What women need to stay Orthodox

By Dina Brawer, April 4, 2014
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On Sunday morning the Chief Rabbi was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 by Ed Stourton. During the interview Ed put my following question to Rabbi Mirvis, which I had submitted.

"What would you say to convince a Jewish woman who feels unwelcome and irrelevant in her Orthodox Jewish community that she should stick with Orthodoxy?"

The Chief Rabbi's answer was threefold: he authorised women to become trustees of the United Synagogue, he is a patron of JWA (Jewish Women's Aid, a charity for domestic abuse) and he believes in the importance of Jewish education for women as well as men.

My question was not hypothetical. It is one I hear frequently from bright, talented young women who feel marginalised within the Orthodox United Synagogue. It deserves a thoughtful, sensitive and creative answer. The Chief Rabbi's response contained none of these elements.

While he is to be commended for pushing through a long overdo change in the United Synagogue that allows for women to be elected as trustees, the fact is this impacts only a tiny minority of women who wish to serve in that capacity.

It is wonderful that he is patron of JWA but I fail to see how that has anything to do with the question put to him.

Finally, education is important but what does this education look like?

Creating basic adult education opportunities for men and women, something the Chief Rabbi spoke about at his inauguration, is neither novel nor sufficient. In the United States and Israel there are serious programmes in place training a new generation of female halachic and Talmudic scholars who in turn serve as role models for other women and shape Jewish communal and intellectual life. Why are such programmes not available in the UK?

The answer to the question "why remain Orthodox?" begins with an appreciation of the polarity between tradition and innovation.

Charedi Judaism has a strong bias for tradition while the progressive movements favour innovation. A contemporary Orthodoxy ought to seek to leverage the tension between these two poles by maintaining the continuity, stability and accumulated wisdom of tradition while at the same time remaining relevant and compelling by adapting to new realities and innovating.

The issue of women in Orthodoxy sits right at this intersection. Sceptical Orthodox women will remain within Orthodoxy if they can be convinced that this tension can be balanced adequately; something which is not happening at the moment.

Here is a list of innovations that might go some way towards redressing this balance.

Include one's mother’s name in addition to the father’s name when being called up to the Torah:

Insert the names of the Imahot (the Matriarchs) in the communal MiSheberach prayers;

Have the Torah carried through the women’s section by a woman;

Have the prayer leader recite ‘shelo asani Isha’ (thank God for not making me a woman) silently;

Invite women to dance with the Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah;

Invite Batmitzvah girls or women to recite Kiddush for the congregation;

Encourage women to recite the mourner’s Kaddish and answer amen when they do;

Invite women to say Birkat Hagomel publicly;

Cultivate female leadership as an integral part of a synagogue's religious leadership team;

Develop a high level women's programme on a par with yoatzot and toanot in the USA and Israel and create appropriate positions for them within the UK community;

Find ways of including women by using the synagogue space more equitably;

Encourage prayer leaders to wait for women to finish the amida before beginning the repetition;

Invite women to join prayers at a bris, wedding or shiva home by providing space and books.

Each of these suggestions can sit comfortably within halacha while at the same time embracing the changed reality of greater gender equality in society.

With the gap between women's secular achievement and the role in their Jewish spiritual space widening, Orthodoxy is at a critical turning point. It is in danger of alienating at least 50 per cent of its membership which is something it can ill afford if it hopes to have a vibrant future.

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (Jofa) is committed to a vibrant future for Orthodoxy which is why it raises awareness of the marginalisation of women in Orthodoxy and also puts forward creative and inspiring solutions. We invite the Chief Rabbi to work with us in exploring and implementing these solutions.

Dina Brawer is Jofa UK ambassador

Last updated: 1:18pm, April 4 2014