Women Seek Bigger Role in Jewish Life Israeli Feminism Challenges Orthodox

Article excerpt

JERUSALEM -- Deep in an Orthodox neighborhood, 12 young students intently pore over thick religious texts just as Jewish scholars have for thousands of years. But there's one major difference: They are women.

Few such classes existed in Israel until a few years ago. Now, there are 18 Orthodox seminaries for women.

The students are part of a growing feminist ferment in Orthodox society, but they're in an uphill battle to expand their religious role.

Even the most liberal Orthodox rabbis in Israel say it will take at least a generation before women can be considered for high positions in Jewish religious institutions. And, the leaders quickly add, no Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law will ever allow a woman to become a rabbi.

"I can study this all my life and enjoy it, but I wouldn't be allowed to make a living doing this if I wanted," said Nehama Zussman, who is studying at Nishmat, the Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women.

More than 1,000 participants with concerns like Zussman's recently attended a conference in Jerusalem called "To Be a Jewish Woman." The public demonstration of their numbers was an effort to get the Orthodox establishment to deal with the status of women.

Many of the speakers began their speeches excitedly, in disbelief that the movement had come so far.

"This is unprecedented in Israel," said Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, an Orthodox lawyer who wrote the first report for the United Nations on the status of Israeli women. "This is the first real sign of an upheaval among so many women."

Halperin-Kaddari noted that some Orthodox communities have begun letting girls and women quote from the Torah in public ceremonies, a great honor in Jewish ritual and something long considered taboo for women.

Once thought of as radical, women's study groups have become common in Orthodox communities in Israel. In addition, several women have become rabbinical advocates and have begun to present cases to the religious courts.

Orthodox Jews, who make up at least 10 percent of the Israeli population, believe Jewish law, halacha, was divinely revealed.

In Orthodox tradition, women are expected to cover up and often stay out of sight. Hair is hidden under head coverings, legs under skirts and elbows under sleeves. Even in the most important ceremonies in synagogues, women often remain behind curtains. Their voices must not be heard by the men busy at prayer.

When Orthodox men awake and say the morning blessings, they offer thanks to God they were not born women.

Some Orthodox women say they are reminded of their exclusion in many aspects of religious life. They are not counted in a minyan, the quorum of 10 worshipers needed for public prayer, and they are not able to say Birkat Hamazon, the Jewish after-meal prayer, out loud if the required minimum of three men is not present at the table.

Chana Kehat, the founder of the Orthodox women's advocacy group Your Voice, said she still remembers the deep hurt she felt when, like all girls reaching puberty, she was expelled from her synagogue's men's section at age 10. …