I became a feminist during my mid-twenties via Orthodox Judaism. It was a feminism mired in the agunah quagmire, scaffolded by women’s synagogue experiences, and feverishly caged in by halakhic discourse. I was an Orthodox feminist before I was ever just a feminist. I don’t know why it happened this way. Maybe it’s because my life revolved so much around religion, that Orthodoxy was my primary way of engaging with the world on anything. Maybe it was because shock of encountering the real lives of agunot surpassed most of what I understood from college lectures in feminist theory. Maybe it’s because Orthodoxy has a way of doing that to its adherents. Or maybe this is what it means to be an Orthodox Jew, that everything you see and do in the world is through that singular lens. Orthodox woman. Orthodox educator. Orthodox writer. Orthodox mother. Orthodox professional. And when the time was right, Orthodox feminist.
Well, that was a long time ago. I have since traveled far distances, both physically and metaphorically. I have encountered beautiful feminist women around the world, some of who are Orthodox Jews, some of whom are non-Orthodox Jews, some of who are not Jewish, and some of whom are not even women. My own identity and spiritual needs have evolved, as I’ve dialogued, written, prayed and cried with amazing feminists around the world. Social media has made it even easier for me to build intense friendships with the people with whom I share some of my most cherished passions, struggles and ideals, some of the deep parts of the spirit.
I often find myself wondering what all these labels mean, and what they are for. Labels can give us identity and grounding. But they can also create unnecessary divisions.I have come to a place in my life where I am looking for connections that transcend obvious labels, where I am seeking out something else, something more basic, human and real.
I recently attended an amazing conference at Bnai Jeshururn called, “Meet me at Sinai”, a conference marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Judith Plaskow’s vital book, Standing Again at Sinai. The conference was aimed at exploring Jewish feminism past, present and future. Speakers included people from almost all streams of Judaism, with many different perspectives represented. It was a truly wonderful day, and deeply inspiring.
One of the things that struck me at the conference was that despite coming from different communities and backgrounds, participants all seemed to share a basic set of beliefs that drive their actions. I sat on a panel with some great Jewish leaders: Nancy Kaufman, Dr. Judith Rosenbaum, Rachel Tiven and Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer. Judith, who is the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archives, was describing her upbringing in the home of a “professional disrupter”, her late mother Dr. Paula Hyman. I was in awe, and on some level jealous. After all, I grew up in a very anti-feminist Orthodox setting where Shabbat conversations often revolved around the many ways that feminists are ruining the world. And I found myself asking, what would my life be like had I grown up in a house like Judith’s? Or in a synagogue like Bnai Jeshurun. It was a painful question for me to grapple with. And yet, at the same time I also know that I needed to go through the journey in order to get where I am today.
Still, my real take-away from that conversation was that I love being in conversation with people like Judith whose journey has been so different from my own. There is something so incredible about finding that beautiful place where our identities touch and intersect. That is one of the most meaningful and important parts of being human. And it is sometimes lost when we are too focused on our own narrow labels and identities.
So I’m searching for something else, something bigger and broader than “Orthodox feminist”. I’m searching for meanings of Jewish feminist, a place where people of different backgrounds, communities and denominations are asking the same questions. I realize that our answers may be different: for one the answer involves a mechitza and for the other it does not; for one, the answer perhaps involves redefining marriage, while for the other the answer is not to get married at all. The conversation is not about how we each resolve our feminist challenges but about seeking the places where our ideals coincide. My goal is very anti-Talmudic. I’m not interested in taking a microscope to the minutiae of our differences, as the Jewish people have unfortunately become the experts on. I’m ready to take the opposite course and blur the lines in order to find our similarities. The human heart desperately needs that process.
With all this in mind, and the goal of forging connections that surpass differences, I’m launching a brand new Telecourse on The Dynamics of Jewish Feminism. This 8-week online program, which will take place on Sundays in May and June, brings together some of the most beautiful Jewish feminists from around the world for a series of discussions on the issues closest to our hearts. There will be sessions on sexuality, spirituality, marriage, leadership and more. Guest panelists include Dr. Judith Plaskow, Dr Judith Rosenbaum, Susan Weidman Schneider, Blu Greenberg, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, and more. Rabbis, artists, writers, thinkers and activists are all coming together from across the Jewish feminist spectrum to explore what it means to be part of a Jewish feminist movement.
I’m so excited to be doing this. It pulls together so many of my passions, and my own and I believe other people’s real need to build stronger Jewish feminist connections.