On Monday, I attended a webinar sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) titled Gender and Change in Orthodox Communities. The webinar was a live Q&A session with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue in Washington, DC, moderated by JOFA Executive Director Elana Sztokman. You can find my notes on the webinar here.
The shul (synagogue) recently hired Ruth Balinsky Friedman, a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, to its rabbinical staff. Since the first three maharats in existence graduated from the yeshiva in May, they are basically defining what role a maharat – which is a Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilkhatit ruhanit toranit, or a female halakhic (Jewish law), spiritual, and Torah leader – will take. According to Herzfeld, Balinsky Friedman is doing basically anything a rabbi would do, within the confines that gender creates. It was really heartening to hear Herzfeld delineate Balinsky Friedman’s schedule and realize that she has already become an integral part of the shul community, even though she’s only been serving as maharat for two months.
When asked from an audience member if he was a feminist, Herzfeld balked at the term and wouldn’t identify as one. In a way, it’s almost better that he doesn’t call himself a feminist; this way, he shows that you don’t have to have an “agenda” if you support increased opportunities for women in Orthodox Judaism. You just have to be someone who cares about ensuring that every Jew feels a connection to God. It just proves that Jewish feminism is really a movement for the empowerment of the people within their own religion, not just a social change movement.
I really appreciated that Herzfeld criticized anyone who questions women’s motivations when they ask about more opportunities within the religious sphere. “That’s a very hurtful line. People don’t have motivations. In my experience, people’s only motivation is to connect to God,” Herzfeld said. I mentioned a similar point in this post – most of the Orthodox feminists I know are feminists because of a strong desire to connect to Judaism. Not to make a statement.
I liked hearing Sztokman say that JOFA has no agenda in mind, either; they exist to facilitate change where change is wanted and halakhically possible. JOFA understands the importance of respecting existing traditions and customs, and not pressuring people to change when they don’t feel comfortable with it. This respect has to be mutual. When JOFA avoids applying its halakhic beliefs on more right-wing communities, those communities have to avoid preaching that JOFA is not adhering to true halakha. To each his or her own.
I’m also glad that Rabbi Herzfeld didn’t shy away from saying things that might not have been popular among a left-wing crowd, like saying that his shul won’t have women lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service or do peticha (opening) of the Aron (Ark). “Even though we have women leading some prayers, we’re not egalitarian services,” Herzfeld said. He stressed that when any change in the shul was made, it was done to adhere to halakha as well as normative Orthodoxy. There’s no need for him to be ashamed of this, and I’m glad that he didn’t try to make excuses for it.
I do think that women serving in halakhic religious leadership roles can change the face of Orthodox Judaism. They present young girls (and even older women) with opportunities that they had never even thought of beforehand. It’s a shame that for thousands of years, half of our people’s religious resources have not been effectively utilized. It’s an inspiration to know that now, maharats and rabbis – even those who don’t use the word feminist – are helping empower women in their religion.