Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to hear from some of the strongest and most inspiring Orthodox women of our time. I sat in a room at Lincoln Square Synagogue with about 100 men and women–mostly women — for the Orthodox Leadership Project’s first public event. The panel consisted of Dr. Rivkah Blau, Blu Greenberg, and Rachel Friedman and was moderated by Dr. Giti Bendheim. The topics of the evening ranged from women learning Torah to accepting leadership positions to balancing family and a career. I left Lincoln Square Synagogue that night feeling empowered as an Orthodox woman and emboldened to find my own path to leadership.
I also left with one particular interaction stuck in my mind. Towards the very end of the evening, one young woman asked the panelists how she could convince her community to allow women to dance with a Torah on Simchat Torah. Dr. Blau got up and preemptively acknowledged that her opinion would not be a popular one before admitting that she doesn’t understand why women care so much about dancing with a Torah and doing what the men do. Why can’t they do something else, say Divrei Torah, make a siyum? A heated conversation immediately erupted but was unfortunately cut off since the building was closing.
Two weeks later, and I can’t stop thinking about this quick interaction. To be honest, I kind of thought the dancing with the Torah thing was old news. I was of the opinion that the newer “wanting to be like the men” thing was women getting an aliyah on Simchat Torah. But perhaps I’m stretching the boundaries too much here. Either way, I was shocked to hear the argument of “Why do you need to do what the men do” at such a forum. Here I was surrounded by strong women who had spent their lives advancng women’s participation in all parts of Jewish life. These women had no doubt been fronted this question time and again. “Why do you need to learn Gemara? Just to do what the men are doing?” “Why do you need to have a career? You don’t need to be like the men.”
Now it was, “Why do you need to dance with a Torah? Why do you need to do what the men are doing?”
I have tremendous respect for every single woman on the evening’s panel. They inspire me to find meaning in my own Jewish life and to strive to find my place as an Orthodox woman. And it’s not that I expect Dr. Blau to change her opinion and fight to dance with a Torah herself. I completely understand that it is not important to her, that it’s not her fight. I think I’m just surprised that we aren’t past the “Why do you need to be like men?” argument.
I would never expect Orthodox women (or people in general) to agree on everything. I actually see the debates as an incredible symbol of how far Orthodoxy has come. We should encourage different opinions to flourish, we should encourage the debates to happen. I know that not everyone will agree with my views on women’s participation in Orthodoxy. My hope is that I have the continued opportunity to participate in meaningful conversations with inspiring Orthodox women. I only wish that the conversation would shift from “women wanting to be like men” to why some women find increased participation religiously fulfilling and meaningful and how we can include women in Orthodox judaism.