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Focus on Issues: Despite Resistance to Feminist Label, Orthodox Women Have Made Impact

February 23, 2000
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What does it say about a conference on Orthodoxy and feminism when perhaps as many as half the participants insist they are not feminists?

It says that it’s an Orthodox conference.

Feminism, described only half-jokingly by one keynote speaker as “the F-word” in Orthodoxy, is a loaded term, though that may be as true today for American women in general as it is for the Orthodox.

The struggle to find a comfortable balance between progress and tradition was obvious at the Third International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy, sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which drew some 2,000 people to a New York hotel Sunday and Monday.

But just as obvious was the dramatic impact of feminism on Orthodox Judaism in general.

Even those who prefer not to call themselves feminists and do not attribute the changes to feminism live lives that embrace these changes.

Women who never celebrated their own Bat Mitzvah and who never studied the Talmud made sure to bring their daughters, many of whom even more vehemently deny the feminist label, but who have celebrated their Bat Mitzvah in synagogue, are studying Talmud in high school and preparing for college.

Indeed, one of the major changes in Orthodoxy is that a serious Jewish education has become a universally accepted norm for Orthodox girls.

Changes abound elsewhere as well. In the synagogue, a slowly growing number of Orthodox congregations are instituting changes such as sending a Torah scroll into the women’s section during services to enable women to touch and kiss the holy text before and after it is read aloud; designing a new sanctuary with a mechitzah straight down the middle, rather than putting women at the back of the room; offering women an opportunity to join their husbands in front of the congregation to welcome a daughter’s arrival and to recite a blessing when their child becomes Bar Mitzvah; and permitting women to participate in the congregation’s ritual committee.

Changes like these are far from universal, even in modern Orthodox congregations.

“I wish we were doing these things in our shul,” sighed one Miami woman at a session where four rabbis described these changes.

According to Rabbi Saul Berman of New York, one of Orthodox feminism’s leading rabbinic advisers, most of the women seeking counsel from these female interpreters of Jewish law, known as yoatzot halachah, are haredi, or fervently Orthodox — the most anti-feminist Orthodox community.

Two New York City synagogues have created congregational internships, where scholarly women work as teachers of both men and women, speak from the pulpit and fulfill other duties similar to those of male seminary students who work as rabbinic interns.

Changes has also been felt in Israel, where learned young women are now serving as interpreters of Jewish law in certain areas of halachic expertise.

Advances in women’s participation in Orthodox life were also reflected in the four booklets put out by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, known as JOFA.

The booklets, titled “The Orthodox Jewish Woman and Ritual: Options and Opportunities,” provide an introduction to Jewish law; new and traditional customs surrounding Bat Mitzvah, Shabbat, death and mourning, and birth, and in personal essays make clear the changes in women’s roles from even a decade or two ago.

The impact of within Orthodoxy is even making an impact on language, Blu Greenberg, JOFA’s president, said in her keynote speech on Sunday.

Whereas women used to sit “behind the mechitzah,” now females sit “in the women’s section,” just as males sit in the men’s section.

“All of this has happened in a short 30 years, which is but the blink of an eye as Jews count time,” she said.

At the same time, Orthodox feminism has become a flash point, the defining line between those who believe that Orthodoxy should synthesize modernity with tradition, and those who say that tradition must be insulated from modernity.

In the fervently Orthodox world, the impact of religious feminism has been only negative, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman of Agudath Israel of America, who did not attend the conference.

Orthodox feminism, which is viewed in his community as a dangerous by-product of the secular world, has led to “almost a knee-jerk suspicion of even positive things, like women getting together to do charity or say tehillim [psalms] for the ill and bereaved,” Shafran said.

“People now have to stop and make sure this is not just a Trojan horse for the feminist movement, because the rhetoric from the feminist movement is so belligerent sometimes. They’ve announced their determination to storm the ramparts. That puts a certain concern about anything that could smack of change,” he said.

Even for many who identify as modern Orthodox, feminism is thought to be code for “angry women.”

Indeed, the touchy issue of anger came up at many sessions throughout the gathering. Meeting organizers spoke of the sharp difference between the way they are described by their ideological opponents and the reality of their lives as wives, mothers and grandmothers.

And as if to prove their Orthodox bona fides, female conference speakers often emphasized that their desire for change comes from positive motivation: their love of Torah and their commitment to observance, rather than some external drive to be just like men.

Some “perceive us as these angry women,” said Carol Newman of New York, a philanthropist who supports institutes of advanced learning for women and is vice president of JOFA.

But noting that during their last organizing call before the conference, she was busy making orange juice for her husband and Greenberg was helping her husband find his shirts, Newman said, “I don’t know one woman at this conference who is not involved in family life.”

Greenberg, reflecting the delicate balancing act facing Orthodox feminists, said in her keynote address that they need to persuade those who oppose them “that we are not looking at sweeping changes that will upset Judaism.

“And if the word `equality’ doesn’t work so well, we’ll have to use words like `justice’ and `mercy’ and `compassion.'”

Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor at Brandeis University, said in her plenary speech that calling Orthodox feminists angry women “is a form of libel used to delegitimate the women working towards change.”

And two well-known modern Orthodox rabbis, Marc Angel of New York City and Alan Yuter of Springfield, N.J., who together led a workshop, cautioned their listeners not to act too angry.

“Sometimes the feminists are perceived as being too strident, too demanding, too impatient,” Angel said in an interview beforehand.

In the workshop, Yuter warned his listeners that “if you are overly aggressive and angry, you’ll create opposition. When you speak loudly, people go deaf. When you speak softly, people hear you.”

Plenary speaker Adena Berkowitz, an attorney and JOFA board member, opened her remarks by saying “There’s no one here who’s angry. Perhaps we’re frustrated, but we’re not angry.”

Her statement was quickly met by angry murmurs of protest rippling loudly throughout the large hall.

Despite the changes brought to Orthodox life by their movement, conference leaders articulated a sense of uncertainty about the path Orthodox feminism will take in the future, perhaps best summed up in the theme they selected for the gathering, a few words taken from Genesis: “Where have you come from and where are you going”

“The Chasidic movement was attacked and vilified in its time, but stayed the course to become part of the mainstream,” said Belda Lindenbaum, another philanthropist who has founded, and funds, several Orthodox women’s Torah study programs in the United States and Israel.

“Only time will tell if we touch and change the hearts of many, or if we become just a blip in time.”

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