Orthodox Jewish feminism
Orthodox Jewish feminism (also known as Orthodox feminism amongst Jews) is a movement in Orthodox Judaism which seeks to further the cause of a more egalitarian approach to Jewish practice within the bounds of Jewish Law. The major organizations of this movement is the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) in North America, and Women of the Wall (WOW) and its affiliates in Israel and internationally, known as ICWOW - The International Committee for Women of the Wall. In Israel, the leading Orthodox feminist organization is Kolech (http://www.kolech.org.il), started by Dr. Hannah Kehat.
The movement relies on liberal interpretations of Jewish Law, by both modern and classical rabbinic scholars, taking advantage of the lack of universal consensus on legal interpretations amongst rabbis in different eras.
Orthodox feminists, using historical precedents and the aforementioned liberal legal interpretations, allow the practice of ritual in manners that more traditional or conservative interpretations consider as befitting only to men. Many of the practices of Orthodox feminists are held to be controversial because of their different approach to the every day routine of most Orthodox Jews. Several specific rituals and practices are of particular concern:
Fighting for Agunot
Agunot are women who have asked for a divorce, or who have been left by their husband, and the husband refuses to grant a get. A get is a Jewish certificate of divorce required for the woman to be able to remarry. Recalcitrant husbands are pressured by society to grant the get to the wife, who is stuck in limbo, without a husband and unable to remarry.
Orthodox feminists make a priority of fighting on the behalf of agunot, and the "agunah crisis". Many fight in organizations specifically for this purpose, and some work independently.
Interaction with The Torah
Kissing the Torah scroll with a siddur (prayer book), hand, or directly with the lips, during Shabbath, Yom Tob, services is a convention found in many Modern Orthodox congregations as well as non-Orthodox ones. While many may take it for granted as an integral part of worship services, it is not practiced in Haredi and Chassidic congregations. Dancing with the Torah and having hakafoth (processional circuits) around the sanctuary on Simhath Torath is another way in which many Orthodox Jews interact with the Torah which is an especially important ritual in feminist circles. These are some reasons why this act has special meaning in Orthodox feminist circles.
Participation in Zimmunim
One of the most prevalent, and perhaps least controversial practices of Orthodox feminists, even done by some women outside of the movement, is the participation in a women's zimmun. The women's zimmun takes place when less than three men have eaten together, but where three or more women have eaten together. A zimmun is a formal call to prayer said before the communal recitation of Birkath Hamazon. One formula for the women's zimmun is exactly the same formula as the zimmun of men, but substituting 'chaverot' (Hebrew: friends (f.)) for the word 'rabotai' (Hebrew: gentlemen) in the beginning of the invitation, thus femminizing the call.
Use of Prayer Shawls
In Orthodox feminism, the donning of a Taleth (prayer shawl) is not seen as the wearing of a man's garment, neither is it seen as an affront to the community. These reasons coupled with historical precedents, such as the donning of Taletoth by Rashi's daughters in popular legend, and permission by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein among others, make the wearing of Prayer Shawls by women common in Orthodox feminists circles.
Use of Tefillin
Orthodox communities maintain that women are not permitted to lay tefillin, as is required by adult men. The duty of laying tefillin rests upon males after the age of thirteen years and one day. Women are exempt from the obligation, as are also slaves and minors (Berakhot 20a). The medieval halachic work Orach Chayyim precludes women who wish to wear tefillin from doing so. In ancient times, this was not the case. There are several instances of who women who allegedly wore tefillin. According to a baraita, "Michal the daughter of the Cushite [i.e., Saul, cf. Mo'ed Katan 16b] wore tefillin and the sages did not protest" (Eruvin 96a). After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, women became increasingly excluded from Jewish ritual activities as rabbinic Judaism become increasingly codified. Women became exempt from almost all time-bound positive commandments: prayer three times a day, sitting in the sukkah, and laying tefillin. The Mishnah tractate entitled Nashim (women) is the most comprehensive dealing with the legal aspects of women’s roles in Judaism. Medieval Ashkenazi communities represented a high point in women’s voluntary participation in Judaism, even in aspects supposedly forbidden to them by Talmudic law. Women of Northern France were known to put on tefillin to pray. In addition to tefillin, women were documented as being counted in prayer quorums, and serving as a sandeka'it at circumcision feasts. However, the political and economic situation of European Jewry gradually worsened beginning in the 13th century. In response, communities reverted to more traditional practices, and most of the gains Jewish women had achieved were put to a stop.
Orthodox Jewish feminists participate in a number of organized and informal activities which both demonstrate their commitment to their values as both feminists and as Orthodox Jews.
Holding conferences of various kinds is a major activity that Orthodox Jewish feminists use to educate, show recognition, and strengthen the movement. JOFA organizes conferences for its members and the public drawing crowds from both North America, and internationally. As well, some Orthodox feminists participate in partnership minyanim and other independent minyanim where they feel comfortable and are permitted to practice Judaism in their unique way. This phenomenon was the topic of discussion of Mechhon Hadar, a conference about independent minyanim.
Blu Greenberg advocates for women to ascend to the Orthodox rabbinate. Mimi Feigelson was an Orthodox student of Shlomo Carlebach who was ordained after his death, but she doesn't use the term 'rabbi' in reference to herself out of respect for Orthodox social structure. Haviva Ner-David has the equivalent of Orthodox ordination, but teaches at a Conservative yeshiva.
Sara Hurwitz is the Mahara"t of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. She has the full training of an Orthodox rabbi. Her title is an acronym for Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit: A halakhic spiritual and torah leader. According to Rabbi Avi Weiss, she is a full member of the clergy. A MaHaRaT has functions as spiritual leader, gives pastoral care, and leads life cycle events, as well as having authority to teach Torah. She has the authority to answer questions of Jewish Law.
In some communities, a spiritual leadership position other than rabbi is held by a woman. Dina Najman is ראש קהילה Rosh Kehila (Hebrew: Head of Community) of Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE) on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Rori Picker Neiss serves as the Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, MO.
- Hartman, Tova, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism: Resistance and Accommodation. Brandeis, Lebanon, New Hampshire, 2008
Notes and references
- Beliefnet Orthodox, Feminist, and Proud of It Judaism's Orthodox feminist movement has succeeded in opening doors for women committed both to Jewish law and gender equality
- Edah: The Courage to be modern and Orthodox 'Womens Zimmun and Whether Men [Who Are Present] Must Leave'
- Orthodox feminists make little progress on agunot
- My Jewish Learning: Orthodox Feminism For The 21st Century - A founder of the Orthodox feminist movement discusses issues confronting the movement now and in the future By Blu Greenberg.
- See Wikipedia: Tallit 5.2 Women
- JOFA Links on the wearing of prayer shawls by women.
- See Wikipedia: Tefillin: Who Lays Tefillin
- HighBeam Research Gen Xers Take Orthodox Feminist Reins: Modesty, mikveh and sex; New generation makes its own experience the focus at conference
- ZEEK DIY Judaism: A Roundtable on the Independent Minyan Phenomenon
- Mechon Hadar
- Unusual but Not Unorthodox; 2 Synagogues Hire Women to assis Rabbis - A NY Times Article about female congregational interns.
- Jerusalem Post article on the ordination of women rabbis of all denomination.
- Jewish Virtual Library: A History of Women's Ordination as Rabbis
- Hebrew Institute of Riverdale - About Us.
- The Jewish Week Article about Mahara"t Sarah Hurwitz
- An Orthodox Jewish Woman, and Soon, a Spiritual Leader NY Times article about a woman Rosh Kehila
- Who is the Madricha Ruchanit ? The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale's (HIR) website explains the role of a Madricha Ruchanit.
- HIR page on Sharona Margolin Halickman