Holding Our Feminist Breaths

“Prayer is an absurd act,” explained Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, quoting Rav Soloveitchik. “It makes no sense that a small finite person is addressing the infinite,” he said to 2,000 participants at the opening plenary of the Second International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy, chaired by Blu Greenberg, this past February in New York City.

To this increasing and increasingly knowledgeable audience committed to traditional Jewish observance and to equal Jewish educational opportunity for women, he explained that you can see from the language of our prayers that we pray because of historical precedent. And rabbis are very protective of the forms of prayer we have inherited. “So I adjust my thinking to that form. Some prayers are just difficult, but they are still sacred. Shelo asani isha—that I was not created a woman—for instance,” he said, “the hazan can say that prayer quietly so as not to insult anyone.”

And regarding the addition of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah into the Amidah prayer where we are addressing ourselves to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? “Well they don’t belong there. They were not founders of the Jewish people,” he said.

The first Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy, held in New York last year, was charged with excitement and rang a note of revolution in the Orthodox world. This year, it seemed to ring a quieter note of caution. Energy for a repair of women’s social and economic situations remained, but an equal enthusiasm for their religious evolution seemed to flounder in the face of anxiety that they might be pushing Jewish law too far—or at least too fast.

Dr. Tamar Ross, professor of philosophy at Bar Ilan University, said her bias is to defend the canon. She finds contrived ceremonies don’t carry the same sacredness as traditional texts. Rabbanit Chana Henkin, dean and founder of Nishmat, led a workshop on “New Religious Leadership Roles for Women.” She said she did not think it wise for women to demand the title of poskot, those who write new halakha. Rather we should concentrate our efforts on having as many learned women as possible who will naturally accrue halakhic authority. “If we can hold our collective feminist breaths, a miracle will happen under our eyes. It will happen, but not in the glare of the spotlight,” she said.

On the other hand, the occasion of this second conference signaled an engagement with the gritty work of effecting change. Offered here were unprecedented opportunities for women to network and to brainstorm on ways that their social, economic, family and professional lives could be improved. In addition to six plenaries and nearly 50 workshops, the themes of lunch table affinity groups included: what if your husband is not (yet) a feminist; shidduchim (matchmaking); how to talk to rabbis; helping people in domestic abuse situations; and the role of rabbis in the Orthodox feminist setting.

At a workshop on “Single Women’s Issues in the Community,” questions from the audience challenged the social norms of Orthodox life: What about widows, especially older widows? (“It’s hard to always be the one who is inviting—you lose your koach [strength]” and “It’s hard to be invisible.”). What about lesbians? What about finding a place in an Orthodox shul when a boy doesn’t have a father he can sit with?

Zelda Stern, at a plenary luncheon, reminded participants that when they give tzedaka they have the power to effect change. When you are solicited, ask: What are the opportunities for girls to study at your school? How many women serve on your board of trustees?

Finally, after many talks by male rabbis about how halakha has changed, the conference closed with an admonishment— by Susan Aranoff, Bat Sheva Marcus and Leah Shakdiel—to the participants to identify themselves as feminists. You cannot say you want equal pay for equal work, or that you want equal access to the texts of your Jewish heritage, they said, without giving credit to a feminist agenda.

In Case You Weren’t There:

A complete set of 35 audio tapes of the conference is $175, from In-Phase, P.O. Box 600, Harris, NY 12742; individual tapes are $6.
e-mail EMcKee@idt.net
(They also have 1997 tapes.)

As an outgrowth of last year’s conference, JOFA: Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance was founded as an advocacy and resource organization to explore the spiritual, intellectual, political and professional roles and opportunities of women as individuals and within the institutions of Orthodox Jewish life.
JOFA. P.O. Box 1549, Paramus, NJ 07653-1549.