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Focus on Issues: Orthodox Feminists No Longer See Their Quest As an ‘oxymoron’

February 19, 1997
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Being an Orthodox Jewish feminist has long meant trying to straddle two worlds based on diametrically opposed values.

The first International Conference on Orthodoxy & Feminism, held here this week, made it clear that Orthodox women and the rabbis who back them feel that they are slowly but surely bridging the chasm between those worlds.

“Ten years ago, we felt on the fringe,” said Freda Rosenfeld, a consultant on breastfeeding and childbirth educator who lives in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.

“Now we are definitely mainstream,” she said, looking around the hotel hallway at some of the estimated 700 women and sprinkling of men who had come to the conference.

The unexpectedly large turnout included women with uncovered heads wearing pants and those with long skirts and wigs. All of them described themselves as modern or centrist Orthodox. The gathering also drew a few Chasidic women, a few Conservative women and at least one female Reconstructionist woman.

Author Cynthia Ozick “once called Orthodox feminism an oxymoron and it long was,” Blu Greenberg, who conceived of the conceived of the conference and chaired the event, said in an interview. “But it isn’t anymore.”

A feeling of religious ferment and change, excitement and apprehension were almost palpable as was, for many women, a sense of relief that they were finally among like-minded people.

“It feels good to be here because there aren’t that many Orthodox feminists” in Seattle, said Karen Treiger, who came in with her sister-in-law. In spite of her community’s relatively small size, her year-old women’s prayer group has already attracted 30 regular participants, she said.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an author and founder of the secular women’s movement, said the conference reminded her of the feminist movement’s earliest years.

“Something really new is happening” for Orthodox women, she said. At the conference, “there were moments of high consciousness that things were happening here that hadn’t happened before.”

While participants had no illusions that their gains would spread to the fervently Orthodox community, they came away, almost to a woman, feeling they had accomplished something revolutionary. The most important outcome of the conference, said many participants, was that the nine Orthodox rabbis who spoke at various sessions throughout the program said publicly that there is room for change in women’s roles within the parameters of Jewish law.

“It’s earthshaking that rabbis are saying for the first time that their hands are not tied by distance from Sinai,” said Shelley Frier List of Baltimore.

Orthodox women have been expanding their religious roles over the last two decades or so, at first reclaiming traditional women’s observances such as Rosh Chodesh, at the start of a new month, by gathering in meetings that have evolved into women’s prayer groups.

Innovations have evolved from there. A generation ago, a girl’s 12th birthday passed without ceremony and meant only that she was required to fast on Yom Kippur.

Today, a Bat Mitzvah is often celebrated in one of the approximately 40 women’s prayer groups that exist around the world with the girl learning the appropriate blessings, reciting her Torah portion and delivering a sermon on its meaning, much as a boy would.

Baby-namings also are becoming increasingly accepted as a way to publicly welcome, in synagogue, the birth of a baby girl.

There are also other, quieter changes, such as the fact that a growing number of baby boys, while being named at their circumcision, are described in the blessing as the son of their mother, as well as their father.

And in some Orthodox synagogues, a Torah scroll is passed behind the mechitzah dividing the sexes so that women can touch the Torah after it is read as men have always done.

Orthodox rabbis are always consulted before changes are instituted, but the requests are often coming from women who know which rabbis they can turn to for approval.

Deference to rabbinic authorities is a deeply inculcated value in the Orthodox community, and modesty has been regarded as one of the most valued traits a woman can possess. But conference participants openly challenged the limits of religious leaders’ sway over their lives when they find the rule is oppressive.

For instance, on the issue of agunot, women whose husbands refuse them the divorce that only men can issue, female activists and a handful of Orthodox rabbis have acted to counter the passivity of the rabbinate on the issue.

A handful of rabbis led by Emmanuel Rackman, a leading modern Orthodox authority, recently created a new religious court, or beit din, which thus far has freed six women by finding ways within Jewish law to annul their marriages.

Speaker after speaker said Jewish law could be interpreted to allow Orthodox women a more active role in their religious lives.

“Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way,” Greenberg said in her opening remarks, reiterating a phrase she has long used. “Part of our task is to generate that halachic will.”

Some centrist Orthodox rabbinical authorities are firmly opposed to the changes.

Describing the changes Orthodox women are making as “frivolous and culturally schismatic,” Rabbi J. David Bleich, a well-known interpreter of Jewish law and dean of Yeshiva University, said change can come only at the impetus of the rabbinate, not from outside.

“Changing the norms is up to the rabbinate alone,” Bleich, who did not attend the conference, said in an interview.

“Is medicine up to anyone but the medical profession, is law up to anyone but a jurist?”

Further, he said, women making changes on their own in “the norms” of religious behavior makes them not Orthodox.

“You can’t change the norms and still claim to be operating within a traditional community. If they are, then they are beyond the pale of Orthodoxy,” said Bleich. “It’s called Conservatism.”

One of the handful of pulpit rabbis who attended the conference disagreed with Bleich.

“There are sources within traditional Judaism” that permit women an expanded role, but “they’re not mainstream,” said Rabbi Abraham Mandelbaum, spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavat Yisrael in Hewlett, N.Y.

“We have to find solitary ideas and develop them more fully to make them mainstream,” he said.

“We are not here as rebels, but because people are sincere in their search for God. What could be wrong with that?”

The question of women becoming Orthodox rabbis hung in the air throughout the conference. The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements all ordain women.

A consensus seemed to emerge from many of the speakers that the term “rabbi” would not be the label used and that new labels must be developed. At the same time, however, women are already beginning to work in all of the roles of an Orthodox rabbi except as ritual leaders of public worship.

The entire phenomenon of women assuming positions of Orthodox religious leadership is rooted in education.

Knowledge is power, speakers said, and Orthodox women today have received better Jewish educations than their foremothers did.

Now that feminist Orthodox women have gained the confidence of knowing firsthand the positions taken by Jewish history’s great rabbinic authorities, they have begun to question the way some contemporary rabbis are interpreting them.

“Words like `power’ and ‘authority’ feel comfortable in” the mouths of Orthodox women today, Greeberg said in her opening speech.

Pam Ehrenkranz Zur, who came from Stamford, Conn., and is the mother of three young girls, said education continues to bring changes to the perspectives of girls today.

She said she and her peers did not get to that point as girls, but “our daughters are asking, `Why can’t I do that?'”

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