Orthodox and Feminist: The Dreaded “F” Word

Lilith sent London-based writer Sally Berkovic and Melanie Weiss, Lilith’s assistant editor, to cover the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s 10th annual conference in New York. Given their contrast generationally, geographically (Sally flew in from the U .K.; Mel took the train from Brooklyn), denominationally (Sally identifies as Orthodox and Mel as Conservative — usually), and in previous attendance of JOFA conferences (Sally has been to them all, while this was Mel’s first), they certainly had fertile ground for discussion. Here are their contrasting insights — as they discovered them through one another.

Melanie Weiss: I know I’m biased, but I just want to start by saying that I can’t imagine a conference like that taking place outside of New York. Do you think it would be possible in London?

Sally Berkovic: Well, as far as Orthodox feminism is concerned, there is no defined movement in the UK, but there are a few of us who have discovered each other and network via e-mail and a meeting every couple of months. The JOFA conference is the reward for battling with these issues in isolation. It’s just great to be in a room with a 1,000 women who don’t think I’m crazy! There is definitely something comforting in discussing the challenges of Orthodoxy and feminism in an environment where you don’t feel you have to apologize for grappling with how we view ourselves and how we relate to Judaism.

MW: As a Conservative Jew, I was impressed by the number of participants at the JOFA conference (clearly several hundred), which I don’t think would happen if you called a feminist conference of another specific denomination. And as someone who is often one of the youngest representatives at anything featuring “the dreaded F word,” I was definitely impressed by the number of women younger than myself — as well as by their poise and energy.

SB: Yes, the numbers are always impressive. I remember the first conference in 1997; well over a 1,000 people attended. The demographics of the conference have changed over the years. While I can’t imagine men were officially excluded from the first conference, it certainly had the feel of a “women’s conference,” with barely a man to be seen; this year it certainly felt as if a third of the participants were men. While I noticed a young crowd, I actually expected a much larger younger crowd — women in their 30s seemed absent to me. I know it’s difficult for those with young families to attend Sunday events, but I wondered if it’s more about lack of interest from the women in their 30s than logistical difficulties of attending. The women in their 50s and 60s are the real pioneers of the Orthodox feminist movement; many of their daughters seem not so engaged in the issues. They take so much for granted: women’s tefillah groups, Talmud study for women and greater participation in ritual life, and are busy juggling demanding careers with their family responsibilities.

MW: I thought there was a lot of talk about women’s power. I sat in on Sharon Shenhav’s session about how and why the recent Agunot Conference came to be — and to be cancelled — and she called outright for an increase in women’s political power. In fact, a lot of the conversation I had with Israeli-identified American expats touched on the connection between political and religious power in Israel — that the later is impossible without the former.

SB: I find the whole issue of agunot (women whose husbands won’t give them a traditional Jewish divorce, preventing them from marrying again) utterly depressing. I have been to lectures where rabbis say “Oy, you have no idea — great rabbinical minds have been dealing with this issue — they don’t sleep at night thinking about all the women who are agunot!” They don’t look so tired to me.

MW: And yet at JOFA you had Norma Joseph and Tova Hartman in the opening session calling for an end to the agunot crisis, and pretty much directing women to openly revolt — to refuse to allow their daughters to be married by Orthodox rabbis who are on the wrong side of the issue.

SB: Perhaps the modern Orthodox need to vote with their feet, and their pockets, more rigorously. The arguments put forward by those you’ve mentioned are not mainstream — but if enough people were willing to stand by the lone voices of change, perhaps more would, in fact, change.

MW: Speaking of revolution, there seemed to be a lot of conversation, too — albeit very tentative, to my ears — about women’s halakhic power, their power to really make decisions about Orthodoxy from the inside out. I was a little surprised.

SB: There has been a shift as more women have achieved greater levels of learning. It has become “normal” for a woman to study Talmud for several years and achieve proficiency in certain legal areas, enabling her to give learned opinions. Can you imagine that a generation or two ago?

MW: I was struck by how hard everyone was trying to provide a working definition of Modern Orthodoxy. Norma Joseph’s call for the acceptance of a (more) diverse movement, all the discussion about finding a balance of respect and critical thinking — these are beautiful ideas. In fact, they’re familiar ideas to me, as well — because they are also at the heart of the intense debates about the future of the Conservative movement. Weirdly, the JOFA conference made me realize how much there is in common between Modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and how sad it is that the squabbling, interdenominational political catfight helps keep us so far apart. Do you think feminism could act as a bridge?

SB: While it’s clear that feminism has already helped build bridges between the two groups you mention, at the same time, it has fractured some of the bridges between the modern Orthodox and the more right-wing women who, in their own communities, have increased their educational opportunities and created strong support networks for other women. We risk alienating these women at our peril.

MW: And probably at theirs, too. It looks like we have our work cut out for us.