Women: The Changing Face of Orthodox Judaism

It is stunning to see a graybeard Orthodox rabbi with impeccable Talmud credentials stand before hundreds of women, and a sprinkling of men, and make halachic arguments for allowing women to ascend the bima to bless the Torah and read from the Torah in the presence of men.

Blu Greenberg, president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, has been saying for decades that “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way.” Both the will and the way were demonstrated at JOFA’s Fourth International Conference in New York City in November, where Rabbi Daniel Sperber, was one of several religious authorities buttressing the new constructs for women’s fuller participation in Orthodox Jewish ritual. With hundreds of religiously literate Orthodox women taking their conference notes back to their communities in North America and Israel, the rabbis’ support of greater synagogue equality for Orthodox women could have vast impact.

Sperber, with flowing gray beard and brown velvet yarmulke, laid out in a scholarly voice 14 points demonstrating the rabbinic concept that the dignity of the individual (k’vod habriot) overrides the dignity of the community or congregation (k’vod hatzibbur). It has been the appeal to k ‘vod hatzibbur that has kept women from having an aliyah and reading from the Torah during services.

Another rabbi, Mendel Shapiro argued that the only tenable halakhic objection to women’s aliyot in a traditional minyan of men is the dignity of the congregation. His 52-page “Qeri’at ha-Torah (Public Torah Reading) by Women: A Halakhic Analysis” which he wrote three years ago came to public attention a year ago on the Web site of Edah, the Modern Orthodox organization that has worked closely with JOFA (www.edah.org).

Rabbi Shapiro’s goal, inspired by his younger daughter’s bat mitzvah, is to “create a halakhic steamroller” to flatten out all formal objections to women’s aliyot. Then the community, he said, can determine its own reality. “My article is in many ways subversive, but I’m not trying to subvert the synagogue,” he told conference participants. The new Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem’s German Colony, influenced by his paper, allows women to have aliyot and read from the Torah.

Congregation Darkhei Noam on New York’s Upper West Side, also influenced by Shapiro’s paper, has opened its bima to women. The issue is dividing Kehilat Orach Eliezer, also on the Upper West Side, where a vote will take place in the next few months.

But even out of the synagogue. Orthodox women continue to bear the burden of temptress. The conference offered up various interpretations of tzniut (modesty). Rabbi Saul Berman took the high road with tzniut as a broad-reaching value of daily living. Berman, director of Edah and former chairman on the Jewish Studies Department at Stern College for Women, cast modesty as a guiding principle for religious study, weddings, funerals, home design, war and wealth—not just dress and sexual conduct in our sex-obsessed society.

Tova Hartman Halbertal addressed the oppression of tznuit, burdening Orthodox women to cover themselves to “protect men from their [own] sexual incontinence.” Halbertal, a lecturer at Hebrew University, is the author of the soon-to-be-published book Approximately Subversive: Modern Mothers in Traditional Religions.

Finally, the conferees were invited by psychiatrist Michelle E. Friedman to participate in a survey on the sexual satisfaction of Orthodox women. The study seeks to discover if their feelings match the surprising findings that 40% of women and 30% of American men report significant sexual dissatisfaction. Orthodox women wishing to answer the questionnaire can phone Dr. Friedman at (212) 799-5723. Participation is anonymous.