How an Orthodox Woman Evolved Beyond “Woman of Valor” to Become a Fervent Feminist (Book Excerpt)

I was born into a strongly traditional family. I knew my place and I liked it — the warmth, the rituals, the solid, tight parameters. I never gave a thought to what responsibilities I did or didn’t have as a female growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community.

My friends and I shared the same world of expectation. I remember the year of the Bar Mitzvahs of our eighth-grade male friends. We girls sat up in the women’s section of the synagogue and took great pride in “our boys.” If we thought about ourselves at all, it was along the lines of “Thank God we are girls and don’t have to go through this public ordeal.”

Quite remarkably, there never was any envy of what the boys were doing, never a thought of “why not us?”

My short-lived encounter with daily prayer ended when I graduated from a local yeshiva in Far Rockaway, New York, and had begun commuting to a girls’ yeshiva high school in Brooklyn. This meant getting up an hour earlier to catch the 7:18 Long Island train, so prayer was the first thing to go. I had it down to a science: if I laid out my clothes in exactly the right order the night before, I could set the alarm for 6:52, get up, wash, dress, eat the hot breakfast without which my mother insisted a person could not face the world each day, and still have time to walk briskly to the train. Just as the train started to pull out, my friends who were attending the boys’ yeshiva would come dashing down the platform and fling themselves onto the slowly moving train. I knew they had been up since six o’clock to allow enough time for Shacharit, the mandatory morning prayers. There they were, a little bleary-eyed, already spent at 7:18. I certainly didn’t envy their more rigorous regimen.

I also relished the tale told about my cousin Tzvi, then thirteen. He was on his way from Seattle to the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland. It was a night flight, and because of a delay and the change of time zones, the plane was still in the air as it neared time for the morning devotions. A no-nonsense thirteen-year-old when it came to religious obligation, Tzvi went to the back of the plane, strapped on his tefillin, and began to pray. In the 1950’s, it took a lot of guts to be so conspicuous; many Americans, especially in the West, genuinely believed that Jews had horns. The Northwest Airlines stewardess, however, was not one of them. She gently put her arm around Tzvi and said, “What’s the matter, sonny, don’t you think you’re going to make it?” Aside from the humor, I was very proud of my cousin, one year my junior, but somehow I never related his experience in any way to my own religious life.

In the fifties, Orthodox Jews lived their lives with great fidelity to the Halacha, even as they tried to “pass” in the larger society. After all, why bring special attention to a particularist way of life? “Be a Jew at home, a man in the street” was the unspoken social principle. The revolution of the kipah is a case in point. In the fifties, this headcovering, incumbent upon every observant Jewish male, was still called by its Yiddish name, yarmulka— kipah is the Hebrew term—and [came only in] black rayon or silk, measuring a full handspan. One never saw a kipah bobbing down Fifth Avenue in the fifties. A hat or a cap was a bit more conspicuous in summer than in winter, but it wasn’t all that outlandish.

The big test, however, came when the young men entered a public place—a theater, a movie house, a library. Unless it was a restaurant, most of the young Orthodox men of my acquaintance, even the rabbinical students, would go bareheaded for the short duration (something their sons would be horrified at today). In addition, there were all sorts of permutations and combinations—putting on one’s kipah before saying a blessing over an ice cream soda and then removing it before eating, or waiting until the lights in the theater dimmed before slipping it on.

How did I relate to all this? With a sense of relief, for I didn’t have to cope with the encumbrance of a kipah on top of the normal teen load of social self-consciousness. I can recall, in the early courtship with the man who was to become my husband, an occasional sensation of discomfort at the fact that he never removed his kipah in public places. Not to my credit, I even remember one evening at the opera, of which I didn’t hear a word, while I sai thinking the whole time, “Why can’t he be more sensible, less conspicuous?”

I was glad to be off the hook as far as certain religious responsibilities were concerned. It never occurred to me that these were overt expressions of a religious stamina, a formal statement of what a young man stood for. And although there were no guarantees that this was for life— many a young man broke under the burdens of kipah and daily prayer—it was still a more demanding path than that charted for a young woman. The ever-so-subtle side message was that male Jews who passed the tests were a superior breed.

I had a fine Jewish education, the best a girl could have. My father always was more interested in my Hebrew studies than in my secular ones, and he studied with my sisters and me regularly. My mother, the more practical one, also encouraged my Hebrew studies. Having lived through the Depression, she believed that a Hebrew-teacher’s license was like money in the bank—the best insurance a girl could buy. Why a Hebrew teacher? That was just about the highest career expectation for a Jewish educated female in the fifties. We were an achievement-oriented family, so along with our secular degrees, my sisters and I and most of our friends added another notch to our dowry belts, a Hebrew-teacher’s license.

The fact that teaching Hebrew was a low-paying career didn’t matter much. In the fifties, a young Jewish woman really didn’t have to worry about earning a living. It was more a matter of waiting for Mr. Right to come along and take over where parental support left off. In her inner soul, perhaps, a young woman’s anxieties were greater: she had to wait, somewhat passively, for a man to create a future for her, whereas a young man had a sense of holding the future in his hands. On the surface, however, I think it was easier to be a woman. The loads were neatly packaged, and the one marked “female” was lighter.

After my marriage in the late 1950’s, my feelings of contentment and fulfillment were enhanced rather than diminished. The ways of a traditional Jewish woman suited me just fine. All those platitudes about building a faithful Jewish home were not nearly as pleasant as the real thing itself. Moreover, none of those obligations ruled out graduate studies and plans for a career. It was a time of peaceful coexistence between the traditional roles and the initial stirrings of self-actualization for women.

The religious role of a married woman was also perfect in my eyes. I found the clear division of labor, and its nonnegotiable quality, most satisfying. It never crossed my mind that experiencing certain mitzvot vicariously was anything less than the real thing. The real thing was for him to perform his mitzvot and for me to attend to mine. I wasn’t looking for anything more than I had, certainly not in the way of religious obligations or rights. On those bitter cold Sabbath mornings I was absolutely delighted to linger an hour longer in a nice warm bed and play with the kids rather than have to brave the elements. I could choose to go to the synagogue when I wanted or pray at home when I wanted; for my husband there was no choice.

The mechitzah separating men from women in the synagogue served to symbolize the dividing line. Not only did I not perceive the mechitzah to be a denigration of women in the synagogue, but I couldn’t understand why some Jews felt that way. At some level, to me the mechitzah symbolized the ancient, natural, immutable order of male and female.

All of this is not to say that I lived a perfectly docile existence within the boundaries of this natural order. There were certain incidents that made me chafe at the outer limits, but these were isolated, sporadic, and unconnected. I did not see them as part of any meaningful pattern.

During my junior year in college, I studied in Israel for several months at a Hebrew teachers’ institute. Nechama Leibowitz was my teacher for Bible. She was the most brilliant, exciting teacher I ever had, and she became an extraordinary model for me. As the time neared to return home, I decided that I wanted to take a year off from Brooklyn College where I had been enrolled and just study intensively with Nechama. She was then teaching at fifteen different places, from army camps to kibbutz seminars. My intention was to make Jerusalem my home base, follow Nechama to all the places she taught, and learn from her day and night. “Come home and finish college,” said my parents. “You’re crazy,” said most of my friends. In the back of my mind, I guess I somehow knew that it wasn’t the sort of thing a nice Orthodox Jewish girl would do. Not being assertive or terribly independent, I came home. I quietly knew that had I been a young man wanting to stay on and study intensively with a special Israeli rebbe, every encouragement would have been forthcoming.

Another incident that gave pause for thought was the oyfruf of my cousin Allan (this is the ceremony of calling up a bridegroom to read from the Torah in the synagogue on the Sabbath preceding the wedding). The oyfruf was to be held at a synagogue a mile from
where we lived at the time. I was looking forward to the occasion because many of my relatives from Seattle, whom I hadn’t seen for a long time, would be there. I had arranged for the baby-sitter to come at 9:30; my husband had left an hour earlier to catch the beginning of the services. The appointed hour passed, then 10:00, 10:30, and still no baby-sitter. At that time there was no eruv (a circumferential boundary that transforms the legal nature of property) in Manhattan that would have permitted me to push a carriage on the Sabbath; there was simply no way I could walk with an infant and a toddler to the synagogue, a mile away.

Though I couldn’t put my frustration into any sort of framework, I had a vague feeling that above my own failure to make any contingency arrangements, there were some situations in which the demarcations brought me up short. If synagogue weren’t a man’s thing, I mentally pouted, then somehow it would have been I and not my husband at my cousin’s oyfruf.

These and other incidents nevertheless were quietly put behind me. They didn’t total up to anything, and they certainly were not enough to shake my equilibrium.

And then came feminism. In 1963, I read Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, still the classic text of the women’s movement. I was a little intimidated by its force and had trouble with what seemed to me a portent of friction between the sexes, but the essential idea, equality of women, was exciting, mind-boggling, and very just. Still, correct or not, it didn’t mean me, nor did it apply to women in Judaism. On that score I was defensive, resistant, and probably just plain frightened.

And yet… once I had tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, there was no going back. Little by little, and with a good deal of prodding from my husband, I became sensitized to issues and situations that had previously made no impression on me. In place of blind acceptance, I slowly began to ask questions, not really sure if I wanted to hear the answers. Because I was so satisfied, because I had no sense of injustice, some of the new thinking, including my own, came to me as a shock. Things that had run right past me before I now had to grab hold of, for a still moment, to examine under the white light of equality.

I began to think not just about the idea, but about myself as woman—in relation to people, to a place in the larger society, to a career, and finally to Judaism. I did not look back over my past and say it was bad. In fact, I knew it was very good. What I did begin to say was that perhaps it could have been better. Isolated incidents began to emerge as part of a pattern. This pattern now had to be tested against a new value framework.

It was almost ten years before I systematically began to apply the new categories to my Jewishness. As I reviewed my education, one fact emerged—a fact so obvious that I was stunned more by my unresponsiveness to it over the years than by the fact itself. It was this: the study of Talmud, which was a primary goal in my family and community, was closed off to me. Beginning with elementary school, the girls studied Israeli folk dancing while the boys studied Talmud. In the yeshiva high school, the girls’ branch had no course of study in Talmud; the boys’ branch had three hours a day.

And then there was my father. The great love of his life, beyond his family, was not his business; it was his study of the Talmud. Every day, before he left for work, he would spend an hour studying Talmud with a rabbi friend. In fact, he has not missed a day of study in his life, even during family vacations or times of stress. Yet although he reviewed religious texts regularly with his daughters, it was never Talmud. That we didn’t participate more directly in our father’s passion for Talmud study was not a willful denial on his part; he simply was following the hallowed custom. As a result of all this, when I began to study rabbinic literature in graduate school in my late twenties, I realized that my fellow students all had the edge of fifteen or twenty years of Talmud study behind them.

Gradually, too, I became aware of the power of conditioning and how early in life it takes place. On the last Sabbath that my husband served as rabbi of a congregation, the children and I decided to surprise him. Moshe, then ten and a half, prepared the Haftorah reading; David, nine, the An’im Zemirot prayer; and J.J., six, the Adon Olam. On the following Sunday morning, their grandparents visited and gave each of the boys two dollars for doing such a fine job.

When the boys told Deborah, then eight, that they each had been given two dollars, she complained that it wasn’t fair. At which point Moshe retorted, with the biting honesty of a ten-year-old: “Well, so what, you can’t even do anything in the synagogue!” Click, click, I thought to myself, another woman radicalized.

Oddly enough, until that moment it never had occurred to me that it could or should be otherwise, that perhaps it wasn’t “fair” to a little girl. Even more astounding was the fact that with all the weeks of secret practice, all the fuss I had made over the boys beforehand, and all the compliments they received afterward, Deborah had never once complained. It was only the two dollars that finally got to her; to everything else she had already been conditioned…to expect nothing.

Other scenes began to pull together. When my Uncle Izzie died, the whole family gathered for his funeral. He had had a special spot in his heart for his six grandchildren, especially two girls who grew up in his house. In his eulogy, the rabbi commented on this special relationship. At the end of the service, he asked the grandchildren to accompany the casket out of the synagogue. Three boys and three girls, all in their teens, stepped forward. The president of the congregation hastened over and asked the girls to be seated. The rabbi, he said, meant only male grandchildren.

A few months later, my husband and I went to visit a friend and her daughter who were observing Shivah, the seven-day mourning period. We arrived just in time for the evening service. The men rose to pray. The women, including the two mourners, were shunted off to the apartment foyer to stand silently while the men prayed. The men who had arranged the service did not think to provide prayer books for the women, not even for the two female mourners. Nor did it occur to them to move to the foyer themselves at least to allow the women to remain seated in the living room. It was as if once the moment of prayer began, the women no longer existed.

A turning point for me came in 1973. By sheer accident I was invited to deliver the opening address at the First National Jewish Women’s Conference, to be held at the Hotel McAlpin in New York. A month before the conference, two young women came to our house to discuss the conference and to invite my husband to participate in a Sunday morning panel. As we chatted, I chimed in intermittently. “Say,” said one of the visitors with utter spontaneity, “how would you like to speak at the opening session on Friday night?”

Until then I had thought through the Jewish issues of feminism only haphazardly. Now I was forced to collect my scattered thoughts, to research, to focus. When I confronted the sources directly, I found I could no longer accept the apologetic line so popular among those in the traditional Jewish community who were attempting to deal with feminism. Different role assignments? Yes, that part was true. But genuine equality? There was simply too much evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, my background, indeed my love for the tradition, had given me a different perspective on the feminist movement. Untempered, it seemed to me, feminism fell short in basic human values. Thus, as my talk developed, it ended up being a double-edged critique of Jewish tradition vis-a-vis women and feminism, each from a perspective of the other.

The response was most instructive. I discovered that there were some feminists who relished criticism of the Jewish tradition but would brook no naysaying of feminism. They applauded the first part of my address and hissed at the second part. In my later conversations with them, and in my observations throughout the weekend, I began to realize that it was their counterparts in the broader feminist movement (about whom I had been reading) who had given me pause. I thought of them as “orthodox” feminists, for feminism was to them a religion—sacrosanct, untouchable, inviolable. They were the vociferous minority, the radical fringe, whom the self-serving media had projected to the center, passing up the more balanced, less angry elements of the movement This was an important encounter for me. After that weekend, I found myself less in need of such remarks as, “I’m not a women’s libber.” I found you could still be a mild-mannered yeshiva girl and a card-carrying feminist.

From the conference, I began to understand the strength one derives from a like-minded community—the support, the testing of ideas, the cross-fertilization. I learned to relax, not to be so rigid when it came to women’s experimentation with new responsibilities.

I had heard there would be a women’s minyan (quorum of worshippers) during the course of the conference. Naturally, I wouldn’t participate! The first minyan was held on Friday night prior to the formal opening of the conference, when I was to deliver the keynote address. I prayed alone in my room, feeling on the one hand quite self-righteous and, on the other, secure in the knowledge that since I knew only two or three people there, no one would notice my absence. By Saturday morning, however, I was a known quantity, and to stay away from the services would have been conspicuous. So very hesitantly I brought myself down to the women’s minyan and sat as far back in the room as I could.
I was astounded to hear a woman leading the prayers. Next came another surprise—a woman’s melodious voice reading the Torah with perfect cantillation. Somehow, I had thought that only 13-year-old boys were equal to the task.

After the Torah reading, I saw two women, acting in the capacity of gabba’im (synagogue officials), coming down the center aisle toward the back where I was sitting. The last thing in the world I wanted was a synagogue honor. Sure enough, they had come to invite me to step forward for the honor of hagba’ah (the raising up of the Torah before it is returned to the Ark). Choose someone else, I pleaded. They persisted gently but firmly. Then something happened that was to make me think for a long time about the value of practiced skills. I had seen hagba’ah performed at least a thousand times in my life. Yet, as I stood there, I had to ask the woman standing next to me, “What do I do now?” Caught as I was with my defenses down, I found it an exhilarating moment. It was the first time I had ever held a Torah scroll.

After the conference, I began to think more seriously and to read some of the Jewish feminist literature that had been around for years but that I, in my private putterings, somehow had missed. Little by little, I was able to examine what the other Jewish denominations were doing, without ruling something out just because Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism had got there first.

Still, it wasn’t a smooth path. Like millions of other women and men, I’ve pretty much tumbled my way through this revolution. In 1973, I was still able to say, “Women in the Reform rabbinate, that’s one thing. As for Orthodox me, I’ll take my rabbis male, thank you.” The first time I saw a woman draped in a prayer shawl, my instinctive reaction was, am ha’aretz, ignoramus. The first time I spotted a young woman wearing a kipah in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, I thought she was spoofing; it never occurred to me she might be in earnest. As I drew nearer and saw her studying Mishnah, I began to feel a charge of anxiety. For the rest of the morning I couldn’t concentrate on my own work. Instead, I tried to figure out what she was doing under that powder-blue kipah. And I tried to figure out why I was so uneasy. Was it because, once again, someone had crossed the lines?

I know what my reaction will be on that day when I see some smart-aleck woman marching around with tzitzit— the ritual fringes worn by observant Jewish males—hanging out. Maybe, if she’s not some kind of exhibitionist but rather a deeply religious Jew, eventually I’ll overcome my palpitations and begin to consider what kind of statement she is making. Maybe I’ll even have to consider the possibility that my own great-granddaughters will be obligated to wear some equivalent of tzitzit.

Sometimes I found myself switching gears from one moment to the next. One evening, as I sat in a graduate rabbinic literature course, the professor departed from his explication of the text at hand to comment on an article that had appeared that morning on the front page of The New York Times about the Conservative movement’s decision to count women in a minyan. “This Jew,” he said, in a tone not quite free of derision, “gets up in the morning. His five children start to get up, and all at once the house is in an uproar. Now he sets off to the synagogue for the early morning minyan. By the time he gets home, his wife has the children washed, dressed, fed, and off to school. The house is quiet again and he sits down to a peaceful breakfast and an hour of leisurely study. When he comes back in the evening from work, the place is an uproar again. So he takes his prayer book and his Bible and goes off to the synagogue again. Now I ask you, what’s he going to do if his good wife has to go to the minyan?” This account was greeted by a sustained roar of knowing laughter.

In the classroom at that moment were 14 yeshiva men—half of them rabbis, the rest preparing for ordination—and me. I laughed along with everyone else, but after three seconds I said to myself, “Why am I laughing?” Was this not a case of how the primal association of men with synagogue as a male refuge and women with home and family was communicated, ever so subtly, from one generation to the next? Not wishing to jeopardize my standing in the group and their gracious acceptance of me, I said nothing. I began to wonder whether the core issue here had to do with Orthodox versus Conservative, as it seemed, or, on a much deeper level, a matter of male versus female.

I began to discern that just as I was becoming more open and less anxious about my feminist impulses, there were many in the community who were tightening up and closing off. Some of the issues were political as well as religious.

In 1976, my own synagogue was deciding whether to allow women a membership vote. Several women asked me what the rule was in other synagogues. I had no idea, so I undertook an unscientific survey and called ten Orthodox synagogues in the New York area. About one-third of them allowed women to vote; one even had a woman vice-president. In one case, the associate rabbi told me that women could not vote, but then again, he added, neither could the men; synagogue affairs here were the preserve of a three-man oligarchy. At another synagogue the secretary would not put me through to the rabbi. When she heard what I was calling about, she retorted, “Of course women don’t vote here; it’s against the Torah. You can’t bother the rabbi with such foolish questions.” At a third synagogue, the cheery sexton who took my call replied, “When women come to the 7:00 A.M. minyan, I’ll give them the vote.” I didn’t ask him whether he applied that rule to all the voting members of the synagogue; I already knew the answer.

I found certain other issues quite offensive, too, such as the discussion over the rabbinic precept kol ishah ervah (“a woman’s voice leads to licentiousness,” implying that women may not sing in the presence of men). Kol ishah had not been a popular theme in Orthodoxy in the fifties and sixties; if the precept had any religious redeeming value, it clearly escaped me. I half suspected that kol ishah was dredged up in the seventies as a counterpoint to women’s new freedom of expression, and I openly debated the issue as the need arose. To me, kol ishah seemed nothing but an overt slur on the female sex, an arbitrary curb on women in the name of a one-sided modesty meter. Could this be the mild-mannered yeshiva girl speaking?

For me, at least, the process is not over, this interweaving of feminism and Judaism. Two things I know for sure. My questioning never will lead me to abandon tradition.

But I also know that I never can yield the new value of women’s equality, even though it may conflict with Jewish tradition. To do so would be to affirm the principle of a hierarchy of male and female, and this I no longer believe to be an axiom of Judaism.

Blu Greenberg, a member of the Advisory Board of LILITH Magazine, authored “Women’s Liberation and Jewish Law” (premiere issue) and “Jewish Divorce Law” (issue #3). This article is excerpted from her book, Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition (Phila.: Jewish Publication Society, 1981). © Copyright JPS 1981. Her next book, How To Run an Orthodox Jewish Household, will be published next year by Simon & Schuster.