Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

On My Feminist Journey

When I was about to begin high-school, I was allocated a place in a prestigious girls’ school. My mother appealed the allocation and insisted that I go to the local co-ed school. Girls needed to have the same opportunities as boys and single-sex education was a symptom of a non-egalitarian society.

My mother was responsible for my feminism.

Growing up, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were names known to me. They were celebrated as heroes. When she campaigned for election, Bella Abzug was held up to us as a role-model. I was encouraged to read the works of female writers and never to accept stereotypes of women as limited in any way.

At the same time, I was deeply involved in synagogue life.

Feminism had nothing to do with religion – for me, it was quite compartmentalized. Feminism was about equal pay for equal work; it was about our rights to work in any field; it was about banks giving us loans in our own name.

I was blissfully unaware that my feminist values posed a challenge to my religious life.

Because Australia is such a non-religious country (Jews are like the rest of the population and only 40% of Jews attend a shul on Yom Kippur) – and because my father was one of the few adults in the community who had a decent Jewish education which he passed on to us at home – I had a semi-leadership role in religious life from childhood. We were considered excessively “frum” (religious) because we had a kosher home and went to shul (Synagogue) on Shabbat, but my mother had not had the benefit of that education, (and I discovered later that she was actually a serious doubter).

When I was 6, we moved to Adelaide and my father became head of the Hebrew School. As the only child there who could read Hebrew, I was paid a penny to teach others. As a little girl, I felt important. Women sat upstairs during services and did not participate – but I didn’t really notice.

All my decisions regarding religion were completely independent – I chose to be fully shomeret shabbat (sabbath-observant), I chose to learn and to teach. In a sense, I was exemplifying the feminist ideals my mother had taught me by making independent choices about the way I lived. The fact that I was choosing to align myself ever more deeply into a patriarchal system did not occur to me in those early days.

When did I first think about feminism and my religious life?

As a graduate student at Columbia University, I was invited by a roommate to a seminar on mikvah (ritual immersion). My family knew nothing about it but I had thought of mikvah quite romantically and imagined that it would be part of my life when I married (I was definitely going to get married!). It was Rachel Adler’s early writing on mikvah that was discussed – and to some extent debunked – at that first foray of mine into a feminist critique of Orthodoxy. I took the positive aspects of mikvah to heart and continue to believe – from my own experience, first as a mikvah-user and later as also an attendant – that the mitzvah (commandment) of mikvah can be a most empowering experience for women. Whether she performs the mitzvah and how she does so is between her and G-d. Nobody else can know.

This is indeed the basis of my religious life. There is an external aspect – others can observe to some extent what I do – but the core is my internal life, my hidden or unobservable relationship with G-d. When I am in the Synagogue, apparently praying, who knows what I am saying or thinking? Does anyone else know if I eat milk shortly after meat? Or if I put on my right shoe before my left? These are points of empowerment. I have the power to pretend to the outside world – but with G-d, we have our secrets!

That realization propelled me more deeply into an empowered religious life.

At the same time, it made me increasingly aware that the Synagogue was NOT the place where my religious life would be best lived out.

For many Orthodox feminists, the Synagogue is the last battle, not the first.

First, we wanted to create groups where we could pray together without men leading us – the birth of the Women’s Tefillah movement was probably the first tangible step in Orthodox Feminism. I was in New York in the 1970s and had the privilege of attending women’s tefillah on more than one occasion. I returned to Sydney as a young mother. The Sydney Women’s Tefillah group did not begin until 1993 but I was there from the very beginning.

We very much wanted to have the backing of Rabbis – we were women of various ages, some married, some wanting to find a husband  – and had an interest in not alienating men. Rabbi Raymond Apple was our hero. He agreed to teach us the halakhot of women praying together – and he learnt in order to teach. Once we began, if there was a challenge by men to what we were doing, he had our backs!

Meanwhile, Women of the Wall had been founded and my (not religious) mother became a great supporter. She even took a trip to Israel just to participate in a gathering. I was becoming more aware of the range of issues and more politicized but was never tempted to leave Orthodoxy.

When Blu Greenberg founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in 1997, the excitement was felt in Australia. Her books had had a huge impact on me and the privilege of meeting her in person on more than one occasion has reinforced for me what a brilliant and brave woman she is.

Her most famous line, “Where there is a Rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way” was not intended to cover every aspect of Jewish law but it WAS about agunot (“chained” women, who are unable to divorce their husbands), which remains the most painful issue for those who want to uphold the halakhic system but recognize injustice.

I supported and continue to support organizations and individuals who fight on behalf of these women. I was overjoyed when the first female halakhic authorities were trained by Rabbi Riskin in the early 1990s and able to represent agunot in religious courts among their other roles.

In my opinion, the problem is Jewish marriage and since I began teaching nearly half a century ago,  I have been telling girls to have a prenup and, more lately, suggesting that they need to look more carefully at creative marriage options that are kosher, even if not recognized here by the Chief Rabbinate.

Of course, the history here hearkens to another huge issue – women’s learning. Generations of disadvantage in learning had led to acceptance of myths: women were incapable of learning, women were not permitted to learn, women’s learning would undermine Judaism. You’ve all heard it before.

Of course, by the 1970s, nobody believed that women were incapable of learning, but there were still some who believed we were forbidden to learn. Rav Soloveitchik’s teaching Talmud to girls in the Maimonides school went a long way towards debunking that myth among American Jewry. Drisha was founded in 1979 to allow women to develop their skills and learning and grew throughout the 1980s. By then, Michlelet Bruria (now Midreshet Lindenbaum) was up and running. There has been no turning back. When Yeshivat Maharat began training women for the Rabbanut in 2009, it was not a shocking revolution – it was a continuation of a 40 year old process.

Scholarship also had an impact on Synagogue life. Shira Hadasha was founded in 2002 as a result of scholarship urged by Tova Hartman and supported by Rabbis Mendel Shapiro and Daniel Sperber. By the good fortune of being in Israel at the time, I was there at the very first service. I loved that they were doing it – but I realized that if I joined that community, I would have to daven (pray) separately from my husband – it was too much for him.

I became a vocal advocate for Shira Hadasha for those who wanted that option, even if it was not for me.

It was not only my husband’s sensitivities that was the issue. I have seen what happens in a community that relies on volunteering: the women step up and the men sit back. Look at the feminization of egalitarian synagogues. If men don’t have to do it, they don’t. I have three daughters and one son. I watched with pleasure as my husband took responsibility for my son’s synagogue education. At least that was something that was his responsibility, not mine.

I also appreciate the camaraderie between women in an ezrat nashim (women’s section of the Synagogue) – especially the way that single women are fully included.

I do care about greater participation of women in Synagogue life. I continue to grapple with what are and ought to be the boundaries. When my friend, colleague and teacher, Debbie Weissman, gave me Tamar Ross’ book, “Expanding the Palace of Torah,” I found myself shouting “Yes, yes, yes.” Here was an articulation of the issues that had been burning inside me for years. But Tamar did not stir up greater discontent. Despite recognizing the issues, I have found that I can live with the dissonance of inequality because of my rich inner religious life.

I said kaddish for both my mother and my father every day – and sometimes in environments where the men present were not happy to support me (see A Difficult Year).

Rachel Frankel saying kaddish for her son Naftali televised live was a huge inspiration for others. How terrible that that had to be the circumstances in which many realized that a woman saying kaddish was not about adopting foreign feminist ideas – it was about the authentic urge within the woman to express herself using the words and within the framework of our tradition.

I have led campaigns for better seating for women, allowing them to touch the Torah and dance with it on Simchat Torah wherever I have been. I am sensitive to the fact – and speaking out when there are ears to hear – that if the trend were to continue that women needing a greater role in Synagogue life leave Orthodoxy to achieve that, Orthodoxy will have to respond.

I started my Orthodox feminism by grappling with the concept of the mikvah and find that mikvah is again an important issue for me from a different vantage. Women in Israel are struggling to be represented on local religious councils, which are decision-making bodies that have in their purview, among other things, the mikvaot. It is a campaign that was spearheaded in the 1980s by Leah Shakdiel, the first woman to serve on a religious council, who had to win a court case to have her election upheld. (I had the honor of inviting Leah to Sydney in the early 1990s, where she did us the honor of showing how to properly roll the Torah scroll – something which we had not been taught). This is a battle I will fight.

Returning to the issue of learning, I want to say a word about Torah scholarship. My teacher, Nehama Leibowitz, (z”l) never would have called herself a feminist – but  feminist icon she was and is. For Nehama, there was never any question that her female-ness presented a barrier to achievement. She was not cowed by men or their honorifics. She was confident of her learning and of her mission.

And Avivah Zornberg is another strong voice who represents for me a feminist approach, even if it is not the label she uses. Her intertwining of literature, psychology and Torah scholarship is uniquely hers – and that means feminine!

That women not only participate in Torah learning but are the greatest Torah scholars of their day is a fact!

Having said that, I want to share with you a reflection on this week’s parsha that was first drawn to my attention on a Women’s Shabbat – an annual event that Rabbi Apple instituted at the Great Synagogue as part of his support of the Women’s Tefillah group. This week, God says to Moses “Tell the people (ha’am) to sanctify themselves” in preparation for the  Revelation on Sinai. Moses comes down the mountain and addresses the men, telling them to separate from their wives. Right from the beginning of our history as a nation, men have ignored women and made them invisible – and the Torah provides testimony to that at the key moment in our formation.

For me, feminism is about being authentically who I am, not compromising on ME, and demanding that who I am is not an obstacle to achieving, contributing or receiving.

Judaism says that we are created in the image of G-d – male and female he created them. It also tells us that each of us was placed on this earth for a unique purpose. To paraphrase Hassidic wisdom, when we end this life, we won’t be asked why we were not Moses – or David or Gidon or Gil; we will be asked why we were not Sarah or Miriam or Shani or Peta.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.
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