Toward A Level Praying Field

On eve of JOFA conference, younger women eschew exclusive services for ‘partnership’ minyanim.

Wed, 03/03/2010
Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher
Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher

I consider myself a feminist, but when it comes to prayer, every morning I recite the ritual blessing thanking God “who has not made me a woman.” (At least I say that one softly, and with a tinge of guilt and confusion.)

And when I look for a minyan at the national conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, better known as JOFA, to be held next weekend (March 13-14) at Columbia University, I will only be counting males as full participants — as will the women there.

To be a Modern Orthodox Jew is to embrace both Torah and modern life, which means to live with conflict and nuance; no one knows that better than the women of JOFA, whose mission is to “expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halacha, or Jewish law.”

That means pushing the boundaries of acceptance by rabbinic authorities in a way that is both gently assertive and deeply respectful. And that in turn means struggling with frustration over the lack of rabbinic consensus to rectify ethical inadequacies like agunot — women unable to obtain a religious divorce from recalcitrant husbands — and still bowing to halachic dictum.

While the Jewish feminist movement has made some remarkable strides in its first four decades — JOFA itself was founded in 1997 — it has also stirred a backlash in the more traditional elements of the Orthodox community, and its future legacy is still unclear.

Perhaps chief among the accomplishments of JOFA, which claims about 4,000 members, has been putting on the Orthodox community’s communal map the very issue of women’s participation as more equal partners in the enterprise of Jewish study and practice. Long relegated to secondary or invisible roles, women have made enormous advances in terms of high-level Judaic education for girls, now accepted in virtually all segments of the Orthodox community, as are bat mitzvah observances, with the girl’s participation ranging from reading Torah and leading a women’s-only service to giving a talk at a party.

Most dramatic, of course, has been the effort among some segments to support advocacy for women rabbis in the Orthodox community. And while that has not happened fully and openly, there are a growing number of women who are serious Torah scholars, well versed in Talmud and Jewish law, and increasingly accepted in roles as educators and experts on various aspects of halacha, including those on the payroll of mainstream synagogues.

Whether they are called “rabbi” or not seems secondary, for now, to the fact that they represent a vanguard of thoroughly knowledgeable, confident and respected women in positions of authority in the community.

And with the new title of “Rabba” for the woman serving a rabbinic role at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the Orthodox community literally is inching closer — only one vowel away — to the reality of having its own women rabbis.

Such progress represents an enormous threat to the more fundamental elements of the Orthodox world. Just last week, the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel issued a statement noting that having Rabba Sara Hurwitz as “a full member of the rabbinic staff” at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale “represents a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” (See story on page 17.)

The move seemed calculated to pressure the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. and affiliated with the centrist Orthodox Union, to come down hard on the notion of women rabbis.

One might assume that despite such protests, the trend is inexorably moving toward wider acceptance of Orthodox women rabbis. Radical change always results in resistance, even if it is only temporary. For example, the majority of the more traditional world opposed the founding of the Bais Yaakov schools for girls in 1917 in Poland, since at the time teaching Torah to women was generally prohibited. But today the Bais Yaakov movement is a mainstay of the Agudath Israel and charedi communities here and around the world.

Still, the path toward greater acceptance for women’s leadership and ritual authority is neither smooth nor assured.

Women-only prayer services, which long preceded JOFA and have been supported by the group, may now be in decline. Ironically, a number of younger women, whose mothers helped found JOFA, have not embraced this form of tefillah. Some have opted for attendance at normative synagogues, while others, feeling increasingly empowered, choose to pray in “partnership minyanim,” a coed mechitza service where women lead parts of the davening and are called to the Torah.

These minyanim, which began in Israel and are now in about a dozen cities in North America, would not have been possible without the all-female prayer services, which trained and gave women confidence to lead the service.

Audrey Trachtman, a JOFA vice president who is chairing next week’s conference, said most activists see partnership minyanim — in which women share liturgical duties with men — as “the next step” in the move toward full equality for Orthodox women in terms of prayer.

One session at next Sunday’s JOFA conference is entitled “A Foot in Both Shuls,” and explores the relationship between “the partnership movement and the rest of Orthodoxy.”

The four primary themes for the conference are women in leadership, expanding ritual opportunity for women, spirituality and social justice.

More than 50 sessions are scheduled, reflecting the breadth and depth of the group’s interests, from Torah study to exploring the issues of all-girls education, to raising sexually healthy children in an Orthodox world, to a new track for middle school students, to the political and spiritual issues of women praying at the Western Wall.

Since the group was founded in 1997, tracking who does and doesn’t attend its cutting-edge annual conference has been intriguing and not always predictable. Each time there seem to be more men in attendance, as well as wider variety of observance among the participants.

Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University, will be speaking on “Jewish education for the next generation” — a less than provocative topic. But his very presence is sure to spark interest since it marks the first time a YU president is participating at a JOFA conference.

I’d like to think that over time, more members of the Orthodox community will come to see JOFA’s mission as their own: deepening and enhancing Jewish life, individually and communally. But that depends on whether further empowering women is seen as a danger or a blessing.

A few years ago, our family attended Yom Kippur services in Manhattan sponsored by The Drisha Institute, the adult education program for advanced Judaic study for women. The rabbi announced that some people were upset because on Rosh HaShanah he had allowed women to carry the Torah through the women’s section on its way from the ark to the reading stand.

The only thing remarkable about the event, he said dryly, was that the women were generous and compassionate enough to return to the Torah to the men.

The point remains that the women of JOFA are not trying to wrest the Torah from men; they just want to share in its teachings and offerings as well as its obligations.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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