“There are seventy faces of [expounding upon] the Torah.”
– Midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah, 13:16
Someone recently asked me, regarding women in Orthodox communities: “Aren’t women more empowered than ever before?”
As the Executive Director of Jofa (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), whose mission is to advocate for expanding women’s rights and opportunities within the framework of Jewish law, I get this question a lot – and there is not one simple answer.
On the one hand, there are surely women who do feel more empowered. In communities near and far, I see growing numbers of women taking on leadership roles in synagogues and communal organizations. Women have increasing opportunities to study the abundance of religious texts. More synagogues are creating space for women to engage in public rituals, including women’s tefillah and partnership minyanim; megillah readings on Jewish holidays; hakafot on Simchat Torah, and kaddish recitations, as well as ample teaching opportunities within the synagogue framework. Slowly but surely, advocating on behalf of agunot is becoming more and more mainstream.
In many communities nationwide, instead of actively expanding women’s leadership and active participation, half the population is ignored; the female talent pool remains largely untapped, and worse, excluded – and an abundance of passion, energy and capability is left unrealized.
Yet, for each synagogue I can think of where, for example – the mechitza is designed to be more respectful of women; the board has enacted policy changes that include women in leadership roles and rituals, permit or even encourage women’s contact with a sefer Torah – I can think of countless more synagogues where no such inclusive spaces, roles, or rituals exist. In many communities nationwide, instead of actively expanding women’s leadership and active participation, half the population is ignored; the female talent pool remains largely untapped, and worse, excluded – and an abundance of passion, energy and capability is left unrealized.
Furthermore, this continued lack of representation by women in leadership and practice in many synagogues and communities is a problem that compounds itself over time. We know that when we don’t see ourselves in our leaders – when our girls and boys and women and men only see leaders who are male holding physical space in our sanctuaries and beyond – it is difficult to envision women ever actually taking on these roles.
Furthermore, this continued lack of representation by women in leadership and practice in many synagogues and communities is a problem that compounds itself over time.
In addition, even if we focus on women’s progress in certain communities, we must also acknowledge the growing trend of erasing women from Jewish print and online publications. I hear far too many stories from women who are intimidated in synagogues, and told that they have no right to recite kaddish out loud. There exists gender-based disparity in our day schools at both student and educator levels. We also have yet to see halakhic solutions implemented systemically to resolve the agunah crisis once and for all. These troubling dynamics are emblematic of the fact that women are often excluded from the tables where decisions are made that impact them.
Another particularly egregious example is the high proportion of rabbinic responses supporting the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision, which functionally overturned the constitutional right to abortion. Such stances are woefully out of line with Jewish halakhic views about abortion, and rendered all the more striking by the fact that they knowingly overlook numerous Orthodox women’s lived experiences.
When girls and women are disenfranchised, it is not just a “female problem” for girls and women to fix. Men need to recognize the many ways girls and women are disrespected, ignored, and excluded, and take up the charge to support them too.
These are just a few of the ways women’s voices and bodies are controlled, ignored and excluded, putting their well-being at risk, under the guise of Jewish law.
To be sure, there are additional conversations to have around treatment and rhetoric relating to people who identify as LGBTQ+, individuals with disabilities, Jews of Color, and others whose lived experiences are marginalized because of a lack of understanding, resources, openness, and space, to meet the needs of all who are part of our communities.
Suffice it to say, the lack of empathy from many established rabbinic and lay leaders – and many members of the broader Orthodox community – is harmful to the spiritual and psychological well being of impacted individuals and their families. When girls and women are disenfranchised, it is not just a “female problem” for girls and women to fix. Men need to recognize the many ways girls and women are disrespected, ignored, and excluded, and take up the charge to support them too. The reality is that in many places, we are still at the point where it makes a dramatic difference when the woman trying to recite mourner’s kaddish finds herself alone – versus when a man speaks up to help ensure that her voice is heard.
It is my honor and privilege to engage in being part of the solution, by advancing Jofa’s mission of expanding women’s rights and opportunities within the framework of halakha and building a vibrant and equitable Orthodox community. In our daily work at Jofa, we address the above issues through efforts like funding synagogues to hire women for newly created spiritual leadership roles; providing online tools and resources such as our megillah apps, so that more women can participate in reading megillot and in other aspects of tefillah; and driving initiatives like the Rivka Isaacs S.A.F.E. Plan abortion access network – to name just a few examples.
The Midrashic commentary in Bamidbar Rabbah, 13:16, explains that the Torah has a multitude of interpretations, quantified in the well-known phrase “shiv’im panim laTorah” – there are 70 faces – \acceptable interpretations – to the Torah.
In a similar vein, the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 58a) reads, “The Sages taught in a Tosefta: One who sees multitudes of Israel recites: Blessed…Who knows all secrets. Why is this? He sees a whole nation whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other, and He Who knows all secrets, God, knows what is in each of their hearts. The Gemara relates: Ben Zoma once saw a multitude [okhlosa] of Israel while standing on a stair on the Temple Mount. He immediately recited: Blessed…Who knows all secrets and Blessed…Who created all these to serve me.” How remarkable to find a Talmudic passage that so beautifully extols the diversity of humanity.
When it comes to strengthening Orthodox communities – and Jewish communities writ large – it is clear to me that embracing this diversity is imperative. One way that we can and must do that is by creating and expanding leadership from the largely untapped talent pool of Orthodox women who can provide a vital and critical pipeline that will benefit us all immeasurably – and who are eager to be more involved. Orthodox women by and large are highly knowledgeable, proud of their identities, and capable of increased leadership and participation in myriad aspects of communal life.
When it comes to strengthening Orthodox communities – and Jewish communities writ large – it is clear to me that embracing this diversity is imperative.
We are passionate about our beliefs and practices. Many of us seek to participate more in Jewish ritual and spiritual spaces. We are ready to step into leadership roles, and welcome the opportunity to do so. Women are keepers of tradition with the power to improve and strengthen communities in powerful ways. We know that we belong, and our communities must continue to foster and expand that sense of belonging. After all, the Torah – all 70 faces of it – belongs to each and every one of us.