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Orthodoxy and Women: Not Egalitarian But a Step in the Right Direction

Feminists from every segment of the Jewish community are continuing to fight the good fight for women’s fuller participation. But Orthodox interpretations of halakha—Jewish law—can make the struggle particularly difficult for Orthodox women. Still. Orthodox feminists are coming up with new halakhic paradigms for women’s participation in Orthodox Judaism.

Increased opportunities for Orthodox women’s religious participation have come unexpectedly from the World Trade Center disaster. The New York Times reported that nine young women from Stern College of Yeshiva University have joined other volunteers in sitting shmira—the ritual of keeping watch over the dead until they are buried—at the New York City Medical Examiner’s office, where the remains of victims have been transported. The women have the blessings of Yeshiva president Dr. Norman Lamm, who, according to The Times, “agreed without hesitation that the normal gender rules—women can sit shmira only for other women, while men can sit for any deceased person—could be waived under the circumstances.”

In addition. The Drisha Institute, a non-denominational, “”culturally Orthodox” New York institution that provides women with the opportunity to study Jewish texts on an advanced level, held an innovative service this past High Holiday season. Along with the traditional service led by men, Drisha sponsored another service, for women and men, in which women led the P’sukei D’Zimra prayers and participated fully in the Torah reading. According to some Orthodox interpretations—such as one published in the on-line Edah journal—women’s participation in these sections of the service does not go against Jewish law.

The Drisha service was “not egalitarian, but it’s an important move in the right direction.” said Rabbi David Silber, dean of Drisha, adding that increased women’s participation benefits everyone. “If more people feel that they have a stake in it [prayer], they participate more. It raises the level of prayer for everyone.”

Rabbi Silber has not received any direct negative responses to the inclusive prayer services, although he has heard that there has been “some controversy”—presumably from people who oppose these changes on halakhic grounds, or simply because they alter the customs of the Orthodox prayer service. But mostly, said Rabbi Silber, the response has been to say “Thank you.”

In another development, the Orthodox Caucus—an organization dedicated to finding “new strategies for dealing with issues confronting halakhic Judaism in contemporary society”—is sponsoring a scholarship to support the education of Yoatzot Halakha, female experts in the laws of sexuality and fertility. Recipients of this .scholarship will go to Israel for an intense course of study that includes an examination of the relevant laws, as well as supplementary studies in gynecology, fertility, and sexuality. Afterwards, they will return to the US to work as advisors to women about the laws of married sex, and to promote the idea that women can give Jewish legal advice in this capacity. Laurie Novick, the first recipient of this funding, is currently training in Israel.

In Israel, a “Halakhic Advisory Hotline,” where women ask female advisors about menstruation, sex and fertility, has already been functioning for a year.

“Orthodox women will, we feel, benefit tremendously from the opportunity to turn to a woman with questions of a sensitive nature.” says Dr. Giti Bendlieim, co-chair of the Orthodox Caucus” Task Force on Women and Orthodoxy. She says female advisors will “ease the way” for many observant women, who may be reluctant to discuss matters of sexuality with male rabbis.

Despite the fact that the Yoetzet Halacha position falls safely within the boundaries of Jewish law, not everyone is applauding the change.

“I have heard that, for some people, this [having female advisors] infringes on the relationship between a Rav and those who should be turning to him for religious advice and questions,” says Bendheim. “There are others who feel that rabbis’ wives have been answering these questions from time immemorial, and that this unofficial channel worked perfectly well.” She adds, however, that Yoatzoi Halakha are exhaustively educated in these subjects in a way that rabbis” wives have not necessarily been, and that this expertise derives from their own, and not their husband’s thorough knowledge.