Barry Newman
Barry Newman

A Subdued Roar from the Ezrat Nashim

Illustrative: Orthodox Jewish women attend a kashrut supervision course at the Emunah Seminary College for Jewish Women’s Studies in Jerusalem on April 18, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Illustrative: Orthodox Jewish women attend a kashrut supervision course at the Emunah Seminary College for Jewish Women’s Studies in Jerusalem on April 18, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The status quo that has characterized both the cooperation and the separation of religion and state since Israel’s early days of independence is being shaken up a bit and is no longer regarded as an untouchable relationship. With a religious party no longer part of the coalition, the opportunity for change has never been more possible, and to the chagrin of the haredi segment of our population, it is more than likely that we will soon see a decentralized policy of kashruth certification as well as alternative options for Orthodox conversions.  How viable these will turn out to be remain to be seen, but one change to the status quo that is taking place in real time is the enhanced involvement of women in the educational, secular and sacred spheres of Orthodox Judaism.

I recall my family receiving, more than a half century ago, an invitation to the bat mitzvah of the daughter of my mother’s cousin, to be held in a Reform temple somewhere on Long Island. A bat mitzvah, then, was a celebration that the Orthodox community snickered at, regarding it as something alien if not actually blasphemous. Gender roles during those years were clearly defined and left little room for adjustment. Boys, as the ancient phrase once put it, became fountain pens, and girls, well, they remained on the sidelines. My, my how times have changed.

What has taken place over the last several decades can be described as nothing less than a renaissance. The bat mitzvah has become a fully accepted rite of passage for 12-year-old girls, and while they may not go through the same ritual that their male counterparts do and are not obligated to fulfill the same set of mitzvot, the significance of reaching adulthood is no less meaningful. And that, if nothing else, has become the starting point of an extraordinary evolution.

Educational opportunities in Jewish education that were once reserved for men only have now become open to the other half of the population as well, and more and more young women are embracing these courses of study with unprecedented enthusiasm. Whereas the schools in which women once studied provided no more than basic lessons in Torah and Midrash, today the Talmud and all its associated commentaries, codices and supplements are part of the core curriculum in many institutes of higher learning for women. Ladies, moreover, are peeking from behind the mechitza and are becoming increasingly frustrated with the peripheral roles they have been given within the Orthodox framework. And this restlessness has not gone unnoticed. The paradigm that has, for centuries. defined the structure of Orthodox Judaism is shifting, and in the Modern Orthodox community, action and modifications to the familiar structures are taking place.

I won’t deny that I had reservations and concerns when women were first offered opportunities to participate in programs that focused on advanced learning of Jewish thought, law and philosophy; in those early days, when this “revolution” began, it appeared that the social structure I had grown up and was comfortable in was being challenged. And to some extent it was, but the outcome has indeed proved beneficial in more ways than I or anyone could have imagined. Those who have pursued these higher degrees are not only capable of understanding the highly complex nature of the material they are studying but, no less importantly, are more than adept at explaining it to others less learned and applying it to everyday situations in real time. Considering the limited opportunities for advanced Jewish education that my sister and cousins were afforded, this redesigned tapestry is greatly overdue and more than welcome. The road ahead, however, will likely prove to be crooked and slippery. And the ladies who have steadfastly chosen to embark on it should be prepared for days of both elation and frustration.

Scholars over the last several years have been trying to explain the impetus of this phenomena as well as the impact it has on Judaism as a whole. Papers on this subject appear regularly in respected and peer-reviewed journals, complete with tables, graphs, abstracts and bibliographies. These studies, however, are, for the most part, two dimensional and are neither impressive nor convincing; if anything, they remind me of Walt Whitman’s poem When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, where the speaker of the poem, becoming tired and bored from a detailed and fact filled lecture given by notable astronomer, walks out and “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” Scholarly babble cannot accurately represent the three C’s that brought about this renaissance – Character, Courage, Commitment.

Here and there, egalitarian minyanim are being formed, with the idea of giving women a greater role, within the framework of Orthodox-based halacha, in synagogue service. Participation in these services require more than a little open mindedness and though they have been given a stamp of approval by reliable rabbinical sources, they are not universally adopted or even accepted. Many hardliners view change as threatening, and aggressively resist any modifications to the content of the liturgy, the established roles and responsibilities of the two genders, and the basic structure of the synagogue service. These biases, though, will become less pronounced as women turn more emboldened and confident. The line in the sand that dare not be crossed, however, has not yet been drawn; where it will wind up is, for now anyway, anybody’s guess.

Indeed, not yet defined is precisely where women whose expertise in Jewish law and custom had been properly tested and certified envision their place in the formal design of Israel’s religious structure. Some institutions have begun to ordain women who have graduated from these academic institutions with the title of Rabbanit, and more than a few of them have already been employed as assistant or associate spiritual advisors in orthodox synagogues. Moreover, the synagogue Shirat Hatamar of Efrat recently appointed Rabbanit Shira Mirvis as the sole figure of authority, an appointment that is more than a little controversial, to say the least. In addition, there have been instances of women passing the exams of the Chief Rabbinate in order to qualify as a toenet, although it’s not clear if this is an officially recognized certification as a court advocate, or if is it something nice to have but of little substance. In other words, do those who have achieved this pinnacle enjoy the same respect, recognition and authority that their male counterparts do? Or are they perceived by the Rabbinical court as an oddity that it tolerated but viewed with suspicion and derision?

The response to that question is critical for it will determine how exactly these ladies will be accepted within the religious model that currently exists in Israel. They are clearly not advocating that mechitzot be torn down or that women should now be counted as part of a minyan – at least I don’t think they are. What, then, will be their role and place in determining the future of this country’s religious paradigm? And while they will most certainly be made to feel welcome by modern, forward thinking Orthodox rabbis and congregations, what will be the reaction of the mainstream, more conservative members of religious councils, courts and committees?

Changes, unfortunately, are moving somewhat more slowly in the haredi world. The place of women in the religious model typically found in Bnei Brak or Ramat Bet Shemesh has not undergone any great upheaval; they remain the principal breadwinners of the family – albeit, now, increasingly in high tech positions – while their husbands devote their energy to studying or teaching in a Kollel. More significantly, though, is that women there are expected to remain out of sight. They are routinely Photoshopped out of news clippings or advertising displays, and play no role in the haredi political activities or s synagogue’s ritual practices. Nonetheless, voices from the beyond the shadow are discernible here and there, and protests against existing norms, though rare, are not unheard of. It will be a while, I suspect, before haredi women are provided with the same expanded opportunities that Modern Orthodox women are enjoying, but once they realize that no violations to the Torah are being committed, haredi girls, too, will likely demand the right to explore the literature and source material upon which their lives are based.

So, yes, it would be fair to say that the world of Orthodoxy can expect some excitement in the coming months and years. And, frankly, I’m looking forward to it. I’m not, to be honest, entirely comfortable with the changes that are on the horizon, but I’m not afraid of them either. The Torah, you see, will, first and foremost, always be protected just as it, in turn, has protected the Jews over the many centuries. Which is why I’m confident that whatever changes to the existing norms are made have the blessing and approval of G-d. The Orthodox community as a whole, I’m sure, feels the same.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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