Don’t push our dutiful daughters

It feels silly, on the Jubilee weekend, to be discussing women's roles in Orthodox Judaism. This country and its church have been headed by a woman for 60 years, and the public seems perfectly pleased. Yet here we are, still debating whether a woman can be president of her shul. It's ridiculous.

But debate it we do. I have had numerous discussions of late about the place of women in the religious sphere. Rabbis have told me that the "woman question" will be one of the big challenges faced by the next chief rabbi. (Just as was said in 1991…)

Members of my own congregation, which is searching for a new rabbi, are concerned about the role his wife will take on, as well as the candidates' attitudes to women's megillah reading and Simchat Torah dancing - two recent innovations.

Meanwhile, I listened to a group of high-powered women worry about the lack of opportunities for their daughters in youth minyanim. At what stage, they wondered, would their girls start to resent their exclusion, and walk away? In most cases, the answer is probably: "Not any time soon".

Although there is considerable angst about women's roles, it seems to me to be mostly in my generation (those in their mid-30s) and upwards. I know very few Orthodox teenagers who are exercised about Jewish feminist issues the way that my friends and I were 20 years ago.

Women's prayer groups have gone out of fashion, and those that survive often have difficulty in recruiting young members. The shul presidency issue, which has become a symbol of the barriers in the United Synagogue, is of no interest to women in their 20s who are years away from holding such a position, should they ever actually be allowed to.

In America, where a similar process has been observed, commentators have suggested that young Jewish women no longer feel oppressed, thanks to their mothers' efforts, and do not want to fight further. In addition, the Orthodox shift to the right has brought a greater emphasis on conformity.

I would add that this generational gap reflects what is going on in general society, where "feminist" has become a dirty word. In Orthodox circles, of course, it always has been.

In the UK, meanwhile, the United Synagogue has a Charedi beth din and many Charedi rabbis. Perhaps as a result, in shuls in which most members do not even keep Shabbat, women are confined to far more restricting roles than in serious modern Orthodox shuls in America, where even female members of the clergy team are not unknown, although without the title "rabbi'.

So, can men now safely ignore "women's issues"? Hardly. Women over the age of 30 still have valid religious needs that must be addressed. The minority of younger women in the community who do want more are often engaged and learned. Not only can we not afford to lose them, we have no right to stunt their spiritual development, within the bounds of halachah.

Orthodox feminism is itself very young, and how it applies to our lives is the work of several generations. There will be twists along the way, but the general direction - towards greater women's participation in ritual and synagogue - is clear.

Young women today may, on the whole, be satisfied with their roles, but neglect them too much, or push too hard in the conservative direction, and a backlash is certain. They are too accomplished in their professional lives, and too equal in the home, for it to be otherwise.

Meanwhile, the challenge for feminists is to accept that our daughters may not follow us in this particular path. Their Jewish needs may be very different and, to us, unsatisfying. But that is our problem, not theirs.

    Last updated: 5:05pm, June 6 2012