Under the Flowerpot Hat: Orthodox Feminists Moving Cautiously

Like porcupines making love, Orthodox feminists bringing feminism to Orthodoxy are proceeding carefully.

Some 400 women and a sprinkling of men attended the 2001: JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) in Progress one-day conference in New York last spring. (JOFA’s major two-day conferences in 1998 and 2000 each attracted 2,000 participants.)

The JOFA icon could well be the image of conference chair Pam Scheininger, 27, who on the conference day was wearing an inverted flowerpot hat as she ran around with cell phone to ear.

“When I wear a hat, no one questions what’s going on inside my head.” said a rebbetzin who has been pushing for increased religious participation by women. For Orthodox feminists, the question of modesty (tzniut)—what’s to be covered up, versus what’s to be revealed—constitutes the heart of the matter. Accordingly, the hottest conference topics were off the record. One example: the session on “Abuse of Children and Teens at Orthodox Institutions: Communal Responsibility.” But after the Orthodox Union’s years of covering up charges of sexual abuse by Rabbi Baruch Lanner when he was a top official of the OU’s youth division, one might think it time to go as public as possible on this issue.

Educator Beverly Gribetz, one of the co-chairs of another off-the-record session, “The Glass Ceiling: Women’s Torah Learning and Leadership,” in the end spoke openly about her frustrations.

“In the last five years there have been at least nine searches for heads of co-ed Orthodox high schools, that is, schools that are proud of the fact that they give an equal education to women. Not one of those schools has even interviewed a woman,” said Gribetz, former headmistress of New York City’s distinguished Ramaz School. Many of these schools claim they must be headed by a rabbi, thereby automatically eliminating women. To which Gribetz says: “The first point is that you do not need to be a rabbi to have the qualities necessary to run a school. The second is that if rabbi is a requisite and there is a non-rabbi man who wants such a job, he can get smikha (ordination) to meet the requisite, while there is no way a woman can.”

Orthodox women are also at a disadvantage in the Jewish Community Center and Jewish federation world, where institutions want someone with the title of rabbi—male or female—to head religiously oriented programs. In the words of one conference participant, “‘Rabbi’ is shorthand for ‘qualified.'” Orthodox women, no matter how well educated and talented, just don’t fill the bill.

Unlike other streams of Judaism, Orthodox feminism must deal with Jewish text as something immutable. Speaking at the session “Toward an Orthodox Feminist Theology,” Devorah Zlochower, director of full-time programs and Talmud instructor at New York’s Drisha Institute, described herself as “stuck in the following conundrum: As a product of an Orthodox upbringing, 1 always wanted to teach Torah, even before feminism. The very things I value are the things that don’t seem to value me. The texts themselves marginalize me.”

JOFA president and founder Blu Greenberg has been carefully breaking ground as an Orthodox feminist for more than 25 years. Greenberg’s agenda includes ordaining women as Orthodox rabbis, and asks, “If not, why not?” Greenberg says her Orthodox feminist stand is “particularly difficult in the face of the critique that says one is undermining the social order.” But change is taking place. Her mother, Greenberg said, spent “50 years baking brownies for her husband’s students. Her granddaughters are now studying and teaching Talmud in her lifetime.” What next? “The incongruities,” Greenberg said, “are part of the challenges of the coming years.”