In the wider world, where women have long been breaking barriers and moving into nontraditional roles, Orthodox women are searching for new ways to participate religiously — and more freely — in Jewish observance.
From reading Torah and prayers within women-only worship groups to reciting Kaddish during religious services, women are pushing boundaries while taking care that whatever moves they make do not take them outside Jewish law.
Those innovative roles and practices will be explored at “Traditional Women (Re-) Defining Ritual Boundaries,” an “activists-in-residence” Shabbaton, Friday-Saturday, March 15-16, at Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan.
Three speakers will address “innovative ways women have been contributing to the Jewish community in leadership roles,” said program coordinator Maxine Pilavin. “Our goal is to give the congregation options.”
Sons of Israel describes itself as a traditional synagogue; the congregation follows Orthodox practice in rituals and prayers and is, except for allowing mixed seating, non-egalitarian. A temporary mechitzah, or divider separating men and women, will be in place during the program’s Shabbat services for the comfort of Orthodox guests.
“I think one sign that things are changing is in learning and knowledge,” said Roselyn Bell of Highland Park, a board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and co-editor of its journal, who will speak Shabbat morning.
Dr. Susan Hornstein of Highland Park, a founder, gabbai, Torah reader, and prayer leader of the Women’s Tefillah Group of Raritan Valley (WTG), will speak Shabbat morning and afternoon.
Sara Pilavin, daughter of Maxine and Rabbi Robert Pilavin — religious leader at Sons of Israel — will also address the congregation on Shabbat morning. She is a mikvah guide for ImmerseNYC, a “pluralistic, feminist” organization that promotes innovative use of the ritual immersion bath to mark such milestones as significant birthdays, divorce, pregnancy loss, and bat mitzvah.
Bell said one natural outcome of this generation of women’s having easy access to education and knowledge of Halacha (Jewish law) is their assuming leadership roles in the community.
She cited Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, founded in 2009, which ordains women to serve as Orthodox clergy in synagogues, hospitals, and universities. It has not been free of controversy. Just weeks ago, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Bergen County sanctioned one of its members, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, after he hired a woman training at the yeshiva as an intern. The Rabbinical Council of America — the major association of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States — bans the ordination of female rabbis.
Hornstein has also encountered opposition from the Orthodox rabbinate. Although not all WTG participants are Orthodox, its members initially began meeting in 1990 in Orthodox synagogues, she said, but the Vaad HaRabanim of Raritan Valley — an Orthodox rabbinic organization that provides services to the local Jewish community — opposed WTG holding their gatherings in synagogues (although some individual rabbis have no objection).
The WTG switched to meeting in private homes in the Highland Park area, on Shabbat mornings during the winter and Shabbat afternoons when daylight savings time begins. They also meet monthly on Rosh Chodesh, the marking of the new moon, and for kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday evenings. More spacious facilities are rented for larger gatherings.
“This is an exciting time for us because we meet on Purim morning for a megillah reading by women for women,” said Hornstein. Purim this year is on March 20-21.
“We do not consider ourselves a minyan,” said Hornstein. “We are a group of women davening together. We do not say [prayers] requiring a minyan.”
Bell has been involved for many years with JOFA, which, according to its website, is dedicated to “expanding spiritual, ritual, intellectual, and political opportunities for women by advocating meaningful participation and equality…in family life, synagogues, houses of learning, and Jewish communal organizations” to the full extent allowed by Halacha.
One of the issues both her organization and WTG have had to wrestle with is women saying Kaddish when mourning a loved one.
“Some Orthodox congregations allow women to say Kaddish if a man is saying it with her,” said Bell, because of the prohibition against men hearing a woman’s voice in prayer unless it is together with a man’s voice. Some congregations ask that a woman’s husband or brother say Kaddish on her behalf while others ask that the woman come near the mechitzah while reciting the mourner’s prayer. Both Bell and Hornstein are members of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, which allows a woman to say Kaddish, but only with a man reciting it with her.
Hornstein said because of halachic issues surrounding the recitation of Kaddish, and because WTG is “a supportive and safe group,” women in mourning instead recite Psalm 13 in the group.
While in the not-too-distant past women holding congregational leadership positions were unheard of in the Orthodox community, in recent years it has become common in Modern Orthodox shuls, said Hornstein; she herself serves on Ahavas Achim’s board, has chaired committees, and has taught classes in the synagogue. Some communities have partnership groups in which both men and women read Torah, a practice that is “one step away” — women still are not counted as part of the minyan — “from being egalitarian,” said Hornstein.
Bell said there are other areas where Halacha prevents a woman’s participation, such as serving on a beit din, or Jewish court of law.
She said JOFA has sponsored panels on issues relevant to observant women and has issued in-depth source guides covering laws relating to women in Jewish ritual life, which recently were released by Maggid Books as “Hilkhot Nashim,” a three-volume series.
If you go
What: “Traditional Women (Re-) Defining Ritual Boundaries,” activists-in-residence Shabbaton
Who: Dr. Susan Hornstein, Women’s Tefillah Group of Raritan Valley; Roselyn Bell, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance; and Sara Pilavin,
Where: Congregation Sons of Israel, Manalapan
When: Friday-Saturday, March 15-16
Schedule: Friday services, 6:30 p.m.; dinner, 7:30; Saturday services, 9 a.m., followed by kiddush luncheon and speakers; seudah shlishit, afternoon services, 6:15 p.m., followed by discussion.
Cost: Friday dinner, $15