Magazine article Tikkun

Orthodox Feminism: A Movement Whose Time Has Come

Magazine article Tikkun

Orthodox Feminism: A Movement Whose Time Has Come

Article excerpt

The leading turn of the century rabbis were fiercely opposed to Sara Schnirer, founder of the Bais Yaakov school system, when she insisted on providing a Jewish education to orthodox women. The rabbis contended that Torah knowledge, even in the limited sense that Schnirer was then proposing, would confuse Jewish women and lead them to question their traditional roles. And who knows where that would lead to?

As we near the end of the century, it is clear that those rabbis who opposed Schnirer were right. Though they predated Michel Foucault by a few decades, they knew instinctively that knowledge does indeed equal power, or at least leads to the quest for power.

Still, even they could not have anticipated that it would take only eighty years, from the opening of Schnirer's first school in 1917 that gave orthodox women their first heady taste of learning, for the floodgates to burst wide open. Women's prayer groups have sprung up in orthodox communities across the country. The Women's Tefilla Network, which was founded twelve years ago, estimates that as many as four thousand women pray in these groups on a weekly basis. Orthodox girls' schools teach Torah, Mishna, and Halacha, and the more modern schools teach girls Talmud. It is accepted that high school girls will study at a yeshiva for a year in Israel before going on to college, and many will continue their Jewish studies when they return. Learning programs such as Drisha in New York or Ma'ayan in Boston have sprung up nationwide, offering high-level courses and programs of study in Talmud and Torah. Female baby-naming ceremonies are often taking place, and orthodox girls are regularly celebrating their bat mitzvahs. Within orthodoxy, the more radical elements are starting to agitate for the movement to ordain women as rabbis.

But all of this was still a relatively quiet rumbling until this past February when the first International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy was held in New York. It was then that many orthodox women realized they had crossed the line from interested participants to real activists. The conference defined their cause and put a name on a movement that many hadn't been sure really existed. While the organizers of the conference had anticipated that only about 250 people would attend, they registered 450 people and counted over a thousand attendees each of the two days.

Until the conference, no one had seen how intensely women within the orthodox community needed to be heard. Judith Plaskow, a non-orthodox feminist theologian, observes that, "The orthodox feminist movement has the same kind of energy and excitement now that the Jewish feminist movement had over twenty years ago."

But what is impelling this movement to rise to the surface now? In 1973, organizers of the first Jewish women's conference would not use the word "feminism" in the title.

"Feminism was such a dirty word," said Esther Farber, one of the organizers of the recent conference. The women's rights movement had barely begun to permeate secular society, much less the insular and more conservative orthodox Jewish world. Twenty-four years later, thanks to the feminist movement and because of the economic realities that dictate the need for two-income families, orthodox women are both more educated and more visible in the work force. Feminist sensibilities have even penetrated the ultraorthodox world, where the desire of many men to study Torah as a full-time occupation has forced many of the women to find work to support their large families. As orthodox women have begun finding their voice in the secular world, so it seems they are now looking for it in their religious world as well.

Unlike the movement that sparked the 1973 conference, however, today's movement is as much about orthodoxy as it is about feminism. To be a Jewish feminist is to struggle against a patriarchal system with no imposed limits. But to be an orthodox Jewish feminist is to struggle against that same system yet at the same time adhere to an ideology based on a belief in the divinity of both oral and written Torah - a body of teachings and laws not open to compromise but, significantly, always open to scholarly interpretation. …

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