Judith Plaskow, long-time activist and professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, is probably best known for her book Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism From a Feminist Perspective, which formulated a radically new Jewish feminist theology. Here Plaskow reflects on the emergence of Orthodox women’s feminist activism.
The atmosphere at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 16 and 17 reminded me of the first National Jewish Women’s Conference, which took place almost 25 years earlier. As 1,000 women gathered for the International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy—450 were expected— there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air, a sense of pushing boundaries and moving into uncharted territory.
In a brief article, it is impossible even to mention all the plenaries, panels, workshops and study sessions that were crammed back to back into two too-short days. They ran the gamut from an opening plenary in which writer and conference organizer Blu Greenberg ably laid out the gains of Orthodox feminists over the last decade and suggested an agenda for the future, to workshops on personal and religious issues—infertility, the Orthodox superwoman, tallit and tefillin, life cycle ceremonies— to numerous sessions on the process of halachic change and specific halachic questions, to panels on educational and political issues.
As a non-Orthodox observer, my take on the conference is doubtless idiosyncratic, but 1 found much on the program that was thought-provoking and that made me very glad 1 had come. Since I am now working on issues of sexuality, I came to the conference with a special interest in the plenary panel on agunot (“chained women”—in this context, women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish bill of divorce), and it did not disappoint me. Dr. Susan Aronoff, Rivka Haut, and Honey Rackman, the founders of Agunah Inc., an organization founded to help agunot, offered a trenchant and deeply disturbing analysis of how working with agunot has introduced them to a new vocabulary of extortion, violence, concubinage and polygamy. Offering many specific examples, they argued that these abuses are alive and well in the Orthodox community and the belt din (Jewish court) system. To my mind, their discussion showed how the issue of agunot unmasks the deeply patriarchal character of Jewish law and the continuing profound power imbalance in its interpretation and implementation. As they made clear, the fad that the Orthodox community has turned to civil mechanisms (such as the New York State get law) to solve the problem, rather than taking responsibility for creatively remedying the inequities of the halachic system is a disgrace to all who care about halacha.
Some of the other sessions that most excited me were those that deviated somewhat from the central tone and themes of the conference. On the afternoon of the first day, Israeli scholar Dr. Noam Zohar offered a remarkably incisive and radical critique of the systemic character of gender discrimination in halacha. He argued that there is a connection between the banishment of women from public religious life, the disempowering of women through their exclusion from Talmud study, and the control of women by individual men in marriage.
While Zohar’s analysis provoked little response—I heard no one commenting on or discussing it during the rest of the conference—this was by no means the case with the remarks of another Israeli, Dr. Tamar Ross. In the context of a session on Women and Learning, Ross focused on the theological premises of halachic observance, discussing the ways in which feminist theology threatens the notion of Torah min hashamayim (Torah from heaven). Defending the idea both that Torah is formulated in a particular social mold and that every word of it is nonetheless sacred and revelatory, Ross offered a complicated argument for the successive revelations of the voice of God from Sinai throughout Jewish history. Even the patriarchal elements in Torah, she asserted, represent aspects of the gradual unfolding of the divine, but the insights of feminism must be regarded in the same light. That Ross’s comments became a major topic of conversation at the dinner table and on bathroom lines indicated to me that there is far more interest in theological reflection and analysis among Orthodox feminists than I would have expected or than was reflected in the program.
While I left the conference feeling exhilarated and intellectually stimulated, there were two very different dimensions of the event I found disturbing. One was the great difference shown (male) rabbinic authority. Aside from the fact that, to my mind, there were far too many rabbis on the program, the honor shown these rabbis stood in marked contrast to the homage paid to women’s activism. This was most striking and upsetting to me in the session on agunot. The three women from Agunah Inc., who had devoted years of their lives to this issue, did not receive a standing ovation from the audience, but Emanuel Rackman, one of the first rabbis to speak out on the problem, did. This pattern, which was visible throughout the two days, indicated to me a lack of respect for and trust in women’s power to make change. It was as if the women at the conference could not take credit for and give honor to the remarkable things they had achieved in the last decade. They, therefore, could not seize the opportunity provided by the conference to brainstorm strategies for women’s activism or target areas where women could put pressure on the Orthodox community to bring about halachic change or to redress the power imbalance between men and women in other ways.
The second thing I found disturbing had little to do with the conference itself. Rather, from the first moment I walked into the Grand Hyatt, I was struck by the extraordinary lack of contact between Orthodox and non- Orthodox feminists. Virtually everyone I knew at the conference was a non- Orthodox visitor like myself, who couldn’t stay away from a large and ground-breaking Jewish feminist event. In 25 years of Jewish feminist activism, I had made few Orthodox friends and gotten only episodic—and in some ways, accidental—glimpses into what was going on among feminists in the Orthodox community. Given the richness of the conference, the general level of Jewish literacy of the attendees, and the extraordinary knowledge and commitment of many of the speakers, this made me very sad. I left with the conviction that Orthodox and non- Orthodox feminists need to find ways to work together—whether through informal meetings, conferences, or particular joint projects. If we non-Orthodox feminists have learned a lot about women’s empowerment we could share with our Orthodox sisters, they have a wealth of Jewish knowledge—and experience on the battlefront—that could enrich our efforts to transform Jewish tradition.