The more than 1,000 attendees at this year’s Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference could hardly ignore the ways women’s ritual and leadership roles have evolved since an inaugural conference on such issues was held in 1997.
That conference, which I attended as a graduate student in journalism, touched on the desire of Orthodox women to expand their ritual and spiritual roles while still maintaining complete adherence to Halacha, Jewish law.
It also raised consciousness of basic issues of human dignity, particularly of agunot, “chained” women whose estranged husbands refuse to give them a get, or writ of divorce.
While the aguna issue — on which only limited progress has been made — remained high on this year’s agenda, the March 14 conference in New York City was an opportunity to acknowledge the unmistakable expansion of women’s leadership roles in Orthodoxy. More than one speaker asserted that women can essentially function as rabbis within the boundaries of Halacha.
The most exciting development — and one of the most controversial in the Orthodox world — was the conferring of the title “Rabba” on Jewish scholar Sara Hurwitz by Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, which trains women to be halachic and spiritual leaders based on an Orthodox model of ordination.
Only days before the conference, Weiss reached an agreement with the Rabbinical Council of America, the Modern Orthodox group of which he is a member, saying he would not ordain women as rabbis nor confer the “rabba” title on anyone else.
At the same time, the RCA said in a statement that it “reaffirms its commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of appropriate leadership roles within the Jewish community.” (Weiss was not at the conference due to a family simha in Israel.)
Hurwitz, who spoke during the opening plenary along with three other Orthodox women scholars, acknowledged that the preceding few weeks had been difficult. She noted that much of the criticism “for why women cannot be rabbis” is based on solely social conventions, not Halacha.
She said that the critics can only say “it is not traditional” or that “the community is not ready” for such leaders — a response that clearly frustrates her. Still, she said, she is proud of her title and that taking on the “rabba” role “has been a gift.”
And at Yeshivat Maharat — the name is an acronym for manhiga hilhatit, ruhanit, toranit, or leadership law, spirituality, and Torah — four women are currently enrolled in the program and will attain the title “Maharat” upon completion. One step forward, two steps back, perhaps, but the end goal — achieving leadership roles for scholarly Jewish women — has not changed.
Despite the vast advances for religious women in the world of Jewish text study and in other areas, obstacles still remain for the average college- or day school-educated Orthodox woman. Too many Orthodox shuls maintain high mehitzot, or barriers, or women are relegated to the back of the sanctuary or up on a balcony. At my own shul in Bergen County, women do not even dance (with or without a Torah scroll) on Simhat Torah due to the lack of a designated space for them.
Until these basic spiritual entitlements become more widely accepted, Orthodox feminists won’t consider their task completed.