Right-Wing Woman: Keeping Orthodoxy Safe from Feminists?

The setting is the early 1970s, at a private men’s club in Manhattan. The occasion is a meeting of the Pace University board. When Lydia Kess, a board member, arrives at the club with her male colleagues, she is ushered into the freight elevator—as per club policy.

“I was, to put it mildly, infuriated and outraged,” Kess says. At her insistence, she took the “men’s” elevator down. Today a partner in a prominent Manhattan law firm, 63-year-old Lydia Kess recounts her battles—fought in elevators, lunchrooms and boardrooms—to be treated as an equal in the overwhelmingly male world of corporate law. But that is Kess’ ancient history. She speaks today not as a trailblazer for younger women nor as a hero of the pre-feminist age. She has chosen Orthodoxy for several decades now, and promotes a level of religious observance—she wears long sleeves, a long skirt and a sheitel—that approaches Hasidism in its rigor and far exceeds many of the standards of Modern Orthodoxy, not only in dress but in life expectations as well. Sitting with a visitor in her corner office at Davis, Polk and Ward well, where she practices corporate tax law, she talks of modesty, Torah values and a woman’s place in the home.

The place of women in Orthodox Judaism has come to be the most divisive subject among traditional Jews. On the one hand, right-ward moving communities have intensified their strict interpretations of Jewish law, encouraging members to make social functions like weddings—which once were coed—segregated by sex. Candy that was once considered kosher is now forbidden, and skirt hems and shirt sleeves have gotten longer in obeisance to the traditional idea that woman is essentially a seductive being to be covered up.

On the other hand, more liberal Orthodox Jews—known as the Modern Orthodox—have permitted and even encouraged women to study “forbidden texts” of the Talmud and sometimes to act as religious authorities in the synagogue. Synagogue design itself has been modified to accommodate women’s growing desire to participate in the service: Many Modem Orthodox synagogues have replaced high-curtain mechitzas—partitions designed to keep women out of the sight of men—with low railings.

A community’s decisions as to just how much public participation its women should have in the religious arena has come to signify much more than simply local custom, as modernizing elements within Orthodoxy engage in a vicious rhetorical battle with more right-wing elements.* Sensing their crucial role in this battle, women in both camps have joined in. Modern Orthodox women have become increasingly vocal and, right-wing women have responded in kind, aggressively defending the status quo. The techniques and ideology of this latter group deserve serious attention. For while their numbers may not be large now, these right-wing women represent a counter-feminist movement that, if unchecked, could undermine the gains for women made by Modern Orthodoxy.

* Many traditionalists call their style of observance “Torah Judaism.” Because this phrase implies that all other Jews are not in compliance with the Torah, Lilith has eschewed their phrase in favor of “right-wing.” While also imperfect, that term does locate them in the spectrum of religious observance.

With an evangelical urgency, some right-wing Jewish women have gone into the secular world to promote their agenda. Opening their doors to the most un-Orthodox of women, women’s outreach groups like the Jewish Renaissance Center in Manhattan, where Lydia Kess teaches, or Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis’ Hineni, have launched a public relations campaign to make traditional Judaism more attractive to women. The battle they are fighting may be within Orthodoxy, but the pawns appear to be impressionable secular women.

So Kess, in speaking to her audiences, must take quite seriously questions about how she can accept the mechitza and other side-lining constructs of Judaism when she herself has fought so hard for full membership in her professional life. Is a woman’s proper place really in her home? Sitting in her office on the 22nd floor of a posh midtown-Manhattan office building, Kess laughs at this question. With her impressive legal career, she is not, she admits, the most impartial of commentators.

“It is a good question to ask why I feel so relaxed and comfortable in the ‘segregated’ [realm of the] synagogue.” She explains that she accepts in Judaism what would outrage her generally “because there is a reason for it. . . . The ideal is clearly to put the emphasis on the family and the home. And I think that the woman by temperament is much more suited to that.”

She laughs again, this time at her own words. “If you had said that to me in college, I would have erupted in anger. But nearly 50 years later, I think that there is a natural difference. . . . The home is the cornerstone of [a Jewish woman’s] existence.”

Ironies of biography aside, Kess is quite serious.

The “Poison” of Feminism 
In 1997, a coalition of forward-thinking Modern Orthodox leaders organized the First International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. The conference’s name alone indicated just how revolutionary this event would be. While thinkers and activists like Belda Lindenbaum, Norma Joseph and Blu Greenberg, had been struggling for years over the place of women in Modern Orthodox Judaism, feminism—with its challenge to traditional patriarchal hierarchies—had become the symbol of contemporary America’s threat to Jewish tradition. The very use of the word put the Orthodox establishment on notice.

Feminist concerns had been roiling the Orthodox world well before the 1997 conference. As Orthodox women demanded rights in divorce, prayer, Jewish learning and religious leadership, the Orthodox mainstream began to dig in its heels. However, with attendance at the two Feminism and Orthodoxy conferences far surpassing expectations (2,000 people attended the 1998 event), and with tremendous coverage appearing in the general press, the question of women’s roles in Orthodox Judaism was catapulted to the top of the community’s agenda.

The response wasn’t pretty. A May 1998 article in the house organ of Agudath Israel of America, a key institution of mainstream Orthodoxy, offered a barely guarded threat to Orthodox feminists. In a piece, headlined “Feminism—a Force that Will Split Orthodoxy?,” the writer recalled Agudah’s rejection of Reform and Conservative Judaism, and asked, “Is the rejection of Torah min Hashamayim [from heaven] and the inviolability of the Mesorah [Tradition] by the more radical elements of Modern Orthodoxy that different from that of the Conservative and Reform movements? If not, then we must reject them with the same force.”

The right-wing newspaper Yated Ne-eman, which serves an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Spring Valley, New York, ran one column calling Orthodox feminism “a movement whose poison, if left unchecked, may seep into the minds of some unaware of its essence.” This poison, the article suggests, destabilizes the moral world by challenging the “root distinctions” between men and women, which “are reflected in the very different path’s [sic] to Hashem’s [God’s] service which Jewish men and women have taken over the ages.”

Women, too, are playing a key role. Aghast at the liberties they felt some were taking with Jewish law in the name of Orthodoxy, the highly successful and resourceful right-wing women of one women’s learning institution in Manhattan, the Jewish Renaissance Center, planned their counter-attack. Led by Leah Kohn, a Hasidic woman, their goal has been to save Orthodoxy from feminists, and to save formerly secular feminists for Orthodoxy. Rebbetzin Kohn, who had refused an invitation to take part in the Orthodox feminists’ conference, explained why: “They say, ‘I feel miserable as a woman in Torah, let me find a way to be a man in Torah.’ I don’t have an issue with feminism and Judaism because I know that being a Jewish woman is great.”

The Divine Antidote
Rebbetzin Kohn’s formal response was The First International Jewish Women’s Conference. Convened in the spring of 1998, it bore little resemblance—aside from its name and hearty attendance—to the First and Second International Conferences on Feminism and Orthodoxy. In February, hundreds of Orthodox feminists had come together to challenge Jewish law to address the needs of women. Four months later, Kohn was drawing hundreds of women to address themselves to the needs of Jewish law.

Attending the conference were 450 women from diverse background, about an equal mix of Orthodox and secular students drawn by the aggressive recruiting of the Jewish Renaissance Center. With her 1990s professionalism on the one hand and her proselytic zeal for ultra-traditional Judaism on the other, chairwoman Lydia Kess was a perfect role model and teacher for these overachieving Jewish women in search of meaning. The conference, held in the gracious rooms of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, promoted a platform of modesty (in attitude as well as dress), family, women’s intuition and a particularly feminine spirituality. The conference organizers hoped, as Kess put it, to project an image of the observant Jewish woman as “very happy and content.” Far from being the self-sacrificing, undervalued and marginalized woman that liberal feminists might imagine her to be, the religiously observant Jewish woman Kess portrays far surpasses secular women in her “unparalleled ability to achieve self-fulfillment and improve our environment.”

Teachers were gathered from around the world to help women to understand that feminist enthusiasm for women’s careers undermined the sense of purpose women historically drew—and naturally draw—from nurturing a family. Echoing right-wing evangelical Christians, this approach is explicitly anti-feminist and designed to capitalize on the frustrations of women who receive kudos for their careers but still feel burdened and unappreciated when it comes to keeping their husbands and children fed, clothed and loved.

The speakers knew well their audience’s concerns. Nineties buzzwords like “self-fulfillment” and “personal growth” peppered their speech. They even acknowledged the satisfaction they themselves derive from professional success (though they warn against putting too much stock into that positive feeling). And they sought to answer the questions their secular audience struggle with daily in their own lives: What’s so great about being Supermom? Is this really what we fought for? Do I have to be a man to succeed? What about femininity? Is this all there is?

The Jewish Renaissance Center and other right-wing groups have answered in sympathy: Yes, they say, you’re right to be frustrated. The world you have encountered is inhospitable to women, it is materialistic and selfish, it is devoid of meaning. If single women feel sexually vulnerable, blame it on the sexual revolution; if overworked moms feel a spiritual void, blame it on the feminists. Feminists, this argument goes, disrupted the divine plan. And the solution, of course, is divine—a return to the “natural” gender roles God intended.

“Modesty and Mothering”
“On the physical level,” rang the voice of learned lecturer Tziporah Heller in the grand meeting hall of the American Bar Association, “we think of women as life-givers. The question is, can women revivify the world?” While they reject feminism as a failure and ask women to return to traditional roles, Heller and other speakers were co-opting the idea of women’s power. The odds seemed to be in their favor, what with the formal setting, the conference’s sponsorship by Republic National Bank and the hundreds of women who attended the Jewish Renaissance Center event.

They came to learn about themselves. Subtitled “Women as Healers of the Jewish Nation: Prospects for the 21st Century,” the conference offered a vision of a world in which women would have primary responsibility for—and receive primary respect for encouraging—the spiritual evolution of the Jewish people. While Orthodox feminists have been demanding organizational leadership roles—control over their own prayer groups, official positions in synagogues—the speakers in this group brought in by the Jewish Renaissance Center from around the world were offering women the possibility of a very different kind of leadership. In their vision, women have no future in the rabbinate or in any of the public religious activities that are obligations for men. Instead, women are to take on a kind of kitchen leadership, in which the guidance that they offer is to spring naturally out of their God-given feminine talents: intuition, nurturing, interpersonal sensitivity. Modesty—which includes a range of selfless behaviors—and mothering—toward friends, husband, colleagues and strangers as well as to children—are to be the two primary tools in their efforts to heal the world.

It’s a strange message considering the biographies of the messengers: Kess holds her law degree from Brooklyn Law School (New York University, she points out in feminist fashion, did not give scholarships to female law students in the 1960s); Kohn studied biology and chemistry after graduating from the Bais Yaakov Seminary in Israel; another teacher, Mina Glick, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and yet another, Malca Gottesman, holds her Masters degree in public administration from New York University. Membership in the professional women’s wing of the Jewish Renaissance Center, Ashir, costs $1000 annually, ensuring a highly educated, highly successful cross-section of women. So while modesty and mothering have long been hallmarks of the Orthodox woman, they were certainly not the only lodestars in the lives of these high achievers.

Which may explain the paradoxical nature of their message. These women preach female modesty with a grandeur that seems modesty’s opposite. They suggest that a woman’s ideal place in the home, yet they have taken on very public roles in education, law, business and Jewish life. They claim for women a privileged place in Judaism, but the Judaism they promote demands women’s secondary status.

Expressing attitudes more indebted to feminism than Judaism, the speakers at the conference were claiming for themselves a role of leadership rather than waiting for some outside (read, male) authority to confer this responsibility. Further, they encourage women to study the Jewish texts in far greater detail than tradition has allowed. Several years ago, Israeli scholar Tamar El-Or published a study of Gur Hasidic women (the sect from which Rebbetzin Kohn hails). In it she wrote, “Educated women are taught to be ignorant.” Not so here. Kohn’s own eminent scholarship along with her note of revolution—we can heal the world—makes an odd pairing with the personal humility and devotion to husband, children and home that she preaches.

It’s a tricky balance to reach, asserting woman’s equality with man while still endorsing her peripheral role in the public spheres of Jewish life [See “Adam’s Rib,” page 10]. Delving into halachic sources for passages that may have been passed over by generations of male scholars, these female scholars are finding ways to elevate women in Judaism’s spiritual hierarchy.

“Women have the ability to transcend themselves more than any other people,” announced scholar Feige Twerski. According to Twerski, the Exodus from Egypt occurred “only because of women’s” faith in God. Choosing Miriam’s tambourine as the conference logo (a symbol that also has been used as a defiant image at feminist seders across the continent for a decade), organizers proclaimed it a sign of their “faith in the future of the Jewish nation, and the essential role Jewish women have in shaping it.” One speaker claimed, in essence, that women make better Jews because the three pillars of a Jewish life—modesty, acts of loving kindness, and pity (or mercy)—are naturally feminine characteristics.

Most revolutionary of all were their predictions for the time when a Jewish messiah will redeem the world. The messianic era represents a moment when all injustices will be righted, and it seems to hold an important place in the vision of these women—despite their insistence that no injustice has been done them. One speaker tied the arrival of the Messiah through the gates of mercy to women, because in Hebrew “mercy” and “womb” are related words. Another suggested that in the time of the Messiah, the moon—associated with femininity—will be restored to equal brightness with the sun and the feminine face of God, the Shekhinah, will reappear.

Men, in this view, are to be indulged. As the less spiritual gender, the logic goes, men need all the external trappings of tallit and tefillin, the support of a minyan, to maintain their faith. With so much going for her, the Jewish woman shouldn’t feel insulted that she doesn’t count in a minyan, as a kaddish’I, as a witness, a rabbi or a Torah reader. Knowing that she doesn’t need these concrete reminders of her connection with God, she should feel honored.

The Attack on “Women’s Lib”
Honored, however, may not be not the first word that comes to mind with the phrase “traditional Jewish woman.” Disempowered, perhaps. Ignored. Or—as novelist Allegra Goodman portrayed it gently in her new book, Kaaterskill Falls—secretly disgruntled. Feminists may blame a patriarchal system, but the new ultra-traditionalists have another explanation for the dissatisfaction: feminism.

“I tell you, in all of the generations, women did not feel secondary in Judaism, until women’s lib started outside of Judaism,” Kohn explains, her English tinged with a Hebrew accent. “There really was a lot of discrimination against women in the secular world…. Women didn’t get the same positions, they didn’t get the same opportunity for fame, for power, for money as men did.”

A Gur Hasid, Kohn wears a sheitel—a wig worn by traditional women to cover their shorn heads—and is well, and modestly, dressed. The offices of the Jewish Renaissance Center are also modest, and under sharp fluorescent lights she explains why no woman should feel insulted by Judaism. She’s hard to like but easy to respect, and it’s clear from those around her that she inspires awe quite simply by the strength of her faith. Like Kess, she does not act insulted by skeptical questions and seems eager to answer. Her manner seems to say: Even if you show up here in a bathing suit to talk about Jewish views on premarital sex, I will help you. It also says: You will see it my way, because the Torah is eternal.

“See, I grew up as a religious woman all my life,… and I knew my father and my brothers were saying shelo asani isha all my life,” she said, referring to a morning prayer in which men thank God “for not making me a woman,” a thorn in the side of some Jewish feminists. “It never bothered me because I was so confident about my place in Judaism. I know they say it, and I understood that there must be a reason, but I definitely did know that the reason is not because I’m less important…. If you feel that the men in the society refer to you as essential, so you have no issue with it.”

One of the newly minted anti-feminists who spoke at Leah Kohn’s conference was Ghana Kalsmith, 30 and the mother of two. In college at the University of Florida she majored in women’s studies and in her 20s (then named Heather Stein) she was executive director of the Washington-based Women’s Information Network, an organization to promote women in political careers. She is fluent in the language of feminism, but today she has created for herself a lecture circuit explaining “the often misunderstood relationship between feminist ideals and Orthodoxy.”

Kalsmith is perky and witty and not at all stern. In her argument—which contains some serious distortions—feminist women have tried to wipe out the differences between male and female by becoming male. Indeed, in striving to be like men, they have failed to value the feminine and have encouraged society to place male characteristics in even higher esteem. Kalsmith clearly enjoys using feminist language to disprove feminism. Speaking quickly, she uses her superior knowledge of both secular feminism and religious anti-feminism to argue her audience into submission.

“Betty Friedan speaks about how getting married and having children is giving in to your biological, sexual self, and that really a woman needs to actualize herself by going out and getting an occupation,” Kalsmith told one seminar at the JRC’s conference. “So what the women did—one of the greatest tragedies in feminism—is that the women went out and sought after a male model of success and did not fight for success on their terms. And all of society is suffering because of it.”

According to this logic, women have become “me-istic,” materialistic, aggressive, self-promoting and physically exhibitionistic. Women themselves are suffering from this shift. When feminists told women to deny their dignified and caring nature, they tried to fix what wasn’t broken. “In women’s studies classes I learned that women are silenced—that’s a big word in women’s studies classes—because they don’t naturally take credit for things. Isn’t that interesting?” (Kalsmith is often a bit ironic.) “The Torah speaks about women inherently being more tsnius[dik] [modest], and feminism comes along and says, women are more modest and that because of it they are silenced and subjugated…. Tsnius is a way for us to tap into our power by tapping into our own source of self-esteem, knowing that… should come from self and our relationship with Hashem.”

Kalsmith is slick. She knows that her secular audiences have been raised on words like empowerment, equality and personal growth. And she offers the option of attaining it—through Judaism. She’s also a brilliant spokeswoman, drawing on her own passage from skepticism to belief. “I thought,” she explained about her newly religious brother, “that he was crazy….[But] the more I learned about Judaism, the more I saw how its view towards women is actually extremely empowering, and how women can actually learn to actualize themselves—all people can—and their potential, through Judaism.” Empower, actualize, potential.

Kalsmith even capitalizes on the language of “difference feminists,” quoting Carol Gilligan’s studies of how women make decisions differently from men. “I’m just giving you a little secular knowledge,” she explains to an audience of mixed—secular and religious—backgrounds, “to show you that the things the Torah has been talking about for thousands of years, the differences in the way in which men and women think, is something that people now learn in women’s studies today.”

This type of talk makes a terrifically appealing invitation to secular women who have felt since the 1970s that perhaps all that is “special” about women—their communication skills, their intuition, their mothering abilities—were not adequately appreciated by the women’s liberation movement.

The success of the appeal, however, depends on students’ ignorance. Many of the women who have arrived on the doorsteps of the Jewish Renaissance Center have had little previous religious training. They may not know, for instance, that conceding the rabbinate to males in an observant Jewish community means that a woman must ask permission from her male rabbi to use birth control or have an abortion. They also may not know that the language of the traditional Jewish marriage contract considers her property and that the language of Jewish divorce prevents her from leaving without her husband’s permission. And she certainly will not be aware of a textual tradition, so carefully researched in Naomi Graetz’s new book on domestic violence, in which “justification for abuse can be clearly inferred.” It also seems fair to surmise that secular students won’t be taught these texts first off as they begin to dabble in right-wing Orthodoxy.

The Attack on Orthodox Feminism
In the last 25 years, Orthodox Jewish women have watched as their counterparts in the Reform and Conservative movement have fought for the right to become rabbis. They watched their daughters’ more liberal counterparts be given the right to have a bat mitzvah, and to read the Torah during that service. More recently, they have even seen liberal Orthodox Jewish women demand opportunities to read the Torah (in all-female gatherings), to be equal partners in the laws of marriage and divorce, and to hold official positions of religious leadership.

These developments have made it impossible for more conservative women like Leah Kohn to practice Orthodoxy without reflecting on their own choices. As they discover that they are being recast as victims of Judaism’s hierarchy, they, too, have had to catapult themselves upward in the religious hierarchy. The real target of their new PR campaign for traditional gender roles is not secular feminism at all but the Modern Orthodox world.

The Orthodox feminists, says the ever-confident Kohn, “are doing now the mistake in Judaism that feminism did in the secular world, thinking that to have rights one must become masculine. And as 30 years later the feminist movement has realized this isn’t true, I think [the Orthodox feminists] will realize it too.”

“I can understand the threat they feel,” answers Blu Greenberg, who heads the new Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and has come down on the liberal side of many Orthodox debates. Greenberg has spent two decades searching the Jewish tradition and her own heart for ways to incorporate feminism into the practice of Jewish law. She has strived, for example, to make regulations governing prayers services and divorce egalitarian. “My belief in the perfect God,” she has written, “does not allow me to think that the Lord would favor one sex over the other in any area of life.”

The seemingly benign plea for equality is a thunderclap to right-wing Jewish women. When Kohn charges that Orthodox feminists are changing halacha, Jewish law, it is the most damning criticism she can offer. To her, the rhetoric of halacha’s inviolability—and of Jewish woman- and man-hood’s consistency over time—is sacred.

“There is no doubt that Jewish law has shifted over the years, and anyone who tells you otherwise is incorrect,” retorts BatSheva Marcus, an Orthodox feminist and the co-chair, with Greenberg, of JOFA and the two Orthodoxy and feminism conferences. “Jewish law has its own sort of molasses way of shifting, and as that molasses shifts, we’d like it to be reflective of the value of women.”

The possibility of dialogue amid this kind of rhetoric seems nil. Kohn claims that Judaism has always valued its women; Marcus calls that position a “rewriting” of history. Kohn insists that, spiritually, men and women are divinely split along the public-private divide; Marcus rejects that premise outright. Greenberg, in the spirit of reconciliation, suggests that “there is room for distinctive roles [for men and women], just not in the same global categories that we inherited.” That won’t get past the women of the Jewish Renaissance Center.

Kalsmith, the formerly feminist anti-feminist teacher, chalks up the disconnect entirely to “filters.” “When I came into Orthodoxy,” Kalsmith explains, “I said, ‘Why aren’t women more in synagogue? Why aren’t women rabbis?’ What was the problem? That I came with my filter. What has filtered into Orthodoxy is a glorification of what is male…. So we have to be careful for the filters of society and feminism. Feminism defining us by what we do as opposed to who we are, and feminism, which is glorifying all that is male as the main thing.”

“They’re missing it,” agrees one student about the Orthodox feminists. “They’re trying to be men, and they’re not bringing to it what women can bring.”

Trying to be men. What Kalsmith and Green don’t recognize is that seeing all the pubic roles in Judaism as belonging legitimately only to men is also a filter, albeit a filter in place for hundreds of years. To them, “trying to be men” apparently means trying to achieve the right to self-determination, to have a hand in the Jewish laws that govern them, to be allowed to participate in the prayers and rituals that have sustained Jewish men for ages. These mainstays of Jewish life only became “male” by definition when men closed the door of the club to women.

What the Future Holds
In the current generation of Orthodox Jews, writes scholar and Yeshiva University professor Haym Soloveitchik, “religious observance is being both amplified and raised to new, rigorous heights. . . . What is at stake here,” he writes, “is not fidelity to some personal vision, but to what is perceived as the Divine Will.”

For Orthodox women, the stakes in this battle are high: At the every center of the debate of Divine Will is the question of just what the divine has willed for woman. Is she, as the traditionalists would have us believe, forbidden from entering the public spheres, forbidden forever from singing in front of men, from serving—despite her high level of knowledge—as a religious authority? If the traditionalists have their way, that will be so. In fact, even the efforts to assert women’s elevated status, so necessary now in the face of feminists’ charges of oppression, may disappear.

“Maybe 20 years from now we won’t need to do it, it will be obvious as it was along history,” says Kohn in a vision of the future that reveals much about her feelings for her current platform. “But being that people think that women are secondary, you have to emphasize and show them that it’s not so…. The problem isn’t in Judaism, it’s a problem of an attitude that people come with to Judaism. So obviously, yes, we do fight an attitude.” So what would happen if feminist thinkers were to stop challenging Judaism to create equality for women? How devoted would Kohn be to the concept of personal growth and empowerment then?

It is unlikely that Orthodox feminists will drop their challenge. Indeed, Blu Greenberg agrees with the anti-feminist writer who suggested that feminism, over the next decade, will be a force that splits Orthodoxy. In fact, she believes that the conflicts will only get worse.

This fall, a revolutionary new book appeared: Jewish Legal Writings by Women, an anthology by 17 female scholars on aspects of Jewish law and women, from hair coverings to birth control to women’s learning. For the first time, perhaps ever, the arguments of women are gathered together as a major commentary on Jewish law. One day the Torah learning of one of these scholarly women will collide full force against the Torah learning of the institutional male authorities. And one day this collision might be on a question of her personal well-being. Is she, who has parsed the texts for years, likely to accept a ruling that, say, forbids her use of birth control when she feels unable to care for the children she has? Certainly male rabbinic law has not been biased against men’s own comfort, and there’s no reason to believe that female halachic authorities would operate differently.

But there is a warning here for secular feminists as well, and the questions that Leah Kohn is asking are ones feminists might consider. Every day we hear stories of impossible choices women make between joining the “man’s world” and remaining at home. Whether leaving a two-month-old child at day care or leaving their professions in order to care for children these women are not encountering a world that activist feminism has succeeded in making hospitable.

The success of the Jewish Renaissance Center might serve as a needed heads-up to feminists who think their work is done. The women who are flocking to the Jewish Renaissance Center are expressing their dissatisfaction with their choices, and with the way our culture is judging them for having to make those choices. They are turning to an old system largely because it values as the highest good a woman’s choice to fulfill her biological destiny. It’s not surprising that women unable to keep up with the demands of work and motherhood might take some solace in that. Next, however, they might be saying that riding in a freight elevator has a certain dignified modesty too.

What Do We Do With Adam’s Rib?

Genesis 2:21 tells us, “The Lord God east a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs. . . . And the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman.” A quick read suggests that Eve was created second, that she was—almost literally—his offspring, and that she was, as it says in 2:18, to be “a fitting helper for him,” an “ezer k’negdo.”

But the Orthodox women of the Jewish Renaissance Center claim that the text offers a vision of pure gender equality, and they mold it until it appears to do so. Their logic is often innovative, but it is also intended to deceive. While these teachers hope to indoctrinate students into a traditional system that endorses—indeed demands—a God-man-woman hierarchy, they need to offer their secularly educated students a vision of full equality.

Mina Glick, a doctoral candidate and an ultra-Orthodox woman herself, retranslates the text, turning Adam’s rib into Adam’s side. According to Glick, Adam was originally a two-faced creature, comprising what would become male and what would become female. When Adam and Eve were divided, it was on equal footing.

Ghana Kalsmith, a lecturer on feminism and Orthodoxy, focuses on the the passage in which Eve is created to be “a fitting helper” to Adam. Choosing the translation, “a helpmate to oppose him,” she explains: “When I first heard this I said, ‘A helpmate to oppose him?! Is she supposed to do his dishes, is she supposed to do all the work for him?!'” But they were in Eden, she explains, where “there were no dishes, there was no cooking, there was no mopping the floor. They led a purely spiritual existence.” As for k’negdo, she suggests, “Someone who is subservient does not have the power . . . to oppose…. {Eve] has the potential to help and the potential to oppose, which also implies equality, not sameness.”

JRC’s house mother, Leah Kohn, downplays the significance of the creation order entirely. “Of course G-d [her spelling] had His reasons, but they don’t matter for us in terms of the opportunity to connect with Him and have a relationship with Him.”

Where Lubavitch Dared to Tread

The techniques and attitudes used by the outreach arms of New York’s Jewish Renaissance Center—along with Aish HaTorah or Hineni and other similar co-ed Orthodox education and outreach programs nationwide—are modeled on the methods and attitudes of the Lubavitch movement of Hasidism and its late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

  • The Open Door Policy. Trained equally in Jewish and secular studies (he studied at the Sorbonne), this rebbe was responsible for reviving the Lubavitch community in America after the Holocaust—and he did so by opening the doors of his community not only to Jews who already observed Judaism in Hasidic style but to all Jews who wanted to learn. Today’s new learning centers, like the Lubavitch mitzvah-mobiles that roam the streets teaching men to put on a tallit and women to light the Sabbath candles, put up no bars to learning, opening doors to the ex-drug addict, the atheist and even the most heretical feminist. At lectures by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis attended by thousands weekly in Manhattan, women in sleeveless dresses listen side by side with men to hear words that encourage them toward modesty of dress and other types of observance. At another right-wing outreach program, Aish HaTorah, a man explains that he’s not up to wearing a yarmulke daily—”yet.”
  • Women as Missionaries. Key to the Lubavitcher rebbe’s outreach program were women. Rabbi Schneerson’s “use of articulate and appealing women to promote the status quo signified a break with earlier Lubavitch (and Hasidic) custom,” writes Bonnie Morris in her new book, Lubavitch Women in America, a study of women’s growing influence in the Lubavitch movement (SUNY Albany). He encouraged them to venture forth from their enclaves to reach secular women, giving them unprecedented access to the outside world. Before the rebbe gave his sanction to women’s outreach, there was nothing in the Jewish world that would have suggested to women like Leah Kohn and Esther Jungreis that their efforts were desirable, let alone permissible.
  • Women’s Education. If women were to venture forth from the Lubavitch enclave, however, they needed the tools with which to reach secular women. As Morris documents, the Lubavitcher rebbe “wanted visible, educated, committed women, who could compete with the visible and educated women of secular society, in order to attract baalot teshuvah [returnees] to Lubavitch.” His endorsement of women’s learning as a mitzvah [a commandment] and his willingness to put the community’s finances toward girls’ schools, has revolutionized the way women throughout the Orthodox world expect to learn.

    Today, women’s learning in almost all observant communities has mushroomed. Rebbetzin Jungreis’ daughter, Slovi Wolf, has just started “The Advanced Judaic Studies Seminary for Women” at Hineni. “When you teach a man,” she explained to LILITH, “you teach an individual. When you teach a woman, you teach a family, a community, the world.”

Are These Women Speaking for Themselves?

Students at the Jewish Renaissance Center echo their teachers’ diatribes as they turn against the women’s movement:

Dora Green, 43, Monsey, NY, mother of four. Formerly an investment banker with Drexel-Burnham-Lambert.
On the transformation: “I was living my type-A life . . . when I woke up one morning and said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ . . . I wasn’t doing anything that was uniquely me.”
On feminism: “Feminism was a bill of goods that was sold that wasn’t so advantageous to women. . . . Women became doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs and got married and had children and who do you think is running their homes? You don’t think that their husbands are worrying about whether there’s toilet paper in the pantry, do you?”
On modesty: “Modesty and its corollary, self-control—of speech, eyes, thoughts and actions—have brought about a satisfying self-refinement that I never dreamed possible.”
On Orthodox feminists: “They’re missing it. They’re trying to be men and they’re not bringing to it what women can bring.”

Robin Barsky, 34, New York City, single. Assistant executive director, Women’s Sports Foundation.
On the transformation: “I woke up one day and said, ‘Where is the meaning in what I’m doing?'”
On feminism: “You can say the women’s liberation movement, feminism, in a way backfired because the original intent didn’t allow women to explore themselves.”
On modesty: “We’ve been brainwashed to believe that the only way we’re going to get anywhere in business is to be loud.”
On Orthodox Judaism: “It has allowed me to bring out a sensitive side of myself that I never thought existed.”

Elizabeth Fried, 38, married. Program Coordinator at the Jewish Renaissance Center, costume designer and wardrobe stylist. Left home at 12 for a ballet career, then to Barnard, Wall Street, Harvard Business School, Yale Drama School, and Europe—to work as a fashion designer.
On feminism: “The role that feminism played for me was that I gave priority to my career ambition. I felt like I had to act like a man. . . . All these accomplishments and no spiritual or personal satisfaction.”
On modesty: “If you dress in a sexy way, everyone owns a part of you. But when I dress modestly, I feel stronger, I feel safer.”
On Orthodox Judaism: “It’s empowering, that’s for sure. And even more empowering because of the separation [between men and women].”

Kim Gantz, New York City, single. Senior Program Director, Business Week.
On feminism: “In my humble opinion, there are aspects to the movement that did a disservice to women. [It made] making career and finding a job very important. The priorities got mixed up.”
On Orthodox Judaism: “I think part of my fulfillment as a Jewish woman is to be married and have a family. And my challenge is to lead a fulfilling life in the meantime.”