with the reverential familiarity that the basketball world bestows when simply saying ìMichael.îWe visited Blu in her Riverdale home, down a narrow rustic lane. The rebbetzin ó wife of Rabbi Irving ìYitzî Greenberg, an iconic visionary of Modern Orthodoxy himself ó sits with her tea under a brightly colored splash of a painting done by daughter Deborah: The painting depicts the trees, seas and sun, the beauty of creation, with the Talmudís famous empowerment: Lo Bashamayim Hee; meaning, ìIt is not in Heavenî where halacha is decided but it is for those of us who are familiar with earthly sadness, dreams and desire, to partner with God in legislating Jewish law. Essentially, it is what Blu has been saying for years: ìWhere thereís a rabbinic will, thereís a halachic way.îYet, after 30 years of feminism, the agunahís status is status quo: A woman denied a get (ritual divorce) by her husband is denied any new chance for love or the intimate comfort of another.Even Orthodox feminists appear to be experiencing a malaise about agunot: An American Jewish Committee study, ìFeminism in Contemporary Orthodox Life,î to be presented at the JOFA conference, and conducted by JOFAís Sylvia Barack Fishman, found that only 17 percent of feminists themselves said that solving the agunah quandary was one of their personal goals.ìSylvia tapped into many important themes,î says Greenberg, ìand we have our work cut out for us. But at the other pole, the issue has been moved onto the communal agenda and that is progress.
As part of solidifying their place on the agenda, JOFA invited all 1,300 members of the Rabbinical Council of America (the largest Modern Orthodox rabbinical guild) to the upcoming conference. It isnít clear, yet, how many will show up, but she says, ìthe voices of these rabbis have to be heard here, too. Iím trying to balance the idea that we have to be aggressive while at the same time not perceived of as radical. Being radical is something thatís scary to me, too. Ö Iím not accepting that critique and I donít want to feed that perception.
Recent studies, such as Fishmanís, reveal a steep drop-off in interest in womenís tefillah groups among younger Modern Orthodox women, who prefer more traditional prayer settings. The womenís movement, says the Fishman study, is split between the more activist ìmothers,î many of whom appreciate womenís tefillah, and their traditional ìdaughtersî who donít.ìThere are some wonderful spiritual possibilites,î says Blu, ìwithin the mainstream shul and within womenís tefillah, as well, and there has to be a better conversation between the two.îWhen it comes to prayer, though, Blu is not just a ìmotherî but a daughter who recently concluded the saying of Kaddish for her father, Rabbi Samuel Genauer. Women, exempt from that obligation, have been increasingly opting to say Kaddish when that time inevitably comes. Greenbergís 11-month fidelity to that undertaking renewed her affection and respect for the ìregularity and commitmentî that the daily minyan represents. ìIt was quite interesting to see the women coming to the morning minyan, several young women, showing up every day.îMother-daughter relationships elude easy conclusions. Within Greenbergís own family, ìmy daughters ó and my sons ó agree with what I say and will defend me to the hilt; [activism] is just not where they put their energies. Neither Yitz nor I wanted to make our children carry our banners for us. There is a certain tension in that we are living in a community and raising a critique inside the community at the same time: Thatís a very delicate balance. I wanted our children to love their Orthodox inheritance, so I tread lightly. I remember when my girls were teenagers and I asked them to come to womenís tefillah; they wanted to daven with their friends. That was fine. I never pushed that.îThe Orthodox family is being changed internally as well as communally. ìI believe that men and women can have different roles and still have equality. But what are the public roles that women can assume and still be halachic?îNon-Orthodox women observers at the last conference ìcriticized us,î says Greenberg, ìfor deferring too much to the rabbis; we werenít radical enough. My response is that this is what Orthodox feminism is about: Wanting to change within the system, not to walk away from it.îThe answers are still being found, not only in Heaven, but the Heaven within her mind.