There was a whiff of revolution in the air in north London on Sunday when a group of women and men gathered to challenge the Orthodox establishment.
“Today, we are witnessing a decentralisation of Jewish halachic authority,” announced Professor Tamar Ross, of Bar Ilan University.
She was speaking at the inaugural UK conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (Jofa), an American organisation aiming to increase women’s role in Orthodox religious practice.
Around 120 people had been expected to attend but more than 200 turned up. They heard Professor Ross declare that women wielded considerable influence over religious authorities, perhaps more than they realised.
“The power of the rabbis depends very much on women,” she said. “The fact that women are asking questions that have never been asked before forces poskim [rulers on Jewish law] to think in new directions.”
Joining Professor Ross in a panel discussion was the conference’s special guest, Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber, a distinguished talmudic scholar. He agreed that many leaders of the Orthodox community made it difficult for women to be involved in Jewish life, and claimed that their arguments for doing so were “political and not halachic”.
Orthodox Judaism should embrace feminism, Professor Ross argued, and then both sides would benefit.
“It is not only about keeping women within Orthodoxy but also the positive contribution that women can make.”
Her view was supported by Dr Elana Sztokman, Jofa’s executive director. Granting women a greater role in Judaism was “about justice and compassion, about right and wrong”, she said.
A wide range of issues was raised as the day continued — women’s participation in prayer; the difficulties in obtaining a get; the role of Orthodox women in the Jewish community beyond the home; the disengagement of the younger generation from Judaism — all got an airing.
Jofa UK founder Dina Brawer commented: “Good ideas are difficult to hold back and great ideas eventually spread like wildfire. This is what is happening in Orthodox Judaism today.”
Rabbi Sperber — who said he was a “halachist” more than a feminist — described how Jewish law and feminism could relate to each other, like the roots of a tree and its ever-changing branches.
“The fact that something wasn’t practised for numerous generations does not mean we shouldn’t permit it,” he said.
“It is absolutely necessary to develop halachic facilities which will answer the challenges of today.”
Earlier in the day, Dr Miri Freud-Kandel, a lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, had participated in a controversial partnership minyan, with both women and men leading the service — possibly the first of its kind in the UK.
It was, she said, “so full that some people were turned away.
“The way people came out — men and women — shows a real thirst for engagement, a thirst for learning. This is not about breaking boundaries; it is not about trying to push down halachic barriers, it is not about creating controversies — it is to allow women an opportunity to engage in their Judaism.”
Would the minyan be repeated, she was asked.
“That’s the million-dollar question. The next Rosh Chodesh [new moon, when the Sefer Torah is read] on a Sunday is in November, so I think we will definitely be planning another one for then.”