Moving ahead as Orthodox Jews
By Blu Greenberg
This is an incredible time to be alive as an Orthodox Jewish woman. Present at Sinai, inheritors of a great rabbinic tradition, we are also the first generation in the history of halakhah to reckon with the idea of gender equality To observe the changes wrought in our lifetime in learning, prayer, celebration and ritual is to feel joy, optimism, gratitude. One can hear the new sounds of women and Talmud in the corridors of Drisha and Matan, Yeshiva University's Revel and Nishmat, Midreshet Lindenbaum and Midrasha L’Bnot of Bar Ilan — and the list continues to grow. One can celebrate Simkhat Torah in Jerusalem and feel the spiritual energy of women on a holiday during which we were, for centuries, onlookers. One can hear a 12-year- old layn her parsha with perfect trop or a 70- year-old be called up for her first aliyah at women's tefillah. Even the fact that solutions to the agunah problem have now been placed centrally on the communal agenda gives one hope that broad resolution is close at hand. And to consider that all of this has taken place inside of two short decades — the blink of an eye as Jews count time — evokes an even greater sense of wonderment.
Yet, we cannot afford to be complacent. In many ways we are only at the beginning, for there remains much to be done to bring women up to par in certain areas of halakhah. Until the last agunah is freed, we cannot rest.
But we have another task before us as well. Because things are happening so fast we need to begin to sort things out, to ask questions we thought we could delay into the future. As Orthodox Jewish women, how far can feminism take us? How would we like the picture to look a decade from now, a generation from now? With halakhah as our touchstone, can we speak of end goals rather than processes? A t what pace can changes occur without losing the seamlessness with the past that is Orthodoxy's strength and authenticity? What is the relationship between politics and halakhah, community pressure and halakhah? To the extent that rabbinic Judaism so explicitly defines discrete male and female roles, how do we now define differences between male and female beyond biology, or understand the Divine plan for "male and female created in God's image"?
What are the theoretical models by which we operate? Separate but equal, such as women's tefillah represents? Distinctive but equal? His and her communities? Are these viable long-term options or interim solutions? Is a sense of frustration and second-class status inevitably built into such models or is this the only right and true path for Orthodoxy, distinguishing it from all other movements? I have always believed that distinctive roles can go hand in hand with equality. Yet davening this Yom Kippur in a near-perfect minyan of daveners, there were nevertheless rare moments, unbidden, when a quiet awareness that the center of gravity was on the other side of the mechitzah interrupted the numinous holiness of the tefillah for me.
What is the domino effect of one thing upon another? Can we have women scholars without having women religious leaders, women's tefillah without women's equal obligation? How do we order our priorities, think through long- term consequences, make judgments as to when to accept a trade-off or when to try again in the face of responses that diminish women? And finally, what impact — positive and negative — will all this reinterpretation have on the power of the Commanding Voice?
These are questions, I believe, that must accompany us as Orthodox women along this new journey. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance was formed to create a central address for the advocacy and education of religious women in their new roles, even as they remain firmly rooted in halakhah and tradition. But the Alliance also sees its role in providing a forum for sorting out issues and enabling the reflective process to go forward. Not every woman who strives to knit together feminism and Orthodoxy needs to navigate this process alone. The power of a likeminded community can be as nurturing a resource for working through complex theoretical issues as it can be in matters of a political nature.
In truth, we are not alone in this process. Though it may look otherwise, every position along the spectrum of Orthodoxy is in search of answers to the same question: how to balance the powerful and pervasive new values for women with the responsibility to maintain halakhic continuity Antagonists of Orthodox feminism should be seen not as mean spirited misogynists, but rather as fellow Jews who share in the goal of ensuring yiddishkeit, even as we grapple with the most profound cultural revolution since the onset of modernity. Proof of this lies in the fact that there are new initiatives for women even in those parts of the Orthodox community that find the word "feminism" scary. It behooves us, therefore, to listen to their critique, to argue with it, but not to dismiss it out of hand.
Yet, our critics should be open to our message and our struggle as well. For is not a goal of Orthodox feminism one of building up the tradition, of women entering it more fully, rather than diluting it as we have so often been accused? Surely it must be obvious to all that Orthodox feminists strive to daven more, learn more, observe more, celebrate more.
In enhancing our own spiritual lives and building up yiddishkeit we serve many other functions. We help to stay the disaffection and drift of Jewish women of this generation who experience the fullness of equality in all other spheres of their lives. We bring our tradition to its own best values of enhancing the basic dignity of every human being created in the image of God. We offer a model of how to hold a firm faith side by side with new ethical views.
In doing so, we are also helping Modern Orthodoxy to enter and survive the next millennium. One of its unique tasks is to bridge ancient, eternal values to contemporary society. How Orthodoxy responds to the challenges of feminism will symbolize its very ability to succeed in this task. Thus, rather than see ourselves as supplicants at the door, we should see ourselves — and be seen — as making a historic contribution to our own community and to the whole of the Jewish people as it continues to move forward in time, bridging Revelation to history.
Blu Greenberg is a lecturer and writer, author of On Women and Judaism and president of JOFA.