There are many faces of Orthodox Feminism in Israel. One might highlight the plight of agunot, another women’s leadership in the beit midrash or in shul and still others increasing women’s participation in mitzvot. What unites these faces is their desire to participate, to be considered and to be a real member of the community. Every woman and every act has significance.
Take the mitzvah of “sitting in the sukkah.” Women are halachically exempt from sitting in the sukkah, but are permitted to fulfill it voluntarily. The Talmud, in Masechet Sukkah, teaches that women have been sitting in the sukkah as far back as tannaitic times. The famous wealthy queen Helene, a convert, is known to have had a grand sukkah frequented by the rabbis.
Queen Helene’s sukkah is mentioned as proof by Rebbe Yehuda that a sukkah can be more that 20 cubits high. His opinion is not accepted, but the mention of Helene’s sukkah leaves me with some valuable lessons about women’s participation in mitzvot.
There is irony in the fact that Queen Helene may have been considered exempt from the mitzvah and yet because she took it upon herself to build a sukkah she was eternalized by the Talmud. She was considered “einah metzuve ve’oseh,” she took on a mitzvah voluntarily even if her reward was not as great as one who is commanded. Moreover, her sukkah was frequented by the rabbis, who did not comment on the sukkah’s validity, implying that they considered it halachically valid. Helene Hamalka is an ancient role model for women and mitzvot. She took on this voluntary mitzvah and this act contributed to the halachic decision process. She may have been exempt, but by taking on the mitzvah of sukkah she made her fulfillment count.
The most famous case of women taking on a voluntary mitzvah is the mitzvah of Shofar. Like Sukkah, women are exempt from the mitzvah of Shofar, according to the Talmud. But as women as a group have historically made the commitment to fulfill this mitzvah, the communal expectation and rabbinic opinion has shifted. Some halachic authorities write that women have obligated themselves in the mitzvah of Shofar.
There is a similar process happening today in two other areas. Over the past few years, more and more women have taken on the mitzvah of reciting kaddish. Given that most women don’t attend weekday minyan regularly, it takes tremendous commitment, perseverance and courage for a woman to raise her voice and recite kaddish, sometimes in front of hundreds of community members. But as the number of women reciting kaddish goes up so does the general community’s tolerance and respect for the women saying it. Each woman who says kaddish contributes to the positive perception and acceptance of women saying kaddish and inspires others to take on this mitzvah as well.
This is also true for religious girls and army service. As the numbers of girls choosing to go to the army grows, so does the dati leumi community’s attitude change positively. Five years ago there were much louder rabbinic voices discouraging girls to choose this path. Today, there is significant rabbinic support and encouragement for girls who choose the army. The girls themselves changed the view of army service in the religious community.
Helene Hamalka is an ancient role model for taking on voluntary mitzvot and infusing them with value. Today, there are many inspiring men and women advocating for agunot and victims of abuse, leading women’s batei midrash, fighting for equality in girls’ education, guiding religious women in the army, and much more. These special faces will be gathering in Jerusalem on October 18 for the Kolech conference, will you add your face to their inspiring work and activism?