Jewish Feminists, Liberal and Orthodox, Seek Mutual Respect

As an observant, but non-Orthodox feminist Jew,  I have been really interested in some of the struggles of Orthodox feminists both within their communities and with liberal Jewish feminists. I have listened to a lot of voices and these conversations have made me realize that Jewish feminists are looking for mutual respect from each other, but often feeling as if they don’t find it. The essence of the issue can be seen in this quote from one of the pioneering Orthodox feminists, Dr. Norma Joseph, addressing a group of Jewish feminists, “the feminist world finds me too Jewish and …  this Jewish feminist world finds me too religious.”

  • Orthodox feminists feel that liberal Jewish feminists don’t count them as “legitimate” or authentic feminists because Orthodox feminists are willing to accept non-egalitarian prayer conditions and language etc. The idea of creating change from within is too summarily dismissed and derided.
  • Liberal Jewish feminists feel that Orthodox feminists don’t count them as “legitimate” Jews or authentic Jews for two reasons:

1) Orthodox feminist don’t acknowledge the firsts or the way paved for them by liberal Jewish feminists.

As Hillary B.Gordon laments:

“Why can’t the Orthodox recognize that other women have come before them and fought the same fight?  Why is it that because it was done by Conservative or Reform Jewish women it is not legitimate according to the Orthodox?….. the Facebook story people were sharing about “I’m Orthodox and I wear tzizit” written by a woman.  You know what I sort of want to say?  Big deal!  I know, I know, in the Orthodox movement it is a big deal but come on people, get your head out of the sand, lots of women wear a tallit and even (gasp!) put on tefillin.

This was brought up by two comments on my blog by Dan Ab

why [do]Orthodox feminists ignore or actively remove feminist writing and changes from other denominations when crafting their own narrative. As she indirectly notes, this this a political rather than a halachic decision because admitting Orthodox feminism has been inspired by non-Orthodox changes essentially dooms efforts to make change. As an example, I was saddened that JOFA’s Fall 2013 journal had a bunch of personal stories from the first generation of Maharatot. All of them talked about having no Jewish female clergy role models which were either blatant lies or parading their own unwillingness to explore the world around them.

Similarly, modern Orthodox “innovations” like a ‘real’ bat mitzvah or baby naming  or Rosh hodesh groups, or women studying Talmud seldom if ever mention the origin of these ceremonies and notions decades before in the liberal movements.

2) Orthodox Jewish feminists don’t view non-Orthodox denominations as legitimate alternatives. As I say in  Orthodox feminists Why haven’t they left? Not because a lack of observant alternatives - It should be absolutely respected to stay in Orthodoxy because you love the community, or you grew up in Orthodoxy, or you choose to do so, but don’t present it as the only available, legitimate choice for observant Judaism.

Again Hillary B.Gordon:

On the ride home, we discussed another comment from the evening where Dr. Gorsetman told a story about an Orthodox Jewish woman who was a big neurologist – head of her hospital department AND an Orthodox Jew who attended an Orthodox shul.  One day she walked into shul, in to the women’s side of course and said “I can’t do this anymore” and subsequently just quit going to shul.  “This” was the fact that at her hospital she wasn’t a 2nd class citizen who needed to be hidden away in order not to tempt men. …. The shame of that was, as the two of us saw it, was that she quit going to shul as if there were no other Jewish options out there that could provide her with an alternative.  But again, somehow those options are just not legitimate.

and from my blog Marcia Beck

Certainly the larger Jewish world espouses a mainstream, ‘only orthodox practice is the real deal’ mentality. I have experienced a (mostly) unspoken feeling of competition when I speak with thoughtful Jewish women about observance. “Do you keep Shabbat? Do you keep kosher – fully kosher? What about the minor fast days?” I wish that we could walk in our diverse Jewish communities with compassion rather than judgement as our guide. Then we could ask questions like “where does the reality of your daily life bump into your practice of halachot? How do you cope with that?”

It seems also as if collaboration on liturgy, which could be very fruitful, is not possible because anything that comes from a non-Orthodox source is seen as tainted and dooming (And dooming it might be. Many Orthodox leaders would love to say that Orthodox feminists aren’t really Orthodox and cite their contact and cooperation with liberal Jews. But to bow to that pressures is not brave.)

JOFA has an excellent and inspiring Tanach program. So does Schechter. What would happen if they collaborated?

So bottom line I would say this to all of us: Those who seek legitimacy should also confer legitimacy. What great things we could do together!

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V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit: Bread and Butter, Challah and Tefillin, and the “New Jew”

READ the whole thing- it is worth it!

I have come to the conclusion that the rabbis exempted women from certain mitzvot to ensure that men are free to serve God through mitzvot, and that the mitzvot not lose their status and, therefore, their power to inspire awe. The impact of this exemption on women’s spirituality and ability to serve God was acceptable, in their view—if the question of women’s spirituality was even considered.

Today, however, women are equal citizens in secular society (at least officially) and are not expected to sacrifice their self-fulfillment for men. The rabbinic model of women’s exemption from mitzvot no longer makes sense. Even as I have come to value homemaking and other nurturing activities once considered more feminine (such as communal work), I am still not willing to consider them “women’s work.” To be full, balanced human beings we all need to be engaged in both the public and private spheres, in nurturing acts as well as acts of self-fulfillment. Men, therefore, should take challah and women should wrap tefillin, and vice versa. If we value both of these experiences, and if we see neither gender as subservient to the other, we should settle for nothing less.

via V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit: Bread and Butter, Challah and Tefillin, and the “New Jew”.

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Orthodox Feminists- Why haven’t they left? Not because a lack of observant alternatives

A common question posed to Orthodox feminist is given the great conflicts between their feminism and their religious environment (which I mentioned here and is discussed here), why don’t they just leave and join a non-Orthodox denomination?

Two thoughtful authors,  Elana Sztokman and Leah Sarna address this issue in:

Why haven’t I left yet and Orthodox Feminists Are Not Conservatives in Disguise

Here are some of the points they make:

  • A monopoly on expertise

I simply could not keep halacha on my own. I am not prepared to build and maintain my own eruv, slaughter my own animals, make my own wine and cheese, write my own Torah scrolls, home school my children or care for my own dead.

  • Community- the Orthodox community is strong, engaged, educated Jewishly , kind, hospitable, creative, with kind, caring leaders.
  • Connection to the past and a feeling of continuity with our ancestors, observing the same rituals and studying the same texts.
  • Familiarity- I’ve never known anything else. All my friends are here. These are my people, whatever their flaws
  • I like being in a halakhic community- a bazzillion brave points to Elana Sztokman for acknowledging  that the Conservative movement is also a halakhic movement
  • It is an-all -encompassing life style that gives me an identity and allows me to easily recognise people “in the club”. It provides a rhythm to my life and defines how I dress and eat.

These reasons (except maybe the ones in the first bullet, which have some problems) are all are echoed in a beautiful essay The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account.  But through this essay I came to understand my underlying problem with these reasons and my respectful disagreement with Orthodox feminists. It is that the reasons that feminist or intellectually questioning or pro-LGBT people give for not leaving Orthodoxy are all sociological. “I love the community, I love the observances, I love the ritual etc.”  And what bothers me is the assumption that one cannot have a meaningful, observant community outside of Orthodoxy- because I do have one.

And my kids are educated and engaged and taught in their day schools by both observant and non-observant teachers, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Most recently I spent Purim at Reform shul in  the evening and at a hip partnership Minyan in the morning- at both I met other parents from my kids day schools and other members of the two (other!) shuls I actually belong to. I could go on about the possibility of a non-Orthodox observant life…

The point is- staying in Orthodoxy is certainly a respectable choice, but it is not the only option for an observant community. And to imply that it is the only choice is insulting to those of us who are observant but not Orthodox.

Also one can say only a small minority of non-Orthodox Jews live in a communities of engaged, educated, immersive observance, which is a totally valid point. But you can also say that a small minority of Orthodox Jews are self-defined as feminist or pro gay rights- so you are in a small community whatever you do.

If anyone who wrote these posts sees this, I would love to hear you thoughts.





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Matzah and how authoritarianism is crumby

Shayna Zamkanei has an excellent post on what Matzah used be like. In Why your ancestors never ate matzos she goes over some important points.

Our ancestors never ate “flat, crisp matzah” until the 19th century. What they ate  looked very similar to a pita. She amasses a lot of proof. ( I had only head of the first one- Hillel folding the matzah, lamb and marror together).

We know this to be true for several reasons, the first of which is the “korekh” component of the seder. “Korekh,” which means to roll up or bend around, is what we are supposed to do when remembering Hillel and making the infamous “Hillel sandwich.” Since we cannot roll massa that is crisp, we must assume that massa must be pliable.

Second, the Babylonian Talmud Pesahim 7a suggests that bread and massa could be easily confused: “Rabbah the son of R. Huna said in the name of Rab: If a moldy loaf [is found during Pesah in a bread bin and we are uncertain whether it is bread or massa], if the majority of loaves [in the bin] are massait is permitted [because we assume it to be like the majority].” The massa currently sold ubiquitously in stores, however, never threatens to grow mold, no matter how hard you foster the right conditions. Soft massa, on the other hand, easily does.

Third, later sources also to refer to massa as soft, and Ashkenazi Jews cannot wash away this fact by claiming that soft massa was a Sepharadi custom. For example, the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserlis) wrote that massa should be made thinner than the tefah (around 3 inches) recommended in the Babylonian Talmud, while the Chafetz Chaim advised that massa be made “soft as a sponge” (Mishna Berura, Orach Haim 486). In “The Laws of Baking Massa,” the Shulchan Aruch deems baking to be sufficient  when “no threads can be pulled from it.” Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rabbinic dean at Yeshiva University and halakhic advisor for the kashruth division of the Orthodox Union, stated clearly that there is no custom that prohibits Ashkenazi Jews from eating soft massa.

She attributed today’s cardboard matzah to the “its industrial production beginning in the 1800s.” However I think there are other, intertwined  reasons as well.

If you bake your own matzah freshly even with the strict “18 minutes from flour-water contact” to end of  baking rule, it is not hard and cracker like. I know this because our family has baked matzah (when we did it it was with Passover flour) at a koshered outdoor  pizza oven at the annual matzah bake in Toronto. The matzah comes out soft and chewy but turns stale and hard in  few days.

I also noticed  recipes for home made matzah in one of my favourite cook books, The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, I: Traditional Recipes and Menus and a Memoir of a Vanished Way of Life by Edda Servi Machlin. She also includes stories and cultural information about the Roman Jews (who are neither Ashkeanzi/Sepharadi because they existed before  split). She recounts how everyone used to make their matzah at home. Her recipes also call for using oil or sweet wine instead of water and for the 18 minutes applying to the baking time and not the total contact time. She describes how children loved matzah and loved being involved in baking and eating it.

Even before industrialization, worries about kashrut and strictness lead many Eastern European communities  to allow only the town baker to make matzot. People were not trusted to do it in their homes. This created a situation where the industrialization was possible and its inferior product was accepted by the community because they had already lost contact with the visceral tastes and knowledge of what used to be a home-centred mitzvah. And this is what we lose when we worry more about halacha then the actual mitzvot.

So I say, fight the cardboard and crumbs and take back matzah!!

Make your own. ( At home need a very hot oven, passover flour and speedy hands if you want it to be traditionally kosher. Or commandeer an outdoor bread oven and kosher it). One batch is enough for putting out at your seder and for the experience.



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Partnership Minyan and the Egalitarian Threat- Why Is New Worship Form So Scary to the Orthodox Establishment?

Here is my article in the Forward on why Partnership Minyanim are such a threat to mainstream Orthodoxy and also why they will probably end up outside it it- despite their desire to stay in.

Partnership Minyan and the Egalitarian Threat Why Is New Worship Form So Scary to the Orthodox Establishment?


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Well, Conservative Movement it is time to make up your mind

Rabbi Olinsky, a Conservative rabbi, had an excellent Article in  Haaretz on egalitarianism.

Teen girls laying tefillin: Brave enough to be different

He begins by describing how he prepared a girl for her bat mitzvah, the Torah reading, the dvar Torah and  including showing her how to wear tallit and tfilin. She was excited to use them. Then she got  to the “egalitarian” Conservative service:

 No other adolescent girl was wearing tefillin that morning, and very few chose to wear tallitot. Although the community was egalitarian and women had the same opportunities for participation in Jewish ritual as men, most of the teenage girls declined to engage in the rituals of laying tefillin and wearing tallitot. So too, this bat mitzvah girl folded up her tallit, zipped up her tefillin bag, and has yet to put them on again. Why? Because she does not want to stand alone. She wants to be “normal.”

 After exploring the issue, he concludes “Making egalitarianism a priority is about more than giving women a choice; it must encourage and expect participation. True egalitarianism is men and women being viewed as – and feeling – equally obligated. “

I was struck by two other passages in his article that I thought were in fact describing obstacles to his goal.

1)”Under the movement’s understanding of halakha (Jewish law) women have the opportunity to participate in all aspects of Jewish rituals if they wish.”

Both men and women have to believe women are obliged to with as much force of halacha as men are. So Conservative halacha has got to change to an unequivocal “Women are obliged. period” or the minds and culture of its members won’t.  (Did I just use the words Conservative Halacha and unequivocal in the same sentence? hmmm).

and 2) “I am a part of a movement in which the overwhelming majority of affiliated congregations are egalitarian.” Really if the movement is to stand behind the issue than that number should be 100%. If women are obliged to perform mitzvot and your congregation  does’t let them, than that should be seen as outside the pale– and those congregations should be treated like those who perform intermarriages- unaccepted. If egalitarianism is right morally and halchickly then non-egalitarianism is wrong morally and halchickly. It is not a quaint custom, it is just wrong.

 I wrote to Rabbi Olinsky to ask him about these issues:

“Do you think the movement is brave enough to do that? I ask on behalf of my 13 year old daughter who is one of the few in her class to wear tfillin (or the only).”

And to my surprise he answered me! And even more to my surprise he basically agreed  with me on un-egalitarian congregations and on halckic obligation. He told me that Rabbi Pamela Barmash, who sits on the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is currently writing a teshuvah,  that focuses exactly on this idea of equal and expected obligation.

If  only the Conservative movement would listen to people like Rabbi Olinsly and Rabbi Barmash it might save itself. But given past movement on  issues like these I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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Day school tuition: A heartfelt plea and hope via income caps.

It pains me to read yet an another article on how hard it is for middle class parents (and I mean even “upper-middle class”, meaning often people who are in the top 15% of the income scale nationally)  to pay for day school and how their huge financial sacrifice is not honoured the way wealthy people would be if they gave that high a percentage of their income to day schools.

In Living in Fear of a Jewish Education Ami Goldman writes:

We only travel to visit family and don’t have any other vacations. We’ve cancelled our magazine subscriptions one by one. With family help, we managed to buy a house because the mortgage payments are cheaper than rent. I can do most repairs myself, but for the moment we’re living with drafty windows and some broken plumbing because we can’t afford the parts. When we did have a big, unexpected repair that needed to be done immediately, it wiped out our emergency fund. But we keep making our day school payments.

We don’t got to the movies. We don’t go out to dinner. We try to live as simply as we can. But there never seems to be enough. And when our child needed a medical therapy, we put it on hold because we can’t afford it. In a few years when they will need braces, I have no idea how we are going to come up with the money. But we keep making the day school payments.

You can add this to the list I mentioned earlier in Day School Funding if Done According to Jewish Tradition:

In response to these articles and to schools in financial crisis and to schools closing due to lack of students, some  day schools are experimenting with a  15 percent of the family’s adjusted gross income (AGI) cap, (which has half of my fairshare proposal, but not the part where everyone pays a certain percentage of their income, even if it is more than tuition, which would make things more sustainable). See How Can Jewish Day Schools Effectively Make Their Schools Affordable for The New Middle Class? and  Putting A Cap On Day School Tuitions. The program is more financially sustainable than one might think at first pass, because a lot of families who would not send their kids at all, come when they have that reassurance.

A lot of angst and suffering would be avoided if all day schools followed suit.

It is encouraging to see PEJE finally acknowledge the “bar-bell effect” in a recent article (How Can Jewish Day Schools Effectively Make Their Schools Affordable for The New Middle Class?). The “bar bell effect” refers to students from higher-income and lower-income families disproportionately represented among the student body, with a very few students in the middle income brackets. The authors  talk about why this structure is financially unhealthy for a school. The next step would be to talk about why it is socially and spiritually unhealthy for a school.

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