Orthodox Women: On the Front Lines for Feminism

Nothing energizes like the fight for a good cause. Case in point: Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the living symbol of the fight to ordain women as Orthodox rabbis, got a standing ovation at the opening of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) annual conference in New York in March.

The newly created title “rabba,” coined by activist rabbi Avi Weiss, was a step closer to “rabbi” for Hurwitz, a member of Weiss’s rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (N.Y.). The move ignited a firestorm in the American Orthodox world.

Hurwitz appeared at sessions throughout the JOFA conference, attended by more than a thousand women and a sprinkling of men. She told the conference plenary: “I stand here as an Orthodox woman who takes halakha (Jewish law) very seriously. The argument against having women in leadership is societal, not halakhic.”

Six weeks later, with no reference to halakha, the Rabbinic Council of America, the mainstream Orthodox rabbinic organization, resolved: “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of title.” (The vote coincided with the 25th anniversary of Conservative Judaism’s ordination of its first woman rabbi.)

While the rabbi issue sparked the major excitement at the JOFA conference, the gathering, chaired by Audrey Axelrod Trachtman with program co-chairs Judy Abel and Allie Alperovich, proved the dynamism of Orthodox feminism. Some 70 sessions ranged from quilting as prayer to protecting our daughters from becoming agunot — wives chained to husbands who refuse to give them a divorce under Jewish law.

JOFA President Carol Kaufman Newman quoted Blu Greenberg, founder of the organization in 1997, as not wanting to give offense but being told by a board member, “It’s a revolution. You will have to offend someone.” Broadening the agenda, Trachtman challenged participants to examine “how social justice fits into JOFA’s struggles,” with “responsibility to join the world community in the fight against AIDS and malnutrition … to consider these issues within the context of Orthodoxy.” As for the rabba issue, Trachtman said, “We cannot be intimidated. The long-term movement is undeniably forward.”

And then there were conference surprises. Lawyer and researcher Viva Hammer documented that financially comfortable Orthodox women are choosing to have more children than their mothers, in some cases in opposition to their husbands. In a study of more than 70 women, Hammer found that women are choosing to serve God in the way only a woman can — dedicating their bodies to “unlimited, uncontrolled conception.” They think of this, said Hammer, as “their ‘avoda.’ Their sacrifice, their prayer to God.”

Contrast this with “Shira,” one of the Israeli films shown at the conference film festival. A young mother is brought to a state of mental and physical collapse by a husband who insists on endless childbearing in the pursuit of a son. One man’s response: “If the husband thinks it’s halakha, he’s wrong.”