Can Religious Feminism and Orthodoxy Go Hand in Hand?

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18 b tammuz

I was asked to be on a panel discussion in Jerusalem: “Can Religious Feminism and Orthodoxy go hand in hand” next week. The forum is organized by American Orthodox rabbis and I will argue the “Nay” side of the issue, while a rabbi from the religious kibbutz movement will argue the “Yea” side.

In preliminary discussions with him he made a good point. Rabbis and leaders should allow innovations that are within halakha, and teach the sources to girls and women. Then when innovations that are really outside the pale come up for discussion, the rabbis will have more credibility because they have allowed what is permissible (even if not advisable). Therefore when they rule something out the ruling will be accepted more readily. Issues that the panel was asked to discuss range from women giving eulogies at funerals, women holding the poles of a huppah and participating in the sheva brachot, etc.

I see these demands/requests/desires as symptomatic of a more serious misunderstanding of gender roles and underlying halakha and hashkafa. I have also been witness to the slippery slope over the last 3 decades where, for example, women’s tefilla groups and megilla readings begin technically within halakha and then morph into problematic groups such as the “Shira Hadasha” style minyanim where men and women have a minyan with a nominal mehitza that considers itself Orthodox but gives aliyot to women, allows them to lead Kol Nidre, kabbalat Shabbat, pesukey dizimra, read the Torah, etc.

Any comments on either side of the issue would be helpful in preparing for the panel.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She is on the board of the Charedi College of Jerusalem. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survved the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She s available to lecture in Israel and in the US.

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35 Responses

  1. J. says:

    Rabbi Feldman\’s article \”Orthodox Feminism and Feminist Orthodoxy\” (at http://www.ou.org/publications/ja/5760winter/orthodox%20feminism.pdf) begins with an effort to distinguish Orthodox from non-Orthodox thought. Rabbi Feldman describes a non-Orthodox woman who participated in a ritual because, she said, \”I felt religiously happy.\” According to Rabbi Feldman, this was the crux of the problem. \”Joy and personal fulfillment\”, Rabbi Feldman writes, are the motivations of the secular world, emblematic of our me-focused society. Judaism, Rabbi Feldman claims, is motivated by efforts to fulfill the Divine will. This goal, Rabbi Feldman claims, is fundamentally incompatible with personal fulfillment. Seeking the Divine will, Rabbi Feldman wrote, is incompatible with spiritual self-gratification, the seeking of spiritual pleasure.

    There is a passage in the Talmud I find myself utterly at a loss to explain. It involves the question of whether or not women can perform semikha on their korbanot. \”R. Jose and R. Simeon say: The daughters of Israel may lay their hands, although they are not required to do so. R. Jose says: Abba Eliezar told me the following: Once we had a calf to be offered as a shelamim sacrifice and we brought it to the women\’s court and women laid their hands on it. Not because laying of hands applies to women, but to allow the women to feel \’nachas ruach\’, \’spiritual pleasure\’.\” Chagigah 16b.

    My difficulty with the Rabbi Feldman\’s whole argument that feminism is wholely incompatible with Orthodoxy is that the very thing that Rabbi Feldman claims is wholly outside and incompatible with Orthodoxy is something that\’s found right in the Talmud, something that\’s an ordinary part of the Halakha of the Beis HaMikdash. In the days of the Beis HaMikdash Chazal allowed women to participate in non-mandatory rituals for the express purpose of giving them nachos ruach, spiritual pleasure. Nachos ruach. \”I feel religiously happy\”, was something Chazal thought that women needed. When did it suddenly become such a bad thing.

    This is not to say that any particular halakha should be decided any particular way. But the idea that women need nachos ruach — women\’s desire for nachos ruach — is no stranger to Judaism or to Orthodoxy. It\’s really an ordinary part of being a Jewish women, something very traditional, something women today have in common with women of the Beit HaMikdash. In the days of the Beit HaMikdash women sought nachos ruach by seeking a somewhat more involved role than was strictly required. So today. If we keep this in mind, there\’s no need to see the underlying desire for nachos ruach as evil or wrong or incompatible with Orthodoxy. It\’s something that\’s been part of our tradition, something Chazal found the Halakha was, at least in some cases, able to accommodate.

  2. Ilana says:

    Hi Shira

    Your mention of women giving eulogies caught my eye – I gave a eulogy at my husband’s funeral three weeks ago…. Not because *I* needed to take a public role, but because he had such love of Torah, yirat shamayim, emunah through years of suffering and illness – much of this only I witnessed, and only I could convey it to the community.

    Nevertheless, I probably would not have spoken in identical circumstances had I lived a century or two ago, or if I were more thoroughly charedi.

    Changes in women’s roles are inevitable and not necessarily bad. (Everyone’s favourite example: Bais Yaakov.) Conservative resistance to change is also inevitable and not necessarily bad. Whichever side of the debate we’re on (I tend to be on both sides, personally), we need to strive to keep this a machloket l’shem shamayim, genuinely grounded in Torah and yirat shamayim, genuinely seeking to serve G-d according to HIS will, and genuinely listening to and learning from each other.

  3. ja says:

    “And third, the way he put it contained an undertone of critique against how synagogues distribute aliyot in general. In his view, you could be a scoundrel or an ignoramous, but when you write a check you get an aliyah.”

    First, I don’t believe this story. I refer readers here to Tzvee’s claims on artscroll and lying to see his reliablity. Second, if RYBS said anything, he would have been making a halachic point about kovod hatzibur, none of the three explanations you give here.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Dermlord said,
    “It happened when Jews were exposed to the outside world and were able to recognize that a great deal of what they did and believed was not consistent with reason”

    It happened when the less religiously motivated Jews were exposed to the outside world and made the calculation that assimilation brought more this-worldly fortune and fame.

  5. Yaakov Menken says:

    Dermlord, I could ask you the same question. Hilchos Ishus 12:1 says that when a man marries, he becomes obligated to his wife in ten areas while receiving four. Only three of his areas are Torah obligations; the other seven were heaped upon him by the supposedly-sexist Rabbis.

    It doesn’t say that a man can be struck, since with regards to a man this is hardly newsworthy. Beis Din is authorized to strike a man who rejects its instructions and decrees throughout Torah.

    But, of course, when it comes to a divorce, there it is newsworthy — who says a divorce can be forced with a rod? So it is there that the Rambam fills us in (Gerushin 2:20) that when appropriate, any Bais Din can hit him until he says he wants to give the divorce.

    Your question about the 12th Century is misleading. Ask the same question to men and you will get the same answer. I turned to my wife, who has an MA from Hopkins and a high-school teaching career, and she said without hesitation that she liked our century. Why? Kitchen conveniences! [Personally I like the advances in health care.] We prefer the century in which we live for the same reason that if offered the chance to be any other person on earth, few of us would switch places.

    If feminism is so wonderful, and charedi Judaism is, of course, far behind the times when it comes to feminism, then why is it that there are more Baalos Teshuvah than Baalei Teshuvah?

    No one shares your explanation as to why the felling of the ghetto walls led to abandonment of observance. It was not a sudden exposure to education, but a lack of education combined with new opportunities to participate in dignified gentile society rather than living with Jews in the ghetto.

    Whether or not you care to ignore Heilman, none of the factors you mention have changed in the least degree, while Jewish education has changed entirely — and today the Haredi community is better than any other at retaining its next generation. Sara Schnierer schools “took off” because they were endorsed, rather than opposed, by leading Rabbis. Your armchair analysis is missing a connection to observed reality.

    I slippery slope to which Mrs. Schmidt referred is alive and well. When change occurs under Torah guidance in response to the new situations of the day, it is effective. When change is motivated by a feeling that something is lacking in Torah, such as that it is insufficiently “egalitarian,” then people eventually follow these feelings to their logical conclusion, and reject Torah itself.

  6. dermlord says:

    Rav Menken,

    Are you being serious? There is no parallel statement, allowing the use of a rod to compel a husband to fulfill his duties is there? Just answer the question, and don\’t beat around the proverbial bush: would you rather be a woman living in the 12th century or now? And you will have your answer as to the value of feminism.

    I know Dr Heilman. You are taking it out of context. Look at the braoder picture. 250 years ago most jews were observant (they were certainly not the modern definition of Haredi, despite what some may or may not believe). Now 90%+ percent are non-observant. This shift happened before electricity, cell phones, etc. It happened when Jews were exposed to the outside world and were able to recognize that a great deal of what they did and believed was not consistent with reason, even internally inconsistent much less externally. The few things I mentioned are just some minor inconstistencies that the Haredi community places major emphasis on. That is the barrier to observance, not cell phones.

    this is a pointless debate, the facts speak for themselves. The attempt to completely eradicate outside influences, whether or not they have value, is the current modus operandi of Haredi Judaism, you and your colleagues notwithstanding. The system is bound to fail, whether with a dramatic shift as happened 200 years ago, or with a slow progressive change, hopefully keeping that which is true and adapting the rest. The debate between Mrs. Schmidt and the Rabbi is merely an example of the latter.

  7. Ben says:

    A review of this Wendy Shalit piece might, if carefully read, provide some points that, more broadly applied, might help inform your side of the debate, especially in terms of role appreciation.

    http://www.incharacter.org/article.php?article=55

  8. Yaakov Menken says:

    As I said, this is a false translation of the Rambam. The Hebrew/Aramaic word Kofin cannot be translated as an ambiguous \”may be compelled\” because it is in a conventional plural present-tense form: \”[we or they] compel her and she does, even with a rod.\” Nothing about scourging. And for those of us who prefer our comments in context, following the period we have the following sentence: \”If he claims that she isn\’t working and she says that she is not withdrawing from her work, we put a woman or neighbors between them.\”

    We put a woman between them — and not a man. How sexist!

    What you suspect is the real issue, isn\’t — I wrote this and the previous comment without as much as looking at whom she is to debate. And your armchair predictions about how better off we would be if Rabbis were \”more accomodating to adaptation within Halacha\” is belied by the history of Modern Orthodoxy. For clarification please see Sliding to the Right by Samuel Heilman — certainly no friend of what even he sees as an undeniable trend.

    You belittle the idea of turning off electrical devices on Shabbos as something so difficult for modern Jews as to keep many of them from observance. Instead you prefer to think that assimilation may be attributed to the fact that people avoid corn syrup in Coke (on Pesach) and Chassidim wear Shtreimels. I can find nothing to debate in your logic.

  9. dermlord says:

    Rav Menken,

    You ignore my point. Mrs. Schmidt’s right to debate halacha with a male RAbbi, is indeed religious feminism (unless of course you don’t view her opponent as a “rabbi”, which I suspect is the real issue). As for the Rambam, the I’ll ignore the innuendo about grade school children, here’s the passage: “A wife who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod” (Ishut 21:10).
    I am sure you will be able to find an apologetic explanation of the passage, just as I can easily provide you with many more traditional opinions on the status of women, but instead of getting into that just ask yourself if you’d rather be a Jewish (or any other) woman in the 12 th century or in the 21 st one. Then tell me if religious feminism in incompatible with Judaism.
    As for observance, many more Jews would be observant today (because they would have never left the fold to begin with), if the Rebbeim of the past 2 centuries were more accomodating to adaptation within Halacha, rather than “doing things the way they were always done (or so they think)”. The recent book bannings are just a dramatic example of where this has all led. i can list many others. If you think that the inability to turn off cell phones on Shabbos is the major reason for assimilation, you are deluding yourself. To the majority on the outside, suspension of disbelief is necessary for observance, most people who try to develop a connection cannot fathom reasons for Chalav Yisroel (for 100% kosher milk), Kitnyot (especially corn, quinoa, and the best: corn syrup in Coke-any elementary knowledge of halacha shows that derivatives of Kitnyot are batel B’rov, but if one drinks regular coke on Pesach he is kofer, chas v’shalom), shtreimels in July in 100 degree weather as if Hashem told Moshe to wear one, and if you don’t you can’t get a shidduch, need for kosher for Pesach styrofoam cups, and there is no end. We have become so bogged down in the grass that we can’t see the trees, much less the forest.

  10. Yaakov Menken says:

    JR/Dermlord,

    Your argument is wrong, simply because it is based upon the distorted arguments of feminists who came before. The Rambam most emphatically did not write that a man can beat his wife for disobedience, and requires just the opposite. Any grade-school child can translate the passage for you and you can hear the mistake for yourself. The Rambam writes that Beis Din may force a woman to do her part, even with a rod — exactly as Beis Din may force a man. For his part, the Ra’avad demurs: he says he never saw that a woman could be hit, only a man. There’s the only sexism in the passage, but you won’t hear that from the agenda-driven.

    Rabbinic literature distinguishes between “foolish” minhagim created by laypeople in some communities, vs. the holy customs of the Holy Nation. Most of today’s Jews are distant from the tradition because they can’t imagine shutting off their cell phones during Shabbos; “all the rest is commentary.” Minhagim are hardly to blame.

  11. dermlord says:

    Shira and others,
    Does no one here see the irony, a college educated WOMAN is publicly debating a MALE RABBI about a halachic issue. If this is not religious feminism, I don’t know what is. This talk of “slippery slopes” is pure nonsense. We have all been on the slope, going in the right direction on this issue, for a long time. When the BAys Yaakov movement was started there were plenty of oponents who declared it “incompatable with orthodoxy.” Same with secular education, voting rights, the get issue, etc. I believe the RAmbam wrote that it was permissible to beat one’s disobedient wife. Do you think we should follow the “tradition”?
    It seems obvious to me that the reason most Jews will never be observant (and unfortunately will assimmilate altogether) is that in the observant community “tradition” is now valued over what is right and wrong, and especially over what Hashem deems permitted and forbidden. Simply because some Jews did or did not do something before is not a reason for endless generations to repeat their actions. An honest analysis is indeed allowed and often necessary. Rabbinic literature is replete with examples of mistaken minhag. Let’s start being honest and admit that “Feminism” has for the most part improved women’s lives, and arguing against that for the sake of “tradition” is nonsense. Good luck in your debate, it gives me great pleasure to know that a woman will be debating in public.
    Respectfully,
    JR

  12. yossi says:

    Ben Bayit,
    So now a shul that \”allows\” people who drive to shul is not Orthodox? Are you really suggesting that any person who is not Shomer Shabbos has no right to daven at an Orthodox shul? If that\’s the case, you\’ll have to close down half of the OU shuls in America (especially outside NY and NJ) and a good number of shuls in Israel. Rav Moshe Feinstein has teshuvot about whether someone who drives to shul can have an aliya or daven from the amud (if memory serves the answer is yes, except on the yamim noraim.) You can criticize Shira Chadasha for lots of things, but criticizing it because they allow people who aren\’t shomer shabbos to daven there is a bit unfair.

    BEsides, how do you know they never gave a klopp if you weren\’t there? (that is sarcasm for those who can\’t figure it out)

  13. Elad says:

    Many times I have heard from my rebbe all “ism’s” grouped together. Socialism, Capitalism, Communism, Fascism, Feminism, Zionism, etc.. . What he meant is, that to their most adherents these are all-encompassing doctrines and world outlooks through which everything is filtered. The Torah demands of us to look at everything through lenses of Torah. (Hirsch – Torah im derech eretz). It is no great surprise then that in a room of feminists (people who define themselves as adherents to the world outlook of feminisim) there are no believers in Daas Torah – Torahisim.

  14. Ben Bayit says:

    Re: Tzvee’s comments that RYBS viewed this issue as a social one. That is EXACTLY the point that Rav Yehuda Henkin made in his response to Mendel Shapira’s piece in Edah (also published in Edah). That even were we to assume that the practice of Shira Chadasha is technically “Halachically correct” it is not Orthodox in practice and the shul will not long be Orthodox in name. The fact is that less than 3 years after writing this piece, Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem has worshippers that arrive on shabbat via motorized transport (even if they are guests – guests seem to arrive from the hotels via car “regularly”). No one in Shira Chadasha has given a “klopp” on the bima saying “ad kan. we want to stay Orthodox and not become Conservative and thus people who drive to shul should not worship at our minyan”. No one has said this in shul nor in public. So Shirah Chadasha heads down the same slippery slope that the Conservative movement headed down – and at an even faster pace. The Conservative movement also kept people with an halachic framework – for a period of time.

    So perhaps Orthodoxy doesn’t have to draw the line where Satmar draws it, or where the Agudah draws it, or even where RYBS drew it – but it has to be drawn somewhere.

  15. easterner says:

    while not wishing to ‘give in’ to the feminists, i think it must be said that many women of O background are well versed in what is ‘out there’ halachically; and at the weakest end of orthodoxy, they might drop off the orthodox map and move into a RW egalitarian Conservative setting. i dont doubt that LW modern orthodox approaches keep people in a halachic framework—maybe not in aguda’s eyes, but certainly by the modern centrist’s yardstick…

  16. kar says:

    UO woman here. I would encourage you to stick to halacha and halachic values, which include tradition, rather than to discuss “gender roles” In truth, on that topic, there is more heat than light, and there is not that much authentic basis in the sources for much that is said about “Gender roles” in Judaism. Tznius explains a limited amount, and not as much as it’s stretched to explain and etc.

  17. tzvee says:

    In 1973, after I completed my Smicha studies with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, I attended his summer shiurim in Boston and then started as a PhD graduate student at Brown University.

    Brown was known as a progressive community in an era of ferment. Some of us Orthodox graduate students gathered at the Hillel to engage in a traditional Minyan. Not surprisingly some of the women students there wanted to know how far we could push the envelope. Could we conduct an Orthodox service and give women aliyot to the Torah?

    I knew these were all sincere and properly motivated students, seeking greater fulfillment in their practice of Judaism. So when they asked me to drive up to Boston and to discuss this issue with the Rav, Rabbi Soloveitchik, I readily accepted the challenge.

    After an hour’s drive one evening I was ushered in to sit with my rebbe. I talked with him about several topics, asked his opinion on halakhic issues and then got to the final question.

    I told the Rav about our minyan at Brown and that some of the students wanted me to raise a sensitive issue with him. Then I asked matter-of-factly, “What does the Rav think about the issue of Kavod Hatzibbur?” As a sign of respect, one always referred to his rebbe in the third person, even when addressing him directly. And one always took pains to obliquely broach what might be a controversial topic.

    The Talmud explains that women are not given aliyot to the Torah because of Kavod Hatzibbur, respect for the congregation. It sounds like a valid reason even though we cannot possibly know now what that phrase meant to the Babylonian sages 1500 years ago.

    The Rav knew exactly what I was asking. He smiled and told me he would not give me a psak halakhah on the subject. However, he said I should go back and assure the students at Brown that, “When the women write the checks, they will get the aliyot to the Torah.” He repeated it three times.

    I was surprised by the Rav’s statement. At the time I assumed he wanted to be sociological not theological, to finesse the issue rather than to confront it.

    I went back and reported the exchange to the earnest students. None of us knew what to make of it. And we went off and pursued our lives.

    Through the years I have stopped to reflect on occasion about the wisdom that the Rav shared with me on this matter. Now, thirty-some-years later I have collected my insights into what he may have meant.

    First and most important he meant to tell me that there is no halakhic barrier to women receiving aliyot to the Torah.

    Second, he also meant to tell me that we should be patient and allow social change to take its progressive course.

    And third, the way he put it contained an undertone of critique against how synagogues distribute aliyot in general. In his view, you could be a scoundrel or an ignoramous, but when you write a check you get an aliyah.

    That is not the protocol that the Halakhah stipulates. The codes of Jewish law agree that learned people should be honored first and frequently with aliyot in the synagogue.

    We have been patient. Over the past thirty years Jewish women have become more earnest, more sincere and more learned in Jewish law. And now all of the Orthodox women that I know have checkbooks.

  18. mycroft says:

    RYBS opposed women’s prayer groups and viewed this critique as sheer libel and slander that in essence failed to understand that while man and woman had a spiritual equality, they had different roles.

    Steve: A slight modification-RYBS clearly opposed women’s prayer groups in a schul. He had a much more nuanced position for outside schul. Of course, every Bais Yaaco had Women Prayer Groups-they don’t make a minyan in the building and have women daven privately behind the mechitzah and then have the benefit of dvar shebekedusha. ,

    so there’s no problem saying that: “X is, strictly speaking, allowed l’halacha, but I [or halacha] would discourage it for the following reasons, rooted in Jewish tradition

    Nachum: Iwould prefer the formulation we can’t open up what is accepted or not-sure one dcould have had a situation from Taanaitic sources and early Rishonim of women doing more in a beis knesset-but that is not the accepted tradition for at least the past 500 years end of story. We don’t have the right to reopen issues once the halacha is accepted.

  19. Aryeh says:

    Fundamentally, HILLEL is right. Everything else is just commentary :)

  20. Richard says:

    Shira,

    Regarding this issue, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, a fellow blogger with you on the site, wrote a wonderful piece about the underlying issues and motivations in his book “A Shul Without a Clock.” I think the article was called something like “Orthodox Feminism vs. Feminist Orthodoxy.” That can give you some ideas to chew on for your debate. I applaud you as a liberated and powerful Orthodox Jewish woman for standing up on the said of “nay”.

  21. dilbert says:

    It is interesting that you mention Women\’s Tefilla Groups and Megilla reading as being \’technically within Halacha.\’ I am sure you know that there are many opinions(I would guess probably held by most if not all of your fellow bloggers) that would categorize both of these as contrary to halacha.

    You see \’a basic misunderstanding of gender roles and underlying Halacha and hashkafa.\’ However, I think there is a legitimate longing by women for a more active participation in Jewish ritual, not for self-aggrandizment and pride, but from a desire to serve Hashem more fully. My guess is that you do not leave shul before Adon Olam so as to prevent mingling of the sexes after shul, as is advocated by some of the Edah Ha-Chareidit. To them, you would be on the wrong side of the divide that seperates actions within halacha/hashkafa, and those that are not. One can make emphasize the mida of tzniut, kevod ha\’tzibbur, and others, and come up with a path that very much minimizes women\’s roles. One can also emphasize other middot and come up with much more lax restrictions. One can even look at the society and rationale behind the piskei halacha over the last 1500 years and decide that rather than reflect pure halacha, they reflect halacha significantly influenced by the society and times. With this approach, some of the previously discarded opinions of the gemara look much more attractive and germane to today\’s society. Where exactly is the halachic line? Who is deciding where the line is drawn?

    The issue of increased women\’s participation has unfortunately been linked to the 1960-1970\’s feminist movement(and indeed that is when women\’s tefilla groups gathered momentum). Even Jewish feminism at that time was militant in demands and approach. Essentially all of the women that I know who are involved in WTG and other women\’s issues have a sincere desire to serve Hashem, within Halacha, and are not looking for a stage or \’more power.\’ They are fine with different roles within Halacha. What they do not accept are rulings that go beyond what is mandated by halacha simply because that is \’what was done\’ or that is what was common in society 200 years ago and became codified for the generations.

    In most piskei Halacha, there is a balance that needs to be weighed. If someone is sick on Shabbat, we have to know how sick in order to decide what laws of Shabbat can be set aside. We then have a balance between pikuach nefesh and shemirat Shabbat. Many women feel that their point of view and needs/wants/rights have not been considered sufficiently in piskei halacha in the past(ie not being able to learn Torah, the above mentioned psak about leaving shul early, exaggerations of laws of Tsniut-see R. Henkin\’s review in Tradition(Fall 2003) of R. Falk\’s Oz V\’Hadar Levusha). They want to abide by Halacha, and are committed to halacha. But they want the psak halacha to take into consideration thier wants and needs, not reflexively go to a maximalist tzniut position. Your co-blogger Mrs. Toby Katz wrote previously( http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2005/05/26/empathy/#more-318) about whether Gedolim understand women. I think that many piskei Halacha, especially in the past and from the Edah HaCharedi do not reflect an understanding of what a woman in a modern day situation feels, wants and knows. Women nowadays want to be sure that the halacha that they want to follow and are following has taken that into account. It is a natural, understandable desire, totally within Halacha.

  22. 1.5 opinions says:

    In the recent issue of Tradition, it was noted that R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was of the opinion that at a family meal with three or more women and fewer than three men, the women may (though certainly don’t have to) make a zimmun, and the men should respond. If the point of religious feminism is merely to bring to light perfectly acceptable halakhic positions such as this one, why shouldn’t it be compatible with orthodoxy? On the other hand, if its goal is to apply its own logic to halakha, then perhaps there is a problem. So, one would have to define religious feminism. Just like secular feminism, there are a broad range of definition, some reasonable, some not.

  23. DMZ says:

    My fundamental problem with the Shira Chadasha[1] movement is that it often ignores tradition, or tones down its impact to get the “answer desired” – and when you get down to it, tradition is part of the heart of Judaism. Toning it down is like lowering someone’s heart rate – do it enough, and it kills them. Like you, I see plenty of non-problematic, less-controversial ways to increase participation of women in Jewish life – and I firmly believe that’s a good thing. I also think that, at the end of the day, neo-Orthodoxy as embodied by YCT and Shira Chadasha is going to be an utter, miserable failure for the same reason that Conservative Judaism has turned out to be – lack of respect for tradition, and traditional roles.

    A somewhat related anecdote: when I was in college a few years ago, I was talking to a female friend about the issue of women becoming rabbis. I opined that I thought “manhig ruchani”[2] was an excellent compromise that would give women of learning a way to be officially expressed as such, without incurring half the backlash that the “rabbi” title would. She retorted, in a somewhat devil’s advocate fashion, that, as a woman, she didn’t think it was a good compromise, and they should be rabbis, straight and proper. I responded that any titles are worthless without respect of them – and do you really think a title riddled with controversy is going to garner the respect needed for it to be worth all that much? I think some examination of a recent “female rabbi” controversy will prove this point.

    -DMZ

    [1] The “we won’t start without ten women” rule is indicative to me that the path they’re following is moving off the derech, so to speak.

    [2] As my mom pointed out, there is a fair bit of oddness that the title for women would be “MR.”. :)

  24. Nachum Lamm says:

    Nu, so there’s no problem saying that: “X is, strictly speaking, allowed l’halacha, but I [or halacha] would discourage it for the following reasons, rooted in Jewish tradition.” There’s nothing wrong with presenting people with all the evidence and letting them realize the (or your) truth; on the other hand, it’s always wrong to attempt to cover up any part of the truth.

  25. Seth Gordon says:

    Rabbis and leaders should allow innovations that are within halakha

    If folks from the left and right ends of Orthodoxy agreed on what was “within halakha”, then we wouldn’t have this controversy in the first place.

    Is it “within halakha” for a woman to wear a tallit gadol on the grounds that women are allowed to accept time-bound positive commandments upon themselves? Is it “within halakha” for a congregational rabbi to forbid women to wear tallitot on the grounds that such an action would be interpreted (or even intended) as a political protest against the gender distinctions that are mandated by the Torah?

  26. ralphie says:

    But the shira hadasha group will argue that all of those activities are technically within halacha as well. And there’s barely any slope left at that point – pretty much just a cliff.

    I once heard Rabbi Joel Roth – the author of the conservative movement’s decision to ordain female rabbis – express doubt (I’m not sure if it would be fair to say it was regret) about the whole enterprise since so many of their female rabbis engaged in activities that his decision clearly defined as off-limits. I believe he specifically mentioned serving as witnesses (on a ketubah, I suppose, would be the most relevant context).

  27. Steve Brizel says:

    Good luck. It is obvious that some MO Israelis essentially and IMO incorrectly have accepted the feminist critique of halacha as biased against women. RYBS opposed women’s prayer groups and viewed this critique as sheer libel and slander that in essence failed to understand that while man and woman had a spiritual equality, they had different roles. (The disqualification of women as witnesses has as about as much to do with their spiritual nature as does the similar disqualification of the Melech HaMoshiach.) Unfortunately, LW MO in the USA ( Edah and YCT) has also surrendured to this critique as well.

  28. Michael says:

    “I see these demands/requests/desires as symptomatic of a more serious misunderstanding of gender roles and underlying halakha and hashkafa.”

    I agree with this, but part of the question is how to get this understanding back? It seems to me that in generations past, the family and society structure might have been more conducive to an appreciation of the hashkafa behind these gender roles. Whether we like it or not, things have changed and are continuing to do so. Part of the response might be to re-explore and explain the more traditional gender roles in terms that might be more intellectually appealing for today’s audience. But part might be to examine and understand what possible gender roles are within halacha.
    I suppose that the favoring of the second type of response might fall within the camp of feminism. But I don’t think that this camp is monolithic. I concede that there are a number of feminist proponents who put the issue of feminism first and might look for any way to read it into the halacha. But what about the large amount who really are searching for a path to feel intellectually and spiritually fulfilled in a halachic way, even if it might not have been utilized in the past? The rub is that the distinction between these two groups might not always be so clear. But to the extent it can be made, I don’t think the response to them should be identical.

  29. Harry Maryles says:

    Here is what I wrote on December 1, 2005:

    Feminism remains a controversy in Orthodoxy and usually finds a more sympathetic ear in Modern Orthodoxy than it does in Ultra-Orthodoxy. Speaking for myself, and hopefully for most Centrists as well, women’s issues are irrelevant to the definition of either Centrism or ultra-Orthodoxy.

    One of feminism’s great achievements is that has made abuses by men of women a front burner issue. Cruelty to women, whether it be in the form of abuse by husbands or recalcitrant “Get” withholders, or because of corrupt Batei Din (rabbinical courts), is an issue that should cut across all socio-religious lines. We need all be aware of these kinds of issues whenever and where ever they crop up. Prejudice and cruelty know no Hashkafa.

    Another great achievement of feminism is the strides it has taken toward leveling the playing field in the workplace. It would seem to me that within Judaism, gender roles are rather well defined. To the extent that women can fulfill what were once traditionally men’s roles, whether in the workplace or at home, is to the extent that it is permitted Halachicly and is directly proportional to ability. In theory, at least, I don’t think anyone would disagree with the premise that there should be equal pay for equal work. Yet there exists still a current inequality in salaries between men and women in society of which Orthodox Judaism is a participant.

    As for the feminist search for meaningful ways to serve God (other than those Mitzvos specific to them and in common to both men and women), I have no problem with women doing activities that are permissible by Jewish law as long as they don’t mimic cultural values foreign to Jewish thought. For example, I have never understood those who say that they are more spiritually fulfilled by participating in Women’s Teffilah Groups. The concept of a Minyan is not a God mandated modality for women. In my view Women’s Teffilah groups are little more than an attempt to emulate a Minyan.

    Theologically, it is not the job of Man to feel more fulfilled by an activity of Man’s own choosing even if it is technically permissible. Gadol HaMetzuvaeh VeOseh. By definition, the way to be the most spiritually fulfilled is to do what G-d mandates of us without regard as to what feeling the act elicits. Anything else is just an illusive and perhaps false or self deceptive feeling. Such feelings are often absorbed from cultural experiences outside the Torah. In any case, Judaism’s tenets are not about “feelings”. They are about “doing”. G-d wants us to “do”. If we happen to feel good in the process, all the better and is probably a higher form of understanding the essence of God’s will. In order to achieve feelings proportional to the value of the acts in the eyes of God one needs to divorce oneself from external factors which have illegitimately entered our psyche. This attitude should be the same no matter what part of Orthodoxy one is an adherent of, whether Centrist or ultra-Orthodox.

    I also wrote about these related issues here and here

  30. Brother Bob says:

    The problem with your discussion so far it depends on how you define “Religious Feminism” and “Orthodoxy”.

    You appear to be limiting your discussion to halakha and what practices are permitted or not by halakha. Religious feminism being defined by innovative practices.

    This appears to be the beginning of a very shallow discussion.

  31. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) says:

    (unless it’s changed since the last time i saw it, and i have no reason to assume it has) the mehhitza at Shira Hhadasha is one of the most mahhmir characteristics of the minyan.

  32. Anon2 says:

    Shira,

    I have to say that unfortunately your debate-partner can be correct. In my small community, which is ultra-modern-orthodox there was a long-standing women’s tfila group with the approval of the Rabbi. At a certain point the Rabbi changed his mind regarding the halachic validity of many of the practices he had previously condoned. This was percieved by many (in my opinion correctly) as an arbitrary setting of halachic boundaries by the Rabbi on specious grounds (due perhaps to familial pressure). The upshot is that the Rabbi lost the respect of many in the community, and much of his moral authority. This has led many who previously would not “eat out” (at least b’farhesya) or do things like swim on shabbos, to start doing so.

    Not only that, but I feel that people here have lost respect for halacha as a system, and now view it as something the Rabbi can play with anytime he doesn’t like something. It would have been much better had the Rabbi said ” Look, I know these practices may be halachically permissable, but I don’t feel comfortable having you do them in my shul.”

  33. Bob Miller says:

    Shira Schmidt said,
    ” I have also been witness to the slippery slope…”

    This is the deliberate incremental strategy, which takes advantage of naive people who haven’t figured out how small, quasi-justifiable steps toward accommodation are part of a larger picture. Don’t think for one moment that these “Orthodox” strategists will want to stop short of their obvious goal, to remake Halacha in line with their own ideology. Of course, those, such as the stauncher Orthodox leaders, who assert this fact in public are attacked with a flurry of angry buzzwords.

  34. HILLEL says:

    I quote Marshall Mcluhan’s famous line: “The medium is the message.

    The very fact that a symposium is being held for the purported purpose of discussing “Religious Feminism”–an oxymoron, if I ever saw one–is itself a breach in the wall of our holiness and tzenius.

    Feminism is synonymous with rebellion against the traditional role of women in society as homemakers and mothers. As such, it should be banned from the lexicon of any Torah-True Jew.