Orthodox feminism must know its limits

Partnership minyans — where women can read the Sefer Torah — are a step too far


JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is an organisation that was set up in order to encourage Orthodox women to be able to find more expression within the realm of Orthodoxy and traditional Judaism.

Whereas once we lived in a world where women were treated as second- class, both in the workplace as well as mainstream society, today that glass ceiling has been broken. And while that is a positive result, some will argue that traditional Judaism also treats women as second- class, and that once we have made inroads in other spheres, we should revolutionise the religious stance on women as well.

The first thing that has to be made abundantly clear is that Judaism never treated women as second-class. That men and women sit separately in synagogue is in order to preserve modesty in a place of prayer.

That men “can” put on a prayer shawl or wear a yarmulke while women “can’t,” is a misconception. It is more the case that men are obligated to do so, along with many other laws and rituals. The reasons are well documented as having to do with nurturing the spiritual dynamic of men, which is innate to women. These are not rabbinic apologetics; rather they were recorded long before feminism was even a concept.

Still, it is understandable, in a world where women are finding more expression, that they seek the same within the religious sphere and to that end many rabbis have sought opportunities within Jewish law.
The problem comes where some make the leap in the assumption that “if we could do this, then we could do that as well”. The question then arises: are they coming from a place of genuine spiritual yearning or from a feminist desire for equality that “if men can do it, we can do it too”.

Those who look to satisfy a soul craving, will adhere to what rabbis tell them is permissible in Jewish law and act on it graciously. But those who push the boundaries and look for some rabbi somewhere that would give them the nod to perhaps even step over the boundaries, are, without doubt, coming with ulterior motif.

“Partnership services” are a case in point. One would be hard-pressed to find an Orthodox rabbi somewhere that accepts such practice, even among the presumed more lenient ranks of modern Orthodoxy. In America, it is assumed that JOFA are, if not instigators of such a service, certainly strong supporters.

JOFA has just launched in the UK and partnership services seem to have come out of the closet. That one occurred on the same day as its first UK conference may be a coincidence, but partnership services will find no support within mainstream Orthodoxy in the UK. JOFA must be sure to stay true to normative halachah if its want to galvanise support.

When women insist that they want equality in the world, I get it. Quite right too! When they insist they want equality in religious practice, they’re not getting it.

When someone came to me at a dinner several weeks ago in London and said, “Rabbi, what would you say to a woman who’s gone to the same Jewish school as her male peers, she’s got the same education, learnt the same texts and now she wants a call-up in synagogue and is denied having one, why shouldn’t she turn her back on Orthodoxy?”, this was my answer: “I appreciate that she wants spiritual expression. But if the call-up is the be-all-and-end-all of what defines her Judaism and how she feels she can express that, such that she’ll either commit or reject on the back of it, then not only does she not appreciate her unique role within the Jewish faith, but she misses the point as to what Jewish practice is altogether.”

Jewish practice is not about what can God do for me. It’s always, and only, about what can I do for God. And it is God and Jewish law which determines that.

The inroads being made for the benefit of Jewish women must be premised on solid ground, lest some might get the wrong impression and look to trek down other avenues as well. Like the young batmitzvah girl in a London Orthodox synagogue many years ago, who after reading a section of her Torah portion in a private women’s service, was reported in the Jewish media to have said: “I only wish my Dad could have been here. I will make sure one day my daughter will have both her parents present.”

That misses the point and, whatever the initial basis on which that service was founded, it was certainly lost on the young lady.

The ultimate Jewish mission is to redeem this world and a change in the image of the Jewish woman is one of the hallmarks of redemption in keeping with the words of the prophet: “There will yet be heard in the cities of Judah and the outskirts of Jerusalem… the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.”

Every Jewish woman needs to find her voice —the feminine voice, the voice of dignity — in order to play her pivotal role in bringing about the redemption of our world. But that voice must emanate from the true depths of her soul and not the equality-seeking desires of her heart.

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