When walking the halls of the local orthodox synagogue in my hometown of Boca Raton, I can’t actually see the wall; every square inch, at least at eye level, is covered with a collage showcasing work done by congregants. There are several sets of pictures capturing events held with lawmakers and politicians. There is documentation of this year’s Purim carnival. There are framed photographs of celebrated Jewish spiritual leaders. A couple of the displays depict rallies held by congregants, usually a showing of solidarity celebrating these Jews’ connection to Israel.
In between all of these overwhelming spectacles of joy and happiness and celebration, there is a photo of the congregants engaging in a community-wide protest about Jewish divorce law. The men in the photograph have their shirtsleeves rolled up with grimacing mouths, their yarmulkes almost flying off their heads. In an unusual showing of equality for the typically modest orthodox Jews, the women in calf-length skirts with scarves covering their heads are interspersed in the crowd, also indignant as they, too, hope for justice. The egalitarianism in the picture is striking. The women are not the only ones who hold babies, and the action is not left to the men. For a community in which women often remain in the background while men hold leadership roles, this is markedly unique.
Very few issues would elicit such a response from a modern orthodox synagogue. Most questions are resolved by looking to halacha—Jewish law—for the answer. In this case, though, halacha creates the problem. What do the protesters—indeed, the entirety of my hometown synagogue—want? Their signs say: “Give a gett.” A gett is a special document written by a rabbinic council that is necessary for a couple to have a halachic divorce. The concept seems simple enough; when civil divorces occur, all that is required are some signed papers. But for orthodox Jews, who apply halacha to their daily lives, it does not quite work that way. The problem is that only the husband can “give” a gett. This leaves the wife fully submissive to her husband.
An initial response might be to go on with the divorce without the gett; after all, no one can stop a woman from moving out and living alone. She would still receive a civil divorce, and in the eyes of the American legal system, she would be freed from her marriage. But to a woman who believes fully in the power of Jewish law and whose community does so as well, it is not enough to have a judge declare the couple divorced. No, in the orthodox world, a woman whose husband does not grant her a gett is, in a sense, chained to him—she is an agunah (or agunot, if referring to more than one). Agunot, left in a state of limbo, cannot ever remarry. Regardless of the clarity of a wife’s case against her husband as abusive or guilty of a crime, or of the urging of the community’s rabbi for the man to acquiesce, or of the status of the couple’s civil divorce, no one can force a husband to give this gett.
Orthodox Jews join together in protest against this injustice, but mass demonstration is not the only step they take. Within the orthodox community—bound by tradition and law, God and spirituality, prescribed gender roles—a growing feminist movement is taking shape. Organizations such as the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (“JOFA”) in America and its Israeli equivalent, Kolech, are growing. But with the increasing prominence of these organizations comes a crucial question: In a world dominated by religion, in which halacha and the Torah set a limit on the place of women in traditional Judaism, do feminists have a place? The answer is unequivocally yes.
The term “feminism” is fraught with controversy. Every dictionary, political organization, and person has a different definition for the word. These definitions vary in terms of subtleties and nuances, but they ultimately seem to agree on one thing: equality for men and women. If this is the case, what kind of feminism do orthodox women practice if their glass ceiling might be just out of reach due to the bounds of halacha?
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, Executive Director of JOFA, sees feminism as especially important for religious Judaism. The purpose of JOFA, she says, is “to create gender balance and gender equity within the orthodox community.” Weiss-Greenberg argues, “there is a disparity inherent in halacha.” Although there are distinctive roles for men and women, “there is a set of restrictions that have been placed over time on women that don’t have anything to do with halacha.” This is where JOFA steps in: to empower women to discern the difference between what roles are actually unavailable to them according to religious law, and which constraints have been placed on them by religious interpretations over the years.
According to Weiss-Greenberg, JOFA serves two main purposes: to expand the role of women in professional and lay leadership positions, and to expand opportunities for women in orthodox ritual. The plight of agunot and Jewish divorce both factor largely into the work of JOFA. Both Jewish feminists and traditionalists agree on this controversy. Yocheved Goldberg, the wife of a prominent orthodox rabbi in Boca Raton, Florida, works together with her husband to help resolve the problem of the agunah. She disagrees with JOFA’s belief that “women [should be] more in the forefront,” although she does collaborate with them on this issue—because to Goldberg, Jewish divorce is not a feminist issue but an important issue regarding tradition that happens to involve women.
But the tensions between feminism and current interpretations of Judaism extend beyond divorce. Blu Greenberg, referred to as the “founder of orthodox Jewish feminism” by Mark Oppenheimer of the New York Times, sees in her tradition many other issues that must be addressed. Greenberg turned to feminism in the 1970’s after her husband bought her a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, although she did clarify in a conversation with The Politic, “I don’t hold [Judaism and feminism] as equal[…]Judaism is my identity.” But this did not mean that she was content with her religion exactly as it was taught to her. “I thought in terms of justice,” Greenberg says. For her, justice meant “equal value, equal merit, equal dignity” for women.
It seems simple, this idea that women in the orthodox Jewish community and their ideas should be afforded merit, value, and dignity. Goldberg is “very comfortable with the role women play in Judaism,” and she does not view herself as a feminist. But she still recognizes that “we’re all finding our own paths, finding what works for us, and it is not fair to judge.” It seems only natural, then, that women in orthodox Judaism be given respect as they follow their own paths, but criticism may follow if their paths push the boundaries of tradition.
Sarah Hurwitz is one of many women trying to challenge both the gap in female leadership in orthodox Judaism as well as the criticism that often accompanies this goal. Hurwitz was ordained in 2009, meaning she underwent all necessary training and studying to become a rabbi—a title that had never yet been bestowed upon an orthodox woman. First she was given the title “Maharat,” a Hebrew acronym signifying the actions and responsibilities of a rabbi. Later, she was given the title “Rabba,” a feminized version of “Rabbi.” At this point great controversy arose. This title was “a touchy topic to people,” Hurwitz told The Politic. Being called a rabba, although fully compatible with Jewish law, elicited such a strong response because rabbinic positions have only ever been open to men. Hurwitz’s previous title of Maharat hardly caused a stir, so she reports, “there is more and more acceptance for women” once it becomes clear that “they want to serve the Jewish community and do the work of God.” Simply put, the disputes stemmed from the title rather than the essence of the work Hurwitz was doing. If the problem is one of nomenclature, she seems to think, then it can be fixed. Hurwitz, and indeed the whole of JOFA, believe that feminism is not contradictory to orthodoxy.
Of course, there is a broad spectrum of orthodox feminist beliefs. Goldberg, who is skeptical of feminism, points out that there is some variation in the extent to which people want to promote women in leadership: some are moderate, with the goal of putting “women on [synagogue] boards, involved behind the scenes in leadership roles,” and others are staunch in advocating for women “leading prayers, even being rabbis, being presidents of [synagogues].” JOFA does support all of these positions, which would put it at odds with many women within the orthodox world. However, JOFA and essentially the whole of Jewish orthodoxy unite about the aforementioned agunot—the wives who are held in limbo, tripped by unrelenting husbands. But feminists claim it as a women’s issue while others simply call it a halachic debate. Blu Greenberg sees this as “a problem of real injustice and imbalance,” since only the husband can grant the divorce, and as such it is a necessary and crucial cause of Jewish feminists. However, because it is codified in Jewish law, it is especially hard to create the profound change needed to benefit these women.
This dichotomy is implicit in all that orthodox feminists do. Greenberg concedes that JOFA has lost supporters because it holds halacha as supreme to all other principles and thus its unwillingness to work contrary to religious law. But JOFA has similarly lost supporters because it seeks to empower women in a way not traditionally practiced in the orthodox world; it faces criticism on both ends of the ideological spectrum. At its core, Jewish orthodox feminism is a battle of certain traditions under the confines of a broader traditional framework. It could be argued that as such, orthodox feminism cannot ever succeed. But just because the feminism practiced by orthodox Jews may not mirror the feminism in Blu Greenberg’s copy of The Feminine Mystique does not mean it is any less legitimate than secular feminism. Ultimately, orthodox feminism will have limitations; women and men in orthodox Judaism will never be allowed to do all the exact same things. This, though, is not what Blu Greenberg wants, or Sharon Weiss Greenberg as director of JOFA, or even Sarah Hurwitz, the first ordained female orthodox rabbi. In fact, they, too, define feminism in the context of equality. Hurwitz calls it “equality for women: the right to strive for what they hope and dream of doing.” For Blu Greenberg, it is “equal dignity and equal justice, and to remove discrimination and injustice.” If feminists see their movement as empowering women, they must accept feminists in whichever way they view their own individual movements. After all, Friedan wrote, “Women quite simply were stopped at a state of evolution far short of their human capacity.” Anyone who wants to bridge that gap should be empowered and encouraged to do so.