Jewfem Blog

Because shaming or humiliating women is still okay....

I have been getting so many notes from women, from across the Jewish world, about my decision to become a Reform rabbi. Even though I know that this is really hard for Orthodox feminists, who are constantly trying to prove that they are Orthodox and not Reform, I have also been receiving a lot of camraderie along with mourning. The note that I am sharing here is in that category, too. But I have decided to share it because this story she writes about humiliating women happened YESTERDAY. In 2017. It is still okay to literally ask women to leave, to roll over, to abandon her own needs and spiritual practices, because men come first. We need to air these stories. "Hi Elana. Mazal tov on your choice, I truly wanted to reach out and tell you this story, because I finally understand your choice. When you first announced it, I admit that I was sad. I wasn't disappointed in you, I totally supported you doing what worked best for you. I just felt my heart break that this would be used against Orthodox feminists, who would say 'See? A little feminism and you leave the Torah' and tighten restrictions more. But then my friend, an Orthodox Jewish woman with kids, was humiliated today, with her husband being told to ask her to leave [the sukkah] (my friend was sitting right there, but no one spoke to her) because women and children do not have a 'chiyyuv' [obligation] and men who have that chiyyuv might need the seats. Even though there were other empty seats, it was offensive my friend was taking up seats that in the minds of some rightfully 'belonged' to men, men who weren’t in the restaurant or who might not even exist." And it hit me. It finally hit me why you left. It's because intelligent men who learn plenty blatt Gemara [page of talmud] can decide my friend and her beautiful children are not really people, and don't deserve basic courtesy. They're just...appendages to be stored away at the convenience of men who aren't even there. My friend's Judaism isn't as vital as a potential male's Judaism, she should be considering men and making herself smaller so she doesn't take up room. In what world is 'Reform' more problematic than advocating women be so invisible that they sacrifice for potential men? The cudgel is there, no matter what we do. Those advocating the silencing of women will silence even modestly dressed Orthodox women for eating in public. You're just saying 'I won't take it anymore.' Good for you." When i say "compassion first", this is what I mean. A world in which it is considered "okay" to humiliate women because of how a particular man reads halakha, that is not a world built on compassion. It is not a world that is built in the Divine image. And it is not Torah.   

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News or cautionary tale? When an Orthodox feminist becomes a Reform rabbi

My decision to become a reform rabbi is apparently newsworthy. It was reported in a whole bunch of Jewish papers -- Forward, Times of Israel, JTA, Ejewishphilanthropy, and a few others. Most of these articles covered the story from the angle of Orthodox feminism to Reform, as in the Forward headline, "Former Orthodox Feminist Leader Now Studying To Be Reform Rabbi". It sounds like I'm a former KGB agent defecting. Like a vegan suddenly becoming a spokesperson for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Like a Mac user buying a PC. Shocking! This has a lot to do with the way Reform is presented in Orthodoxy. It is that enemy thing. Indeed, one Orthdoox woman who is trying to arrange a Simchat Torah celebration for women in her synagogue told me that her rabbi opposes women even holding the Torah because if women start doing that, they will become Reform. I said, I feel like I've become the cautionary tale. First women want to be part of the synagogue ritual, and then what? OMG they may decide to become a RABBI!  Of course it isn't that way. Putting aside for a moment the gender double standard -- that is, men who want to be more engaged are celebrated while women are feared -- this whole attitude to the movements is misguided at best. For one thing, the way that Reform is presented in Orthodox discourse is wrong. Reform isn't the enemy of Judaism, or even the enemy of halakha. Reform is, as I keep saying, the big tent. It is also the movement that places compassion first. Neither of these negates Torah. They are completely legitimate and beautiful ways to interpret Torah.  Moreover, if an Orthodox woman is disillusioned by her religious practice and is already marginalized and slipping away from communal life, then I would say it is much better for her to decide to take an active role in Reform Judaism than to walk away entirely. This decision is my way to step inside the community -- deep inside, as it were, completely enmeshed -- rather than, say, become Buddhist, or just a completely disconnected Jew.  Miriam Shaviv, in a pained and honest response to my news, wrote about her own feelings of being disengaged from her community. In her oped in The Jewish Chronicle, she wrote that reading my news felt like ,"watching a caged bird fly the coop." She added that "part of me was jealous",  because after 20 years of fightihng for a greater role for women in synagogue, she feels "the same tiredness" that I expressed. She wrote: "When even the smallest issue is an ongoing, uphill battle, it wears you down.Every time a rabbi tells you, 'Yes, it’s halachically allowed, but no, it’s 10 years too early'… Every time you hear, 'Yes, it’s halachically allowed, but my Board won’t let me'… Every time you arrive at shul to discover that the women’s section isn’t open… Every time a shul Board member makes a misogynistic comment… Every time the...

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So.... I'm becoming a Rabbi..... a Reform Rabbi

So this week I did something really new. I began my journey to become a Reform rabbi. For the next four years I will be studying at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. And I am positively ecsatic.  You probably have questions. The most common question I've received so far is, why Reform and not Conservative? There are several ways I can answer this question. My primary answer is that the Reform movement is the only place where I think a woman can truly be free to be a whole person. And as a woman, I place that high on my list of priorities! There are all kinds of people serving as Reform rabbis -- with all kinds of identities, cultural backgrounds, and practices. During my first conversations about taking this path with Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, a beautiful rabbi who actively combines compassion and scholarship, Rabbi Lisitsa described HUC as the ultimate "big tent", the only place in Judaism where everyone truly can belong. She also showed me how  many Reform rabbis keep Jewish practice with no visible distinction to Orthodox Jews. They keep Shabbat, kashruth, and ritual immersion practices and engage with Jewish law. One of my most esteemed mentors, Rabbi Professor Rachel Adler, is a brilliant scholar whose commitment to halakha is unquestioned, and deeply compelling. Everyone has a place, and that is a powerful vision. This is a place where nobody is judging your practice. It is where you are fully embraced for being who you are. That is so refreshing, so new, and so healing for me.  The other question that I get is about abandoning Orthodoxy. Most of my Orthodox feminist friends have been loving and accepting, and I keep hearing from them that it is clear that this is exactly where I belong. That has been a beautifully validating experience. I feel like I have been fighting for a long time to find or create a suitable spiritual home. And it seems clear that this is it. Still, other people have been  less generous. One Orthodox friend told me that this will delegitimize me. Yes, of course it will, in the eyes of certain Orthodox self-assigned gate-keepers. I have been called "Reform" for much of my adult life, in a way that uses the word as a slur. Orthodox feminists in general are called "Reform" as a way to delegitimize them all the time. Most of the time, the response is, "I am not!" But now, my response is, "I take that as a compliment!" To be Reform means to place human compassion before all else, to understand that we must be human beings before we are Jews. I am so excited about  the idea of really living that way, and being surrounded by people who also live that way. And rather than internalize the notion of delegitimizing the other, we should figure out ways to truly see one another, to understand what is the ethical force driving each other. Rather than internalizing the hate, we...

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Responses to the responses on becoming a Reform rabbi

  In the day (!!)since I announced that I am studying to become a Reform rabbi, responses have been overwhelming. I’ve been chatting with people around the world, each with their own story about connection, community, spirituality, and Judaism. The vast majority of those responses have been resoundingly supportive. And this is not only from Reform friends. Many of my Orthodox friends have been incredibly understanding and even sharing in the excitement. Despite all the predictable naysaying Orthodox gatekeepers who have been doing their thing (some you can see in the comments on my previous post, or on my FB page; I left them in because it is important to know what kind of discourse is out there, what we’re all up against), despite all that, I have been receiving an incredible amount of support, even from places where I thought the reaction would be harsher. I am so relieved about that. My biggest worry was that Orthodox feminist activists would see me as the one who jumped ship, and leave it at that. But for the most part, I’ve been getting a lot of love, and that makes me really happy. I see us all as fighting the same fights but from different corners. On the other hand, some Conservative, (Masorti) and Reconstructionist friends are a bit upset that I passed over their denominations. Especially stinging was the fact that I wrote that I felt Reform is the “only place” where women can be truly free. If there is one word that I regret in my original post, it is that word “only”. I would like to change that to say the “best”, or “one of the best”, instead of the “only”. I will not change the post now because that would be intellectually dishonest. But I do think that I was wrong to write it that way. I have some wonderful mentors and friends around the Jewish world. Professor Alice Shalvi, for example, who became Conservative after decades of work as an Orthodox feminist, is someone I consider an incredible role model. I think I came off too dismissive of the work of feminists in other denominations, and I’m very sorry about that. I would like to emphasize how much I consider feminist activists across denominations to be allies.  This is where the work is. I’m not here to trounce on hard-working women trying to change the world. I want to work together. That is the vision. I’m sorry that I didn’t do a better job of emphasizing that in my original post.

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How Sukkot and Simhat Torah Are Evolving Into Feminist Holidays

By Allison Kaplan Sommer, in Haaretz: "Historically, notes feminist scholar and former JOFA executive director Dr. Elana Sztokman, Simhat Torah, together with Purim were the two holidays that the early women’s tefilla movement in the 1990’s latched onto because these were considered exceptional times of the year, and it was easier to convince women that it would be acceptable to read from the Megilla and the Torah. Simhat Torah became the most influential of the two, she says, because “I think that reading from the Torah has been the most impassioned area of empowerment for Orthodox women.” Sztokman’s major step on her personal feminist journey took place the first time she read from the Torah on Simhat Torah. “It was an entry drug, those Torah readings ... My father was a Torah reader and a chazan, so for me, reading from the Torah was the pinnacle of participation. Once you learn to read Torah, you never look at the text the same way again … Reading from the Torah gives you a real connection. It altered everything for me - it changed my relationship to being Jewish - you are standing at the center, you own the tradition and the heritage. You can’t go back.”  Read more: http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/routine-emergencies/.premium-1.677715

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Orthodox women aren’t just talking about a revolution, they’re driving one

There was a sense of subdued determination among the 450 people swarming the halls of the Wohl Conference Center at Bar Ilan University during this year’s Kolech conference. Some of the attendees had been coming to Kolech conferences for years, while others had not been born when Kolech, Israel’s premiere religious feminist organization, was established in 1998. Still other Orthodox feminists told The Times of Israel they did not attend the July 13 event because it was no longer necessary for them to be there. However, judging by the range of topics covered, the unapologetic perseverance driving Orthodox feminism today leaves no stone unturned and no stained-glass ceiling unshattered. The lives of Orthodox Jewish women have changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time. Just six years ago, no Orthodox women had received rabbinic ordination, only a handful of “partnership minyanim” (Orthodox synagogues that promote women’s inclusion) existed in Israel, sexual abuse was still largely swept under the rug, and Jewish lesbians were still a small and mostly unseen community. In fact, at the 2009 conference, participants were surveyed about what title they would theoretically give a woman rabbi – rabbanit, rabba, and “important woman” were all on the list. The title of “maharat” had not yet been invented: Back then, it was all still hypothetical. READ the rest at Times of Israel

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Orthodox feminism: Where to from here

 The following is a synopsis of the talk I gave yesterday at Limmud Modi’in titled, “Orthodox Feminist Narratives": Orthodox women have complicated lives – beautiful and enriching, certainly, but also very complicated. To be sure, there is a lot of beauty in being an Orthodox woman. You are encouraged to have a rich family and community life, to create relationships that are busy and sincere. You are often part of a larger synagogue or communal system that provides meaningful routine and structure. Indeed, your life is a constant search for meaning and genuine religious expression. Your week is punctuated by Shabbat, which ideally involves festive ritual gatherings, singing, prayer, joyful relaxation, and elaborate meals with friends and strangers. Your lifecycle events are swathed in ceremony that links you to ancient heritage and hopefully to God. When you give birth, you get lots of food. When you sit shiva, you get lots of food. You never have to be alone if you try hard enough, and at key moments, you are unlikely to ever be hungry. You are busy and loved and adored, as people sing your praises every Friday night and at every bar mitzvah. You are thanked excessively for keeping the home. You are adored for your inner beauty – sheker ha-chen v’hevel hayofi (loveliness is a lie and beauty is hollow) – revered for your kindness and supported in your efforts to be good to all. This beauty, however, has a flipside. In exchange for all that internal beauty, women are indeed expected to keep that beauty to themselves. Covering up is key – covering your body, covering your hair, covering your voice, covering your passions, covering your difficult feelings, covering your aspirations. You may have the desire to lead – to lead services, to lead synagogue, to lead the seder – but you have few if any approved outlets for that desire. You may desire to express yourself in singing, dancing, or writing a commentary on the Talmud, but you have to be careful and search hard to find outlets for those desires, if they exist at all. You may want to be a professional swimmer, gymnast or figure-skater, but those are not options for religious women. You may deeply desire to be a communal and spiritual leader, the rabbi of your shul, but that is a really challenging career path for orthodox women. At home, life is likely even more complicated. Sure, you had a Jewish education and know lots of great things, but when you sit down at the Shabbat table, your husband takes over. He runs the family ritual, he owns all the knowledge, and he is in charge of everything from buying the lulav to blessing the children. Sure, many Orthodox men help today – though it’s still called “helping” – but we know that the onus for cooking, cleaning, and making Shabbat is primarily on you, you may consider it a measure of your worth as a Jewish women, and while you slave...

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Orthodox feminist movements in Israel and the United States: Community struggle versus state struggle

The following is the introduction to a paper I wrote for the Argov Center comparing the Orthodox feminist movements in Israel and the US: The women’s movement arrived at the American Orthodox community long before it arrived among religious women in Israel. Already in the 1970s, American women were gathering for all‐female prayer groups and holding protests outside the homes of agunot (“chained women” – women denied divorce by their recalcitrant husbands), while these issues did not reach Israel until the 1990s. Yet, when feminist consciousness finally reached religious Israeli women, the issues were no less burning, although often in a different order of priorities – or different altogether – than those in the Diaspora. Issues of women’s study and scholarship were more central in Israel than women’s prayer groups, which never fully took off in Israel. Women in Israel also contended with new issues, such as whether religious girls should aspire go to the army or national service, or whether the school system should teach girls gemara or the more watered down “toshba” (“oral law”). Even issues of clear overlap between American and Israeli activists, such as the agunah issue, have found expression in different ways, highlighting the fascinating differences between struggle against Jewish communal authority in the Diaspora versus the struggle against Jewish state authority in Israel. Meanwhile, although agunot in Israel are trapped in some frightening ways due to the state‐rabbinic monopoly on personal status issues in Israel, they also have more tools in their arsenal, such as lobbying, legislation, and the prison system. Today, there is more overlap between the two groups than ever before, with very similar overall agendas. There are also some indications that Israeli religious feminists are headed towards more radical positions on some issues than their American counterparts. The issue of women and the rabbinate actually started in Israel, and developed without much incident, as opposed to the “rabba” drama that ensued later in New York. Also interesting are the recent calls for civil marriage in Israel coming from agunah activists, in alliance with non‐Orthodox groups, which have set the  groundwork for a struggle that has broad impact on all of Israel. Similarly, the recent struggle against the exclusion of women in public spaces in Israel has drawn many Orthodox women into a fight that (perhaps unbeknownst to some of them) is headed towards calling for separation of religion and state, a struggle that can have far‐reaching consequences for Israeli society and the Jewish people at large. An examination of these two movements provides a fascinating glimpse into the dynamics of change within a traditional society, and the struggles faced by women raising feminist consciousness in a patriarchal culture that they call their own. It is also an important story about the Israeli‐Diaspora relationship, about the synergy, overlap and tensions between two vital centers of the Jewish people, in which the issues are similar and in dialogue with one another, but challenges and solutions sometimes find expressions in distinct ways. READ THE ENTIRE...

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"I'm FED UP!" New FB group for Orthodox feminists has taken off

frum ryan gosling
im also fed up

The new FB group I started in March called "I'm fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy", also called "A home for Orthodox feminist and friends", has quickly taken off, with over 750 members and a constant buzz of activity. Yesterday's hot topic, for example, was a discussion of the Ryan Gosling pic you see here, a critucal satire of women in Parnership Minyan, part of the "frum Ryan Gosling" Tumblr. (The pic was created by Danya Lagos who joined the heated debate on the FB page!). The group has women and men of all ages from around the world, and not just Orthodox Jews either. Interestingly, there have been several posts from people who began with, "I'm not Orthodox so I'm not sure if I'm in the right group...." but all members have been welcome to share their stories, experiences and insights. The group is intended to be a place where people can safely express their own feelings and perspectives on women in Judaism. This has clearly met an important need given the rapid growth of the group. We had an intense debate last week about the title of the group, with some people saying that "I'm fed up" is too "angry", and that the group risks being just a kvetch-fest. The debate also included the question whether to make the group open or closed, since an open group risks becoming fodder for attack ("unsafe"), while a closed group has that risk of becoming an echo chamber. After lots of weighing in, we decided to keep the name because we really do need a place where we know it's okay to be angry or frustrated without being immediately told that we have to be perky, and to keep it open so that whoever needs to find us will. At the same time, we created a way to post anonymously as "plonit almonit" for particularly delicate postings. And we wrote very clear guidelines for discourse to ensure that nobody feels attacked or shamed or unwelcomed. That is a very challenging task on FB, since we all know how quickly passions can rise and tempers can flame. But it's really, really important to maintain this group as a safe-space for sharing. And by the way, the group is not "just for kvetching", although I don't want to minimize the value of sharing. There is a lot of support, empathizing, and analysis as well. Another interesting discussion currently going on is about "Why I'm still Orthodox". Jacqueline Nicholls, Leah Sarna and I all recently wrote blogs on this subject (unbeknowst to one another!), and so it seems to me like this is something that the people of the group grapple with as well. The group can help people figure out how to answer that question for themselves. The group is partially inspired by the success of the Hebrew group, "Ani feministit datiya..."("I"m a religious feminist and I also have no sense of humor), which has become a really important place for...

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Why don't Orthodox feminists simply join the Conservative movement?

There is a rumor going around that Orthodox feminists are just Conservative Jews in disguise, or perhaps in denial.I’ve heard this idea in many settings. I was at a dinner last year honoring Jewish feminists when a woman at my table — a Conservative rabbi and prolific writer whom I greatly admire — reproached me. “Why do all you Orthodox feminists think that what you’re doing is so amazing?” she demanded. “The women in the Conservative movement have been fighting these battles for 40 years. You are just barely catching up.” Last month, my dear friend Hillary Gordon echoed similar sentiments in a blog post she wrote about my recent book event in Jerusalem. “Why can’t the Orthodox recognize that other women have come before them and fought the same fight?” she asks. “Why is it that because it was done by Conservative or Reform Jewish women it is not legitimate according to the Orthodox?” Almost the exact same line appeared a couple of weeks ago in the comment section of Frimet Goldberger’s blog post about Orthodox feminists. Frimet dared to write that Conservative Judaism is not an option for her, to which a commenter replied, “Do I detect some judgementalism in those words?? ….Is there a suggestion here that the Conservative observance of Shabbat is less ‘full’ or somewhat deficient from the more authentic Orthodox one??”Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/#story-1#ixzz2tkoqSCyl

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