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Orthodox Feminists—Definitely No Oxymoron

This year’s theme of the fifth Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) in New York was Zachar v’ Nekavah: Man and Woman, God Created Them. Orthodox feminists are deeply committed to rabbinic power, and that is precisely why they engage in the struggle to gain rabbinic approval for change within the boundaries of halakha, Jewish law. Some have charged that Orthodox women who are feminists are destabilizing the traditional patterns of Jewish family life. But most are women with university’ degrees who are nevertheless often willing to put their careers on hold to raise families—with an average of four to six children.

Which brought us to the subject of how Orthodox education impacts on girls. I live in London. When Elisheva, my seven-year-old daughter recently celebrated her Hagigat Humash—a festive occasion where all the Grade 2 children are formally presented with their own Bible—parents received a booklet. It read: “Moshe received the Torah from Mt. Sinai and handed it over to Joshua, and Joshua gave it the Elders, and the Elders gave it to the Prophets and the Prophets gave it to the Men of the Great Assembly. Since then, the Torah has been passed from father to son until the Redemption will come.” And the mothers? And the daughters? Where do they figure in this history lesson? For the past 25 years, pioneering educators such as Chana Henkin, Malka Bina and David Siiber have transformed education by enabling women to have equal access to the Talmud and ensuring opportunities for funded full-time extensive study. But gender-sensitive Orthodox teachers are the exceptions. Young girls are still being given messages that the Torah does not belong to them. The JOFA conference asked about boys as well: if they are not taught to recognize and grapple with the issues, how can they begin to relate differently to the women in their lives?

And then there was hakhnasat orhim-—the mitzvah of welcoming guests into your home. It used to be straightforward: you invite, they accept, you cook, they eat, you chat a little, they chat a little, they leave, you go to bed. Ah, not in the world of the Orthodox feminist. Miriam Schachter of Riverdale said that everybody in her family takes turns to say the Kiddush prayer over the wine at the Friday night meal. However, when it is her turn, and there is a guest whom she knows will feel uncomfortable if she recites Kiddush, she defers to her husband. “But,” she asks, “what sort of message docs that give my son and daughter?” Does the mitzvah have to include a selfless act by the host? On Sukkot, in addition to the seven male ‘Ushpizin’ guests symbolically invited into one’s own sukkah, Miriam hangs pictures of the seven prophetesses—Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Avigail, Huldah and Esther. But she is tired of the sniggering guests who make some sort of comment. She keeps her mouth quiet for fear of embarrassing her guests, but inside she is raging. Can an Orthodox woman’s home be her castle?

Another JOFA discussion zeroed in on Orthodox Jewish women as sexual beings and single mothers. The Orthodox community has its fair share of sassy, smart and sophisticated women who have managed to combine their Orthodoxy with their successful professional, secular life. They’re looking for husbands who are just as integrated, but they can’t find them. Several Orthodox women in their late 30s have adopted children or used a sperm bank to get pregnant, willing to defy convention and risk marginalization. Other unmarried participants expressed frustration at being infantilized or made invisible within their community, which has a taboo against acknowledging premarital sex, even for women in their 30s and 40s.

Finally, the conference explored the “Ornithology of Religious Women.” A not-so-subtle decoding system in the Orthodox community classifies Orthodox women solely on how they are dressed, encouraging assumptions (often false) about social attitudes, religious commitment, political affiliations, and family size. For example, bobby socks, denim skirt and baseball cap equals married in Teaneck. New Jersey, while a shaytel [wig], brightly colored appliqued sweater and sensible shoes must mean married in Brooklyn. Interestingly, covering one’s hair and wearing pants were always regarded as an inherently contradictory dress code. However, I have been fascinated to watch how this specific dress combination has evolved into a new dress code for Orthodox feminists. At the JOFA conference, I was struck by the number of women who covered their hair with hats or scarves and wore pants, Americans friends suggested this was partly about feeling comfortable and more modest in pants, but also a statement against the prevailing norm of categorization. These women want to confuse expectations in order to engage people with the real issues such as promoting women’s education, halakhic options to increase women’s participation, and on-going inequity in Jewish divorce law. There is a lot of work to do, and we have to take men on the journey. Leave them behind, and we risk a generation of young boys at odds with the aspirations of their sisters, and with no clue about fashion.