Published in The Jerusalem Post on July 18, 1999
The feminist revolution is coming to Orthodox Jewry, slowly but inevitably. If the Orthodox rabbinate is smart it will engage and partner with the new generation of Orthodox women seeking an expanded role in religious life — guiding, encouraging and restraining them simultaneously.
I’m not optimistic about the rabbinate. Judging from rabbinical reactions to the first-ever Israeli conference of Orthodox feminists held last week in Jerusalem – attended by close to 1000 women – our rabbis have a long process of sensitization ahead of them.
More than a whiff of rebellion was in the air at a conference. Perhaps that is why Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau preferred to stay away, citing “scheduling conflicts”. Scheduling, of course, had nothing to do with it. That morning, the Chief Rabbi was in the very same conference center where the feminist meetings were taking place, one room away, delivering greetings to a different conference. A fifteen second walk and ten minutes of his time was all it would have taken to greet the Orthodox feminists too.
Encouragingly, Haifa Chief Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen, and some of the younger up-and-coming rabbis, such as Yuval Sirlow of Petah Tikva and Dov Berkowitz, and some open-minded community leaders like Prof. Moshe Kaveh, came to engage the women. Rabbi Cohen, for example, both legitimized the women’s spiritual odyssey and aspirations, while taking issue with some of the more fiery feminist rhetoric.
But alas, much of the Orthodox rabbinate is unaware of the genuine religious yearnings burning in women’s souls; is insensitive to the deep distress felt by many Orthodox women at their marginality in religious ceremonies and in the halls of Torah study; and is mentally locked into fossilized formulas regarding men-women roles and relationships within tradition.
Consequently, not too many rabbis are yet prepared to consider even simple, creative ceremonial innovations, completely within halacha, that would ease the mental burden of religious inequality.
Clearly, there are halachic and ideological limits to the feminist enterprise within Orthodoxy, and I was impressed by the acceptance and understanding of these by conference participants. Family life, raising children, awe of the Lord and modesty come before all else. Certain biblically- and rabbinically-ordained halachic guidelines cannot be altered, such as core marriage procedures, male minyan requirements, the rules of witness and others.
But what is wrong with women holding the poles of a wedding huppa, crushing a glass along with the groom, or giving a learned *dvar torah* at the bride’s reception? How about female Torah scholars as formal role models in girls schools, like the “school rabbi” in boys institutions? Why should women that have intensively studied the laws of family purity not be able to halachically rule for other women in these sensitive, personal matters?
Why should little boys in kindergarten be given kippot at the traditional Torah party – while the girls get ribbons for their hair? In other words, boys aspire to a close relationship with God, while girls should look good. Instead, shouldn’t boys and girls both ceremoniously be given a little picture prayer book? The subliminal messages transmitted here and throughout the educational process are critically important in this modern age.
Then there is the hesitancy of religious courts to take advantage of bold, creative halachic tools in order to free women locked in bad marriages. It is all a question of sensitivity and willingness.
Don’t tell me that halacha doesn’t change. The rabbis created solutions and adapted to changing realities throughout history when injustices or inequities prevailed. “In consideration of women’s feelings”, says the Mishnah, the sages ordered sacrifices to be paraded through the women’s gallery in the Temple. Note the concept — consideration of women’s feelings as a moral value in the development of tradition!
When things got out of hand, the rabbis outlawed betrothal through *biah* (relations), abolished the sotah ceremony, and nullified the power of a father to betroth his infant daughter without her adult consent.
Yes indeed, in response to changing social mores, the Orthodox rabbis of yesteryear banned polygamy. They revoked the right of a husband to divorce his wife against her will. They permitted women to work outside the home, collect debts, and conduct banking activity; to teach and to talk to the fathers of students; to vote; and to learn Torah at advanced levels. All these things were absolutely “forbidden” once upon a time.
When the sabbatical year became an economic problem, wise rabbinical sages permitted the land to be sold to a non-Jew. The same thing with hametz on Passover, now routinely ‘sold’ to a non-Jew. When the injunction against taking interest and the jubilee cancellation of all loans became economically untenable, the revolutionary *pruzbul* and *heter iska* contracts were enacted to side-step the problems. And much more.
The changing status of women in society is *the* moral challenge to Orthodoxy today. Justice, simple ethics and self-preservation require real change in religious attitudes and opportunities for women – slowly, cautiously and with due regard to the perils inherent in the process.
Rabbis who will engage the feminist movement, and embrace its self-critical, impressive female leaders, are sorely needed.