Co-authored with Zelda R. Stern*
We are two women born in two countries, two decades apart. One of us grew up in Philadelphia to a Russian emigre mother and an American father, both of whom had grown up Orthodox but decided together to create a Conservative Jewish home. And the other grew up in Toronto to Israeli born secular-turned Chabad parents. Our lives took us in different directions only to cross paths initially in February of 1997 at the First International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy , and then over 20 years later when we became personally and professionally connected through The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance — JOFA — the organization that was born out of this conference. As we reflected on some of our greatest influences, we both landed on Blu Greenberg’s groundbreaking publication of On Women and Judaism that is now celebrating 40 years since its initial publication.
When we say “groundbreaking” we really mean positively and utterly disruptive to a religious, communal and social system in ways that were unprecedented (and maybe even unreplicable).
Indeed, Greenberg’s book provided a blueprint for Orthodoxy and feminism and nurtured an entire movement of women and men seeking to create a vibrant and equitable Orthodoxy community. Among the very top of her achievements that crossed over from the personal to the professional is her seminal role in creating JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), creating a domino effect for a growing and expansive Orthodoxy that includes women in all areas of learning and leadership.
Like countless others, we’ve marked up practically every page of On Women and Judaism because so many sentences were astonishing and revelatory. These include Greenberg’s use of the term poskot (female halachic decision makers) and a recognition of the lack of women in lay leadership positions. Greenberg also noted the importance of language, and the shift from using gender neutral language with the intent to exclude girls/women and the hurt and damage that was inflicted. She also reminds us of the years when only bar mitzvahs were marked in public and celebratory ways without recognizing girls’ rite of passage, as well as countless shiva houses where women mourners and guests had no space to pray and not even a prayer book to hold. Today we have seen an expansion of women’s leadership roles of all kinds, inclusive language, and exponential growth in both bat mitzvah celebrations as well as space in homes and synagogues for women to pray and recite kaddish during times of mourning.
To be sure, there is still room to grow in creating more inclusive Orthodox prayer spaces, equitable education systems, and of course, a systemic solution to end the Agunah crisis.
Despite the seismic shift that On Women and Judaism was to cause, Greenberg introduced her book with utter humility and fidelity to Jewish law:
“I have tried to show that there are both precedent and process within the Jewish tradition for bringing women to a position of full equality. This process need not — indeed must not — be equated with a diminishing of the divine essence of Judaism and Halakhah. I am not unmindful of the tremendous sacrifice it took to bring me, as a traditional Jew, to this juncture in history. All those who preceded me labored hard to keep the chain intact. I do not want to break that chain. I do feel, however, that the link will be made stronger, rather than weaker, by a conjoining of feminist values with the structure of traditional Judaism.”
In publishing in this book, her now oft-cited legendary truism “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way,” not only did Ms. Greenberg give voice to words we couldn’t dream of, she also created a pathway forward for women and men who were both Orthodox and feminists. She gave us the tools to create inclusive settings in religious spaces previously uninhabited. When she brought those words to life at the opening plenary of the inaugural International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, over 1000 women and men in attendance erupted in applause. We were relieved and joyful to have finally been seen and heard.
Now, 40 years after On Women and Judaism’s publication and nearly two and a half decades after that first conference, Greenberg continues to play an influential role. As JOFA prepares for its next conference, March 7, 2021, Greenberg reflected, “Did we imagine, 24 years ago at our First International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, that we would come so far in what is but the blink of an eye as Jews count time? As we embark on our 10th international conference, let us consider the serious advancements of Orthodox women in ritual, community, learning and leadership. Let us also consider the road ahead — what it will take to finish the unfinished, reach a more global audience, and build together a vibrant, equitable Orthodox community.”
*Zelda R. Stern, a donor-activist who is a member of the founding board of JOFA, is currently on the JOFA Journal editorial committee. A trained psychotherapist, she is on the board of directors of Yeshivat Maharat. She speaks and publishes on using strategic philanthropy to effect change, and also mentors women serving in Orthodox leadership positions.
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